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Q&A: Filmmaker Alex Cox on 'Tombstone Rashomon,' 'Repo Man,' and 'Sid and Nancy'

When tallying the adjectives used to describe filmmaker Alex Cox, the term "maverick" is probably at the top of the list. This is an accurate word to describe him, given that his movies are about wily repo men on hot pursuit of a $20,000 reward for a possessed '64 Chevy Malibu that zaps to death the people who open its trunk, a love story of two punk junkies on their last legs, as well as a Spaghetti Western spoof high on surrealistic violence and short on tempers (and that's just his first three features). Collaborating with the likes of immortals Joe Strummer, Iggy Pop, John Lydon, and Elvis Costello, Cox was able to get more rock stars in a room than a gaggle of groupies. 

In late 1987, he directed Walker: a biopic of American soldier of fortune and filibuster William Walker, who invaded Mexico in the 1850s and made himself President of Nicaragua shortly thereafter. Cox threw in modern anachronisms (Walker appears on the covers of Newsweek and Time; Zippo lighters ignite; a Mercedes drives past a horse-drawn carriage) to give the film a satirical message of protest against the Reagan administration's support of the contra war against the democratically elected Sandinista government. It also guaranteed Cox would never work again in Hollywood. 

Despite his tendencies to challenge the status quo, Cox continues to offer his viewers an enriching and unpretentious experience. He's a class clown, sure, a little disruptive but never shy to let you in on the joke. His latest project is a crowdfunded film called Tombstone Rashomon, which is set to depict not one, but five versions of the infamous gunfight at the O.K. Corral, by using the Rashomon effect: defined as "a contradictory interpretation of the same event by different people," showcased in Akira Kurosawa's landmark film. I caught up with Cox about his new movie, music, and his surprising choice for the biggest Repo Man rip-off. 

What movie made you want to become a filmmaker?

The first film I can remember watching was called Goliath and the Dragon, which I went to see with my father, and it had a dinosaur in it. It was one of those Italian gladiator movies.

Have you ever wanted to make a dinosaur movie?

At some point, I was trying to get TriStar to make a new Godzilla and that never came about. But then I ended up making four Godzilla comic books for Dark Horse comics in Portland. They were time-traveling Godzilla books, so Godzilla was going to Elizabethan times, Godzilla goes to the future.

Didn't you originally want to be a comic book artist, before you became a director?

Yes, but it's too hard. Takes a day to do a page. 

Who were your comic book influences?

I like R. Crumb a lot. I like Paul Mavrides' work a lot. Gilbert Shelton. The old guys from Marvel, like Steve Ditko, who illustrated Doctor Strange. The guys who did Mad, like Will Elder and Wally Wood. 

What's your writing process like?

You know it's interesting because I was supposed to be teaching short-form screenwriting at the University of Colorado Boulder but I don't know how to do that because I've only made long films. So I would only teach longs anyway. So we would talk structure and the shape of it, you know, how many acts. 

We would look at several films over the course of the semester including Bonnie and Clyde because it's such a good script. But we'd kind of concentrate on a movie called Lonely Are the Brave, which was made in '62 or '63; it's a Western with Kirk Douglas, because we had the original novel by Edward Abbey marked up by the screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. And then we had two drafts by Dalton Trumbo and the finished film. We could look at the novel and the drafts of the screenplay, and the finished film so we could see how the screenwriter approached the challenge of making that movie. 

I would like to think the students read the novel. I don't think they did, but we discussed it anyway. 

You've raised some money for your next film, Tombstone Rashomon. How is the production going so far?

We're still in pre-production. I'm working on the script, we have to cast it, and get it crewed up, then we can go into production. But we won't go into production until mid-May [2016]. 

You're based in Oregon. Are you shooting the film there?

I live in Oregon, and the production was originally based in Boulder, Colorado. But we're probably going to shoot in Tucson.

How did the idea for the film come about?

Oh, I don't really know. I've been thinking about doing the O.K. Corral story for a very long time. I guess it came as a result of seeing Rashomon. Such a good film and such a good way of approaching a story of which there's more than one version. It just seems appropriate. But then you get into a situation where you're trying to raise money for a film called Tombstone Rashomon from the general public -- how many people know what Rashomon is? One in a thousand, maybe? 

Film students know it.

[Laughs] Exactly. If you've been to film school. Everybody who has been to film school knows what Rashomon is. 

How did screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer come into the mix?

I had wanted to hire Rudy to write the screenplay when it was a $200,000 movie. We were trying to raise enough money to make it a low-budget, Screen Actors Guild project. This was at the beginning of the process when it was an Indiegogo campaign. 

We were trying to raise $200,000 and we raised $30,000. The Writers Guild minimum is $25,000. So I guess Rudy isn't going to be writing the script after all. 

How has your approach to raising money changed since Repo Man?

Repo Man was meant to be made like Tombstone RashomonRepo Man was meant to be made for $70,000. That was our plan. It ended up being made as an independent film to be picked up by Universal when it was complete. So the official budget of the film, according to Universal, was $1.8 million. But that includes $200,000 worth of studio overhead, and a whole bunch of producer charges, and other fees, and a bond that was never purchased. So probably $800,000 of fake charges on that budget. So I would guess Repo Man probably cost a million dollars. Michael Nesmith was the executive producer, and he made that happen. 

So you've always kept a low budget in mind when making films.

I've never been out of a low budget. The first movie that Tim Burton made, Pee-wee's Big Adventure, had a bigger budget than all the films that I've made put together. So I've never been out of the low budget realm. 

Did Universal like Repo Man?

