Tag Archives: Q&A

The Duke of Burgundy: Q&A about “the thinking person’s 50 Shades of Grey”

27 Feb
Duke of Burgundy

Sidse Babett Knudsen and director Peter Strickland at the Duke of Burgundy Q&A. Photo: Habie Schwarz

One of the most fascinating British films in some while is out now, and I caught a Q&A at the Curzon Soho with the director, Peter Strickland, and his leading lady, the fabulous Sidse Babett Knudsen of Borgen fame.

The Duke of Burgundy is most easily described as “the thinking person’s 50 Shades of Grey”, though any comparison with that film does The Duke of Burgundy a serious injustice. It’s beautifully shot, in saturated colours and at a leisurely, European pace, and though it is about an SM relationship between two women, there is no nudity, and the SM is figurative as well as literal: it’s about the shifts in power that occur in any relationship.

I won’t tell you any more about the plot, because it will spoil the film to know too much. But do go and see it (though perhaps not with your mother), as it’s a remarkable piece of work. No surprise, incidentally, to find Ben Wheatley on the Executive Producer credits. At the Q&A, the shy director was clutching a glass of whiskey and clearly roaring drunk, though still suprisingly coherent. The moderator said it’s the most Strickland has ever talked. The luminous Sidse Babett Knudsen was appropriately dressed for the occasion in fishnet stockings and burgundy-coloured velvet ankle boots. Here are the highlights:

Director Peter Strickland on the genesis of The Duke of Burgundy: “I met Andy Starke, the producer, who runs the DVD label Mondo Macabro with the wonderfully named Pete Tombs, when Pete wrote a book called Immoral Tales (on European sex and horror movies). We wanted to take some elements of Jess Franco films – female lovers, sado-masochism – but it ended up more as a domestic drama in the writing.

“It’s about SM on one level, but it could be any activity that one person finds distasteful, but that you go along with to keep the other person happy. It’s about the nature of compromise in a relationship.”

Duke of Burgundy 2

Mind games forever: Sidse Babett Knudsen and co-star Chiara D’Anna in The Duke of Burgundy

Sidse Babett Knudsen: “The SM element came to me a bit late. I read the script and thought there were so many recognisable things in it about ‘Will I lose myself, my dignity?’ As to the lesbianism, Peter said he didn’t want a man and a woman because then it would be about a power game between the sexes. I took everything as figurative, a way of exaggerating things in a relationship.

“Peter told me that at the beginning he wanted it to seem like porn, like just bad acting, and then after ten minutes the audience realises [what’s really going on]. That was the scariest thing about doing the film, that deliberately bad acting!”

Strickland: “There was one screening where the audience walked out in the first ten minutes, and you want to go ‘Come back! Come back! It all changes!’

“I wanted it to be this fantastical world where there are no men – there’s a strange power shift if you put men in there – and where these niche tastes are the norm. I wanted to normalise it [the SM and lesbianism] because when you normalise it you don’t question it. Also these films always have a bloody back-story – a crack-addict mum or something to explain why they are as they are – but I didn’t want to go into the psychology. I just wanted to look at the dynamics of that relationship, that push-and-pull, where one person wants something that the other doesn’t.”

On getting an 18 certificate, despite the absence of nudity: “It is what it is, it’s their decision. I do find it odd that you can show mutilation and violence to a 15-year-old kid, but not two mutually consenting adults pleasuring each other.”

On whether he would ever “sell out” by doing ads or taking the Hollywood dollar: “The reason I live and make films in Hungary is because I can’t afford anywhere else. But I’m home-sick for England; and I’m not going to live in a one-bedroom flat paying all the money I have to a landlord just to please you fuckers!”

We’ll take that as a “yes”, then.

Peter Strickland’s films, including The Duke of Burgundy, are available to watch online through Curzon Home Cinema.

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“Woody Allen changed my life”: Joel Schumacher Q&A

3 Nov

Joel Schumacher

One of the nicest surprises of the London Screenwriters’ Festival was Joel Schumacher. He’s no film critic’s idea of an august auteur, and yet he has often written as well as directed his movies. He is forever remembered as the guy who nearly killed off the Batman franchise with his luridly camp and brightly coloured take on the otherwise Dark Knight, yet he has had a number of commercial successes: St Elmo’s Fire, The Lost Boys, Flatliners, Falling Down, The Client, A Time To Kill. He even made a hit out of Phone Booth, a film which took place entirely inside a phone booth, and starred a then unknown actor. That was Colin Farrell, of course. Good call.