Oh, no. I don't think so. But Universal has a history of commissioning very interesting films, but not getting them going. Universal made The Last Movie by Dennis Hopper, Rumblefish by Francis Ford Coppola. They funded Monte Hellman's Two-Lane Blacktop. So they have a history of making pretty interesting independent films, and then dumping them. 

It's a bit weird. It's a bit like the Puritans going out into the forest and ripping off the Indians. They can never figure it out, but somehow they're going to get some of that weird juju if they go out in the forest and spy on the Indians long enough. 

In your opinion, has there been or will there be another film like Repo Man in our lifetime?

There will be in three-and-a-half years time, when the rights to the screenplay of Repo Man, together with the sequels, remakes, TV series, and Internet series revert to me. When the rights to the screenplay come back, then I can do another one. 

We might see Repo Man 2?

Well, I might do it as a series. We'll see. Everything changes. The landscape changes so much. And once upon a time, I would have said we'd do it as a sequel. We'll do Repo Man 2 as a feature. But maybe it's better to do it as a series. Maybe it's better to do it for cable or for the Internet. 

Spike Lee was having trouble getting his latest film, Chi-Raq made. All the major studios said no, but Amazon Studios said yes. So you'd be open to working with Amazon or Netflix?

I have a friend who's working for Netflix now. He's producing the second season of a show called Narcos in Colombia. And they've got a ton of money. They're spending a fortune. They're spending more money per episode than we spent on Repo Man. So clearly Netflix has budgets, yeah. 

Richard Linklater recently screened Sid and Nancy for the Austin Film Society. He and Lars Nilsen spoke about the film after they screened it. They mentioned that Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America was screening a couple days after Sid and Nancy. They said that you heard about the screening and you asked them, "Why are you screening my worst movie, and then two nights later..."

"...Leone's worst movie!" [Laughs] That's right. 

Do you really feel that way about Sid and Nancy?

Yes. 

Why?

Because it fails in its goal, which is almost inevitable, I think. Looking at it now, because it glamorizes what it seeks to deconstruct. It attempts to be a film that shows what a waste it was for this pair to become junkies, and ruins their existence. And yet, it glamorizes it. And so, it's an interesting aspect of the filmmaking process, or the drama process. Perhaps the very process of making something into a drama, you tend to glamorize it, and you tend to make it something that it's not. 

But we really cared about the characters.

Well, I guess you care about them but when you're writing I suppose you care about the characters you're interested in. You're interested in the characters; you find them interesting. It used to be a great struggle when one was trying to get money from the studios or big corporations because there was this big belief that characters had to be sympathetic. But the notion of what sympathy was very narrowly defined. 

People don't pay attention. A number of people who worked on Sid and Nancy later became heroin addicts. I was just thinking, "How stupid can you be?" We spent like eleven weeks making this movie, trying to demonstrate that it's not sensible to become a junkie, and then you go and become a junkie. If that can happen to people on the crew and in the cast, do you imagine the impact of films in the wider world? Where people just see them for a two-hour period. It's just disturbing. It makes one wonder about the nature of filmmaking and about one's efforts and how they backfire sometimes. 

You think the actions in a film can reverberate in real life?

It's hard not to. Let's take a film like TrainspottingTrainspotting is a super advertisement for being a junkie, and having a great time. And I'm sure that wasn't the intention of the filmmakers or the author of the book. And yet, that's the film. Same with Sid and Nancy

And in terms of violence, it's interesting because violence in movies is a means of problem solving. Somebody messes with you; you go kick their ass! But in reality, if somebody messes with you, you don't go kick his or her ass because you don't have the right to do that. So it's interesting because movies and drama create a false reality in which violence is an acceptable solution. Then of course that becomes a reality for people with access to guns and armies. 

What was it like working with Joe Strummer as a film composer?

Wonderful! I mean, he was interested in being an actor, and he was a very good actor. But I think in the end he realized during the course of the acting thing that it was music he was drawn to. He was very good in Straight to Hell. He's almost invisible in Walker, but he's very, very good in Straight to Hell and I think he could have pursued an acting career, but I think he decided music was the thing. 

How did you direct him when he was writing the score for Walker?

Oh he was there! After we finished shooting, we were gonna go back to London and edit the film in London. And Joe said, "Oh man, don't you think we should stay here a while longer and cut it here, get the feeling of the place?" I thought, "Great, fantastic. Let's do it." So he kind of led the thing in a certain direction, because we stayed in Nicaragua and got a Mexican editor, Carlos Puente, to come on and cut the film. And he was influential in the shaping of the piece. 

The producer Lorenzo [O'Brien] and I were thinking about doing the score that would have been a mixture, like Straight to Hell. A bunch of different musicians. One day, we were going to Managua to meet a guy called Carlos Mejía Godoy, who was a very popular Sandinista musician and songwriter, and ask him to do a song for the film.

We were all gonna go into the car to Managua and talk to Carlos Mejía, and Joe goes: "I've been thinking: maybe it would be better if you didn't do it like Sid and Nancy or Straight to Hell, but you did it all with one composer." And I said, "That's an interesting idea. Who would that one composer be?" [Laughs]

Joe knew who it would be. And so we stayed in Nicaragua for two months editing the film and Joe writing the music. All the score was composed in Nicaragua as we went along, and he would bring in his cassette tapes and we would play them against the picture to see how it worked. So he was 100 percent there in postproduction. 

Walker was also the most money you've ever gotten to make a film.

$5.6 million. 

Did you enjoy having that money, or did you feel pressured to spend it wisely?

We enjoyed having the money because the goal was to spend the money in Nicaragua. So the goal was to get as much money as possible and spend it in Nicaragua. And we did. We achieved our goal. 

Your first four films had some pretty big Hollywood talent. But your fifth, El Patrullero, was shot entirely in Mexico with actors largely unknown in America. Was it more difficult finding good actors?

It was the same, really. They have a fully configured film industry in Mexico. I think Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina are the biggest film and television producers in Latin America. So they've got like a large industry of cinematographers, producers, casting directors, art department, studios, mixing stages, whatever you need is available in Mexico. They have a fully developed film industry. 

We were working with a lot of second generation Mexican film people whose parents had been actors and casting directors. 

Did you know any of these actors, or do any research beforehand?

No, I didn't know anybody. Lorenzo O'Brien was the producer of Walker, and then the producer and writer of El Patrullero. He was the one who took it to Mexico and set up all of our contacts there. 

You are a co-writer, and were originally set to direct the film adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. But then Terry Gilliam ended up directing it.

I was the original director, I got Tod Davies to write the screenplay, and I cast Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro in it. 

What would your version of the film look like?

Like the screenplay that we wrote. Very similar to the one that they shot, I think. I saw the screenplay that they used, and it was pretty much our screenplay with a couple of extra scenes. 

That's interesting, because Terry Gilliam is a much different director than you.

Well he used our script, so I don't think he would have been that different. I mean, he would have had to make much bigger changes. He would have had to use somebody else's script. If one director uses another director's script, it's quite likely that it will resemble that. But I couldn't tell you how it would have turned out otherwise, because it would have been very... 

I mean really, I think the casting was probably a mistake because they were in love with Johnny Depp, big movie star and stuff. I think it would have been better with Ed Harris. You really see Ed Harris in that role, Ed Harris as Raoul Duke with the bald head and the cigarette holder in Palm Beach. 

You were a smart and often hilarious presenter of the BBC's Moviedrome from 1987-1994. Did they let you decide what films to screen?

Not really. Most of the films were films that the BBC licensed, that they didn't know what to do with because they were kind of obscure, or they came in a package with a more-known movie, and they didn't know how to frame them. And so I became the provider of the frame, and we were able to buy a couple of movies, like Corbucci's Django and The Great Silence, and Carlo Lizzani's Requiescant. We bought three Italian Westerns that have never been shown in Britain before, so that was very exciting. 

But everything else was stuff that was already licensed by the BBC. And the great thing about it from my point of view was that I was able to say anything about the films. I didn't have to pretend I liked them. You know, there is a tendency to think that everyone commenting on a film has to be a shameless promoter of it: "This is the best film I've ever seen in my life!" But they're not. Those films aren't the best films ever. They had good aspects and bad. I think one of the reasons the series was popular was because I was able to tell the truth. I could say, "This film isn't very good, but it's got a great performance by so and so. If you can bear through such and such, you will be rewarded by this." I think that's more respectful of the audience than to tell them everything is great. 

What do you think about contemporary directors taking cues from your older films? Do you think that Tarantino took the idea of the glowing briefcase in Pulp Fiction from Repo Man?

Well, the Samuel L. Jackson character in Pulp Fiction is Sy Richardson from Straight to Hell. It's interesting why Sy never became a big movie star. Sam Jackson became a great movie star, and Sy didn't. I wonder why that is. He's a hugely talented actor; very charismatic. Everybody saw him in Repo Man and Sid and Nancy and Straight to Hell and somehow he didn't get the recognition or the career takeoff that Samuel L. Jackson or some other guys did. Maybe it was a little bit too early for a strong black character. 

The ending of Repo Man has been discussed and debated for over three decades. What does it mean to you?

A mad scientist drives a flying car that is also a time machine with a money-hungry young punk in the seat next to him. What film is that? Could it be that Universal took the idea of Repo Man and turned it into a mainstream franchise called Back to the Future? Could it be such an unconscionable rip-off? Assuredly not. [Laughs]

In our case, it's all retro -- we have an old fucked up Chevy Malibu for the car. But in Universal's case, of course, it has to be a DeLorean because of a cocaine joke, which is so funny if you're a studio executive.

--

This article appears in an upcoming column for The Huffington Post

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Lady and the Tramp: The Final Scene of Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights

It's easy to forget exactly how painted into a corner Charlie Chaplin was before City Lights was released. The birth of sound in motion pictures three years earlier caused shifting values of importance in Hollywood, and few had more to lose than Chaplin. This was a man whose silent films featuring his Little Tramp character—while iconic for their time—risked becoming anachronistic, relics representing the Hollywood model before “talkies” came along.

Chaplin could have folded his hand, but instead he doubled down. City Lights was defiantly a silent film, with its director mocking the usage of sound as early as its opening scene: when a politician stands up to the podium to speak of a great monument resembling peace and prosperity, out of his mouth we hear a robotic squeal. Conventional wisdom tells us that when a man goes blind, he improves his hearing. In Chaplin’s case, avoiding dialogue encourages us to focus on the images. If a genuine human voice isn’t heard in the film, genuine pathos is evident. Chaplin showed us that he didn’t have to go through our ears to get to our heart. 

As his movie nears to a close, the Tramp, recently released from jail, is at his lowest point. He is destitute and homeless. It’s easy to speculate that Chaplin’s real-life dilemmas informed this scene. In addition to the professional challenges of sidestepping the pressures to make a sound film, he’d recently been through a divorce that endangered his personal reputation, with his ex-wife selling stories to tabloids describing his infidelities. His finances were also in jeopardy, the slapstick sensei owing the IRS $1.6 million in taxes. It’s possible that Chaplin’s divine inspiration for City Lights may have been just to keep the lights on.