Joel Schumacher is also, it was evident from watching him in action over the weekend, one of the nicest, sweetest, humblest, funniest men in Hollywood. He cheerfully admitted “I’m not a genius as you all know, I’m not the greatest director in the world,” and at the end of his talk on The Lost Boys (click here for that), he sounded extraordinarily sincere when he said, “You’re so kind to have come, I really appreciate it; I know you have many other things to do with your life.”

In the Q&A afterwards, he told us more about how he got started:

“I lived behind a movie theatre, and I was always skipping school. When I was seven I saw Great Expectations, and I didn’t know who Dickens was, or David Lean, but when I saw the image of the child in a graveyard, I saw an image that related to me, because of my own father’s death. That image haunted me for three weeks. And I just wanted to be part of that.”

He didn’t get his chance until his thirties. “I was just turning 30, I had just got off intravenous drugs, and I had screwed my life up badly. I realised I had done everything wrong, that what I had always wanted to do with my life was to be a director. So through my only sober friend, I stalked a director, who gave me my first job at $200 a week to do the costumes on a low-budget film.

Woody Allen in Sleeper. Costume design by Joel Schumacher.

Woody Allen in Sleeper. Costume design by Joel Schumacher.

“It was Woody Allen who changed my life. In Christmas of 1971 he hired me to do the costumes on Sleeper. We happened to be in the Rocky Mountains, which was very unusual for Woody to leave New York, and he encouraged me to be a director, but said that first I had to write. He said ‘you’re clever and funny, I think you can do it’.

“And he gave some very good advice. He said the most important thing about writing is that you must finish it, and people must read it! My first two spec scripts sold, and one was Car Wash, which was one of those little movies that just hit the zeitgeist.”

The second movie he both wrote and directed, Amateur Night at the Dixie Bar and Grill (1979), gave him a respect for actors that he has maintained ever since. “Candy Clark was having trouble with some dialogue where someone calls her crazy, and she says something like, ‘People who the world calls crazy, we don’t think we’re crazy’. Something like that, but longer. She kept getting it wrong, and getting upset because she was failing me. It was the last take before lunch, or there would be meal penalties that would be expensive, so I said ‘Just so it any way you’d like.’ We shot it, and she just replied [when the guy called her crazy], ‘Dingaling’. That was brilliant.”

"I'm the bad guy??" Michael Douglas in Falling Down

“I’m the bad guy??” Michael Douglas in Falling Down

One of the films of which Joel Schumacher is, justifiably, most proud is Falling Down, in which Michael Douglas goes gradually bat-shit crazy during a nightmare walk across LA. “I had to fight for it,” says Joel. He also had to fight to get Michael Douglas on board. “Michael had promised his family he’d take a year off, but I showed him the script, and it was so good that even his wife said he just had to do it.

“It’s the most politically incorrect film I’ve ever done. It wouldn’t get made today. Half the critics thought it was genius, the other half thought we should all be murdered in the street. Michael plays, basically, the first Tea Partyer. He’s basically like, ‘Where is my job? Who are all these strange people living in my neighbourhood? And where’s my gun?’

“When the bosses at Warner Bros saw the movie, the blood drained from their faces. It’s one thing to read and approve a script, and another to see it on film. Michael and I would have this question: is he the bad guy, or the good guy? And our answer was, ‘yes’. [laughs] God forbid that there should be a grey area in a movie!

“People thought I was being some kind of fascist, but I wasn’t suggesting people should be like him. I was showing him as a tragedy.”

Schumacher is 75 now, and still working. In 2011 he made Trespass, with Nicole Kidman and Nicolas Cage. Last year he directed two episodes of House of Cards. My takeaway from this: sometimes it pays to be the nice guy, the one people actually enjoy working with and would gladly work with again.

“If I can do this,” he summed up to the audience of aspirant screenwriters with typical modesty, “you can do this. And you can do it better.”