Roger Ebert said that Chaplin’s films were “not just a work, but a place.” I’d like to believe that they are the dwellings of his biggest hopes and fears. In City Lights’ grand finale, we see the Tramp reuniting with the formerly blind flower salesgirl –- a girl that the Tramp had misled into thinking he was wealthy, when he actually stole the money to pay for the operation that cured her. When he asks her, “Can you see now?” the question is raised with sharp duality. Would the blind flower girl still love the Tramp, even though he is not the rich man she assumed him to be? And on a broader scale, would we, the audience, be able to love Charlie Chaplin the person, even as he swam against the current trend of sound in movies, and had his messy divorce on public display?

But we probably don’t ask ourselves those questions, at least not in a logical sense. Instead, we allow ourselves to indulge in the heat of the moment, the girl’s exasperated realization as she hands the Tramp back his flowers that he is her mysterious benefactor; the Tramp’s million dollar smile when he sees her feelings for him are requited. Speech would be superfluous, as it would require us to analyze something that was meant only to envelop our emotional canal. Ironically, Chaplin encouraged this sentiment nine years later in his first true talking picture, The Great Dictator. “Sometimes we think too much and feel too little.” 

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Timeless Melody: An Interview with Noel Gallagher

Noel Gallagher has sold over 70 million records worldwide, witnessed his choruses become chanted by fans as if they were a gospel choir, and might be the only British rock star to appear on more magazine covers than Kate Middleton. Yet he has only needed to count on one person for his attention and achievement. On "The Masterplan," a song by his former band, Oasis, he assured us that "everything that's been has passed, the answer's in the looking glass." He is rock and roll's Tony Robbins, replacing the latter's self-help proverbs with sanguine lyricism and a Union Jack guitar turned up to 11. 

Oasis' b-sides compilation album, 1998's The Masterplan, was that decade's Louder Than Bombs. Since his group's formation, Gallagher tailored closely to the Smiths' mentality that the quality and quantity of songs were one and the same, that even the secondary cuts should be too good for the cutting room floor. Unable to look past the burgeoning songwriter's talent, Johnny Marr lent a pre-fame, penniless Gallagher one of his guitars -- the one Gallagher would use to write his iconic anti-grunge anthem "Live Forever," among many other tunes -- and didn't have the heart to ask for it back. 

Ringing in over twenty years as a professional musician and nearly six since Oasis' breakup, he remains devoted to his creative approach with his solo act, Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds. Gallagher's influences don't just move him, they move through him. On "Riverman," his favorite song on his sophomore album, Chasing Yesterday, he unlocks the passage between Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here and Burt Bacharach's "This Guy's In Love With You," before adorning the track's bridge and conclusion with a saxophone solo. 

As with the rest of the LP, "Riverman" is an unexpected, welcoming new terrain for Gallagher, one never shy to quarantine the past by pushing things forward. I spoke with him as he embarked on a world tour about what it's like to write personal songs for a global audience, his non-nostalgic meaning of Chasing Yesterday, and his lone rule for aspiring artists.

How's your tour going so far?

It's going all right. We've done eleven gigs, and one of them has been shit. Which is not a bad ratio. 

Which one was shit?

The one last night in Düsseldorf was very un-enjoyable and deeply un-relaxing. But the rest have been great, I have to say. 

During your solo sets, you're known for including a few Oasis hits. Have you considered bringing out one of your deep cuts, like "My Sister Lover," "It's Better People," "Angel Child," or "I've Got The Fever"?

Well, I wouldn't say I'm playing the Oasis hits. I would say I'm playing some Oasis songs. On this tour I'm playing five Oasis songs, and one of them was a single: "Don't Look Back In Anger." The other four would be for fans only, really. They're b-sides and album tracks. 

I do "Angel Child" sometimes in acoustic gigs. But if I was to rehearse with my band the really obscure stuff, I could be fucking there for a year and a half. I mean, I wrote a lot of music in Oasis, and what I do now is not try to fucking sell the back catalogue. Do you know what I mean? For every five songs I play, one of them will be an Oasis song. And I think I'm being fair. 

Some of the songs have to be reworked a little bit, because of different keys and because Liam [Gallagher] sang them originally. I try to get the balance right. 

You previously mentioned that if you could change the title to Chasing Yesterday to something else, you would. Is that still the case, and if so, what would the new title be?

Well, titles become themselves. How many great album titles are there in the history of rock? I can think of about fucking six. The rest are all shite, aren't they? If I had been given another hour, I may have come up with something different, or better, or more acceptable to me. But as I've said a million times, you've got to go pretty far to find a worse title than (What's the Story) Morning Glory? And that's not what people remember about the album. 

But yeah, Chasing Yesterday. In my defense, I was up until six o'clock in the morning. It was one in the afternoon. I had a hangover. It was the best I could do, I'm afraid. [Laughs]

Does the title suggest any personal nostalgia?

No, the title is actually from the lyrics of a song called "While The Song Remains The Same." And it is a song, which if I remember the lyrics correctly, is a person saying to another person, "Enough with this fucking nostalgia shit!" Let's just move forward into the future. And let's stop chasing yesterday. 

But I thought, Chasing Yesterday? Yeah, that title sounds all right. But obviously not realizing I was in a moment of weakness because I was drinking tequila until six o'clock in the morning. The people hadn't heard the album yet, and would not go on to hear it for another two months, so they didn't know the context. And before I realized that, god damn it, it was too late. 

What's your process for writing lyrics? Do you need to be in a certain frame of mind, or do you just do it? 

Lyrics are a weird thing to me. I don't really take that much care of them, as long as they sound good and fit the mood of the song. I don't really get hung up on being a great lyricist. It's not for me to say. 

I listen to the lyrics when I sing "Champagne Supernova," and I think to myself, what on earth is this song about? What is it about? And then I look out and see a fifteen-year-old guy with his shirt off, swinging his shirt around and singing like his life depended on it. And at the front row there's a fifteen-year-old girl in tears because she knows every word. And I'm thinking, "Well, who gives a fuck what it's about? Look at that!" Who gives a fuck about words? Michael Stipe. Really? Who fucking cares?

Who is a solo artist or group that most people wouldn't expect you to like?

Tears For Fears. I fucking like that band. I liked them in the '80s. Talking Heads. I fucking love Talking Heads. Lots of '80s stuff. Blondie. I fucking love Blondie. Put Talking Heads. That looks cooler than Tears For Fears. 

Let's talk about artists who are really hot right now. What do you think of rapper Kendrick Lamar?

Did you say Kendrick Lamar? I've never heard that name in my life. That sounds like a character off of Seinfeld. I have no idea who you're talking about. Kendrick Lamar, is that a real name? 

Actually, his real name is Kendrick Lamar Duckworth.

Jesus Christ. 

I know he isn't in your genre, but I figured I'd ask you about him. 

Well, I listened to hip-hop until about 1992, and maybe 1991, and then it's been quite uninteresting I think for the last ten fucking years. It's been sounding all the fucking same, doesn't it? 

Speaking of the Gallaghers and hip-hop, your brother recently tweeted this to Kanye West: "Check out Lee Mavers." That's pretty good advice, because you can't go wrong with his band, the La's.

The trouble with Liam is, he listened to too much Lee Mavers. 

Too much Lee Mavers? The La's only recorded one album.

Yes, but if you listen to it for more than a third of your life, it will ruin your health. 

You're known in your interviews for mentioning musicians you love, but also for calling out the musicians you hate. Have you ever considered writing a diss track? 

[Erupts in laughter]

Hear me out, though. One of your favorite bands, the Sex Pistols, wrote a diss track against the New York Dolls, called "New York." Seriously, would you consider writing one?

No, because if you're asking me about any particular band or person, I only have an opinion on their music. I have nothing against anyone as a person at all. If somebody says they don't like me, they aren't saying they don't like me. They don't like my music. And that's fucking great. You can't be a fan of everybody. 

Let's talk about your favorite song on your album, "Riverman." We heard something we've never heard from a Noel Gallagher tune: a saxophone. What was the process behind that new songwriting decision?

My process to songwriting is always the same. I'll just be fucking about with a few chords and they won't mean a great deal until a line or melody pops into my head. When I wrote that song at home, the saxophone wasn't even in it until I went to the studio. 

And there was a big gap at the end of the guitar solo. The gap was there for a while and we kept coming back to it, and I just suggested a saxophone one day. I know a saxophone player. He came down; we played him Wish You Were Here and said, "Do something like this." Fucking great, and he did it. It took about two hours, the whole thing. It was amazing. 

For over 20 years as a professional musician, you've maintained a high confidence level. What's the secret to consistently believing in yourself and your vision?

I don't overthink anything that I do. I write from instinct, and I write lyrically and musically from the heart. I don't overthink it, is the key. A good song is a good song. I don't sit and think, "What if I did this, or what if I did that?" If I can play it alone in a room on an acoustic guitar and it sounds great, then I'm onto something. 

I don't worry about being popular or generalizing within my lyrics. I don't mind being a bit vague. I don't go around thinking I'm the greatest thing since sliced cheese. I just go around and write these songs, and they're only fucking songs. But the key is to not overthink it too much. 

Your records have a very bold, high fidelity sound. Have you considered going the opposite route, like making a low-fi garage record?

I'm going to take you back to the answer I gave you about the songwriting. I write from the heart and I write instinctively. I would never go out of my way to make a particular sounding album. Like, "Next time, let's not even have a drum kit. Let's fucking get some dustbin lids and bang on them and see what that sounds like." 

I'm not into that shit; do you know what I mean? I don't write a song with the intention of going into the studio and fucking it up just to please a journalist. I'm writing this song to put it into the world, for it to stay in the world forever. Not just something that sounds good on the day it came out, and then four months later you can't listen to it because it's fucking ludicrous. 

And on the day I start making moves like, "Yeah man, I think I'm gonna make a reggae album," I'll fucking quit. Or I'll hope somebody will tell me to quit. 

What is your most personal song on the new record?

I wouldn't say any song is completely and utterly one hundred percent personal. But there are lines in every single song I've ever written that are pertinent to me. I'm not going to point any of them out because that might be some young person's favorite line, and I want them to think it's about them, not me. 

There was this great interview with Mojo you did a few years ago about your favorite classic movies, and it got me thinking to ask you about a couple of new films. What'd you think of Birdman and Whiplash?

The last new movie that I've seen was The Wolf of Wall Street. If you could sum up the Oasis story in a film, it would be The Wolf of Wall Street
    
What about it related to the Oasis story?

The drugs. The money. The absurdity of it all. I'm not an avid cinemagoer, so what I do when I get on tour is catch up and watch them all. So I'll watch Birdman and Whiplash

I've met the people of Whiplash. I meet all these people when they come to London. We all seem to hang out at the same places. There are lots of films I want to see. I still haven't seen Dallas Buyers Club

Are you watching any TV as well?

I watch House of Cards. Don't tell me what happens in the new season; I have to leave it halfway through to come on tour, and my wife is under strict orders not to watch any of it or she gets a fucking divorce. No trial separation, no going to sleep back at her mum's. Divorce. 

In terms of your career, it seems that you've achieved everything you set out to do and more. Do you still believe the words of your Oasis song "Fade Away," that "while we're living, the dreams we have as children fade away"?

I didn't have this dream as a child. When I was a child, I wanted to fucking be an astronaut. That's gone, now. Never gonna go to the moon, now. I dreamt of being a fireman and a football player when I was a child, but I didn't get any of those dreams. This dream that I'm living right now only came to be as a teenager, really. 

It's a funny thing, when you have a goal in life and you achieve it and live it, and you carry on living it, it becomes a wonderful thing. It really does. It becomes beyond comparison to anything else. When people ask you about it, you're not sure how to define it because it's something that came so naturally to me. People say, "Do you have any advice for bands or young people?" I just think, "Well, no." I don't fucking know. I don't even know how I got here. I wrote some songs, and that's it. 

You don't have advice for aspiring creative people?

If I have any advice, and it's not really advice, it's that the success part of it shouldn't be the goal. The goal is just being good. Don't worry about being successful. Not everybody can be successful, and 70 percent of the people who are successful are fucking idiots, anyway!

--

This feature appears in an upcoming column for The Huffington Post. 

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Anything But Ordinary: American Beauty Screenwriter Alan Ball on the Film's 15th Anniversary


The Academy Awards have always favored industry over artistry. Which is why fifteen years after American Beauty's release, it's still surprising that it did all but sweep the Oscars. The drama won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (for Kevin Spacey), Best Original Screenplay, and Best Cinematography. With the film both critically acclaimed and a box office smash, for a brief moment the suits and the artists could bow down in front of a campfire with one another in a hymn of "Kumbaya." It took hundreds to carry the logs, but the first one to ignite the flame was screenwriter Alan Ball.

The idea came to him when he worked as a graphic designer for Adweek in Times Square. New York press was ablaze with coverage of the 1992 Joey Buttafuoco/Amy Fisher trial, in which Fisher was charged with first-degree attempted murder of Buttafuoco's wife.

"I came out for lunch one day and somebody was selling comic books that on one cover had Amy as this virginal Catholic schoolgirl. Joey was this hairy, lecherous, beer-bellied beast, just waiting to be a predator," Ball says as he sips a cappuccino, not that he needs the caffeine to jog his memory. "Then you turn it over, and he's the good suburban husband, and she's all tarted up like a little Lolita. I remember thinking, 'the truth is somewhere in between, and we will never know what it is.'"

The latent tone of resentment within the script is partly autobiographical. Ball channeled his anger and frustration at having to accede to network television demands during his tenures on sitcoms Grace Under Fire and Cybill.

"I had learned all the tricks of the sitcom. I knew what they wanted and gave it to them, but they'd always change it every week. It was just an inefficient process. I felt like I was in a factory, using the talent I was given to make really disposable stuff."

In an effort to reintroduce Ball to the industry, where Ball was primarily known as a television writer, his agent implored him to pen a new film script. He pitched his agent three projects. Two were homespun romantic comedies, but the third pitch --which struck a chord with his agent -- was American Beauty.

"I said, 'I'm surprised, why would you suggest I write that one?' My agent said, 'that's the one you feel most passionate about.' That's probably the best advice I've ever gotten in my career."

He initially planned to leave Cybill and work on his script for a year, but was offered so much money that he decided to stay on the sitcom for another twelve months, then write the script.

"I felt like such a big whore that I wrote it while I was working on the sitcom. I would come home at midnight, filled with rage because my job was so soul deadening. I think it's no accident that the movie's main character is a writer who has lost his passion for living. I had lost my passion for writing. I had to write something I cared about."

Upon its completion, the script was a Hollywood hot potato passed around to nearly every studio -- and was nearly sold -- but then Ball received word that Steven Spielberg got his hands on it. Ball was elated, but skeptical.

"I thought, 'pfft. Well, he'll hate it.' I don't know why I thought that because I have a lot of respect for him as a filmmaker. But I thought that he was so, for lack of a better word, mainstream. I didn't view the movie as particularly mainstream."

The next day, he heard that the Schindler's List director and business magnate loved it, and Ball met with DreamWorks producers Bruce Cohen and Dan Jinks.

"Then on the way out to my car, Steven Spielberg came up to me, and I was like, 'okay, just act normal. You're about to meet Steven Spielberg.' He came up to me and said, 'I love your script. How come I've never heard of you?'"

Displayed on the wall a couple yards in front of Ball's demure oak desk are glistening rose petals framed in glass, the signature symbols representing the profound urges and fantasies of the film's protagonist, Lester Burnham -- played by Kevin Spacey.

In an opening scene of the film, Lester informs us in voice-over narration, "In less than a year, I'll be dead. And in a way, I'm dead already." After he describes his wife and daughter the way one would read aloud a eulogy, he sprouts a new outlook. "I have lost something. I'm not exactly sure what it is, but I know I didn't always feel this... sedated. But you know what? It's never too late to get it back."

Esquire called 1999 the last great year in movies, a bold but arguable declaration. For the 2000 Academy Awards, American Beauty was up against stiff competition, especially in the screenwriting department: the twist-teeming thriller The Sixth Sense, the odyssey of love, failure, and forgiveness within Magnolia, the musical homage to Victorian life and theatre in Topsy-Turvy, and the courageous self-deprecation of Being John Malkovich.

"I think the movie spoke to people," Ball says. "Whether it's the performances, the way it was shot, the way it was directed. It spoke to people in a way they're not used to having movies speak to them."

I mention that Ball's director Sam Mendes referred to the script as a "rites of passage film about imprisonment and escape from imprisonment." Ball agrees with the assessment.

"There is spirituality to it. I don't want to define that spirituality as any particular school of thought, but I think it is about a man who goes on a spiritual journey and reclaims his life. Now, he does some pretty stupid and childish things, but in a way it's kind of heroic."

When brought to life on the silver screen, the American Beauty script became the Great American Novel, distilling the pinnacle and downfall of chasing the American Dream within two hours. Ball's characters are tragic (the Burnams' next-door neighbor Ricky Fitts receives crushing blows from his shell-shocked ex-Marine father when the teen's sexual preferences are questioned), comical (Jane's revolting expression when her friend Angela says her father is "cute"), and in their finest moments, both. (Cue Lester's signature line: "Remember those posters that said, 'Today is the first day of the rest of your life'? Well, that's true of every day but one - the day you die.")

The picture's character types are difficult to pitch because the ever-heightening tension between them recurs in any high school soap opera: there's the bickering mom and dad, the cheerleader, the weirdo, the traumatized military vet, and the one who has to piece them all together. What makes them original is not in who they are, but what they do. Refusing to be typecast, Ball's characters reveal themselves the way an illusionist removes his cloak; like someone we've met, but have never been able to figure out until one ineffaceable action reveals his or her life's stakes. They keep us guessing until the grand finale.

"Pretty much every character does something despicable, but they are very human. You get to see their humanity and you get to see why they're so broken."

Gathering a decade and a half's worth of wisdom since his debut feature, Ball notes the inseparable relationship of success and failure. This was especially apparent during his seemingly overnight achievement in 1999.

"I debuted this sitcom for ABC, and everybody loved American Beauty. The sitcom was universally loathed and reviled, and died a horrible death. There was a People end-of-year feature of best and worst. It said American Beauty was one of the ten best movies of the year, and you literally turn the page and you see the ten worst TV shows, and there was my show, Oh, Grow Up. Ultimately, the lesson learned is that you do the best you can, and stay out of the results."

Ball's acumen when dealing with the good and bad has allowed him to take greater chances in the fifteen years since his Oscar win, and with an attitude that is neither discouraged nor complacent. "It's a lot to live up to," he says with a chuckle, "but hopefully I've gotten better."

Just like in 1999, the reception has been mostly good. Ball wrote and directed his second feature film, Towelhead, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2007. Yet his international acclaim revamped when he returned to the platform he once loathed: television networks. But the days of being mad as hell and not going to take it anymore were over.

From 2001 to 2005, he helmed the HBO black comedy/drama Six Feet Under. If any of his work could be labeled a "sequel" to American Beauty, this was it. With the allegories of flowers and blood, Ball introduced his doctrine of life and death -- but his first hit show trademarked it with fast precision. Words of his short-tempered characters whish like a gust of wind; the tragicomic theatrics torture and tickle the soul.

Stacked atop a mini-mountain of books on his waiting room table is Barrie Pattison's The Seal of Dracula. One would infer the mastermind behind True Blood -- which just aired its season finale -- still sinks his teeth into the supernatural, but he clears up that implication with a wry smile and soft exhale.

"I don't think I'll be doing anything with vampires for a while. I've got two things going on right now: I have a movie called I Am Chippendales that is supposed to shoot in October; then there's another pilot I've written for HBO, a period piece based on an idea that Elton John's company brought to my company."

Though eager to move forward, he relishes an opportunity to reminisce. "You know you've made it big," he says with a cheeky grin, holding up a DVD titled American Booty, "when they've made a porno named after your movie."

--

This article appears in an upcoming column for The Huffington Post.

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Actress Meghan Aruffo Might Just Be Hollywood’s New Girl Next Door

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If the name of actress Meghan Aruffo isn’t yet inscribed on the red carpet, it’s because stars aren’t born, they’re built. Aruffo wasn’t hoisted into the spotlight at an early age; instead she was given a modest upbringing of theatre life from her family.

“I’ve always had performing as part of my life,” she says. "I got my first camcorder when I was in 4th grade because I was always making movies and inviting all my friends to be in them for fun."

She recalls the first musical to swipe her off her feet. "I was three years old when I saw Annie. I saw it on Broadway, and I was obsessed. I came home to my grandparents, sat on the dining room table, and started singing ‘The sun will come out tomorrow!’”

Aruffo signed with Diamond Agency, a Florida modeling and talent firm, when she was 17. After her agent moved over to CMG Models & Talent around the time of Aruffo’s Summer 2012 graduation from the University of Central Florida, Aruffo opted to join her. She strapped on her pumps and took a jet to where 2Pac called  “The state where you never find a dance floor empty.”    

Aruffo and I are seated on the front entrance steps of Los Angeles’s Griffith Observatory. The monument to public astronomy commands a mountainous view; it overlooks city lights that twinkle along the outstretched landscape below, and matches the hue of the illuminated sky above.

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As aforementioned, Aruffo studied at UCF, and happens to share alumni status with this journalist. While her heart was set on the stage, her brain prioritized practicality. She forayed temptation to take theater classes and opted for a different challenge: a major in Interpersonal Organizational Communications.

“It’s basically a form of public relations,” she says. “I decided that if I was going to go to college, I was going to work on something that wasn’t acting. I was going to get something stable." It also helped her with acting, she believes, because "Interpersonal communications offer a different outlook on how we interact with each other. More of the psychology of why people behave the way they do in certain situations.”

The tall 24-year-old thespian has bright blonde hair that runs below her shoulders. She sports a pink blazer and beige high heels. Think an alchemy of Kirsten Dunst’s cheerleader chic in Bring It On and the sumptuous street-wear of the Pitch Perfect ensemble.

Aruffo acting credits include independent films and shorts with Full Sail University, a guest star on Investigation Discovery Network’s Dead of Night, as well as small supporting roles in Iron Man 3 and the upcoming Judd Apatow comedy, Neighbors. She continues to hone her craft at the revered Margie Haber Studio. 

Acting is often much more than what’s displayed on the silver screen; it’s a confluence of the desire to create great art with hard real life experience. Underneath Aruffo’s bubbly personality are shades of a loss. Her father passed away from surgical complications for an umbilical hernia during her senior year of high school.

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She takes a deep breath and lets out a soft sigh. “I didn’t even get to say goodbye. To this day I have a letter he wrote to me in sophomore year, after I got the lead in Footloose. He told me how proud he was, and that he cried every time the duet ‘Almost Paradise’ was sung. ”

Despite her trauma, Aruffo’s optimism when it comes to future projects gleams like the morning Venice sunrise. She’s in the beginning stages of writing a script set to put a humorous spin on the frustrations and glib conversations when dating in LA. Her Soundcloud page features her singing over backing tracks of her favorite tunes. Fortunately, this isn’t the kind of karaoke that would make William Hung sound like Frank Sinatra. Arrufo’s voice blissfully sways in a way as equally suitable for taprooms and trysts, offering an intimate perspective of popular hits. 

Despite all the pressure Hollywood’s harsh dominion provides, Aruffo is hardly a damsel in distress. “The thing about this business is that you hear ‘no’ a lot,” she says. But you can’t take it personally, because there are so many factors to why you didn’t get something. So when I'm feeling down, my mom calls me and reminds me that I love doing this.”

If a dogged work ethic and a fully formed identity can lead to opportunities that knock, then Meghan Aruffo might just be the new girl next door. 

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Brooklyn Nine-Nine Star Chelsea Peretti Finds the Fun in Everything

I've been dining at a quaint little Italian café in Los Feliz called Little Doms with actress/comedian/writer Chelsea Peretti for only two minutes, but she's already teasing me about our interview. "I mean, can I just say a string of lies?" she asks with a devilish grin. "How much do you guys fact check over there?" When I encourage her that feeding this publication a string of lies -- essentially "trolling" proper journalism -- would offer an enlightening and entertaining perspective for me as a writer, she rolls her emerald-green eyes. "Aw, well that takes the fun out of it." 

Peretti looks for the fun in everything. Our banter is off the cuff and down to earth. She touches upon the times she sat next to West Coast hip-hop pioneer Too Short on a plane ("He was writing raps right beside me, so it was a real Oakland moment."), the addictive nature of iPhone app Candy Crush ("Sometimes I spend entire breaks between scenes glued to that game"), and horsing around with co-stars on set ("One time, I was going by Melissa Fumero and was faking that I was going to push her coffee on her shirt, and then I actually did.")

With each anecdote, Peretti giggles like the mischievous student who waits for her teacher to get up and go to the bathroom, and then puts a thumbtack on her chair. Yet there is a generosity and warmth within Peretti's spirit, like the class clown who gets sent to detention as a sacrifice in order to make her friends laugh.  

However, as gentle and carefree as her persona, Peretti's role within the Hollywood sphere is one of serious distinction. She's written for Parks and Recreation, The Sarah Silverman Program and Saturday Night Live; her standup has been showcased on Comedy Central Presents. An exemplary résumé propelled Peretti to her latest and arguably most acclaimed acting effort as Gina Linetti, the 99th Precinct's sardonic civilian administrator in Fox's rollicking five-o comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine

With over half the season to recollect, Peretti's casting as Linetti in the sitcom is a union that's obvious as ham on rye. But the actress still had to prove herself through auditions and test audiences in order to join the team. "The advantage was that the show's creators Mike [Schur] and Dan [Goor] knew me, and they had my voice very much in mind. I think that's what drew me to it, was that the role of Gina was essentially me."

Linetti's voice is obviously paramount to the show, but some of the episodes' standout scenes do not require her to utter a single word. Witness the eye-watering hilarity at Linetti's noodling dance moves in an office meeting, her co-workers dubiously gazing at her. A scene so charmingly awkward that it makes Napoleon Dynamite's stilted moves look choreographed by Michael Jackson. To paraphrase LA Weekly columnist Jeff Weiss, it illustrates the aphorism that twenty funny seconds are worth a thousand GIFs. 

Along with the show's ensemble cast, Peretti earned a Golden Globe for Best Television Series - Musical or Comedy. With the rest of Brooklyn Nine-Nine inaugural season finishing at the end of March, and a second season in the works, Peretti expects Gina Linetti to evolve as a character--and leave viewers with a few surprises. 

"Well, they made Gina the assistant of Captain Holt, and I like the relationship that they have. I think that Holt is sort of a father figure to Gina. [Actor] Andre [Braugher] and I agree that Gina and Captain Holt would've had some casual conversations in which they see eye to eye on some pop cultural things. Basically, fans will get to see a growth in their relationship." 

Away from the cameras, Peretti remains as busy as ever. She's drawing up blueprints for her next US tour and standup special, which is set to foray her usual stage antics. "Maybe for the first time there will be some tones of love in there, which is different," she says. She mentions that it will offer a sunny side up from her previous specials, which she labeled as a bit dark and hostile. "I think it's going to be interesting because I'm a lot happier now." 

She's also set to grace the pages of Elle.com this month as a guest blogger, and was featured on the site in January, exchanging witty barbs with Danny McBride and Brooklyn Nine-Nine co-star Andy Samberg for Q&A features. "I really want to interview Larry David," she declaims. 

Those unacquainted with Peretti can find a snapshot of her humor on Twitter, which was selected as one of Time's 140 Best of 2013. Among a few choice tweets: "No iPhone I never want to say ducking or duck"; "Is it worse to kill 15 people or wear a fedora?"; "HEADS UP: Sometimes I text 'hahaa' + my iPhone autocorrects it to "HAHAHAHA" based on a past time I laughed harder at a funnier joke." 

Though Peretti can easily be identified as a "funny woman," she doesn't like the implication that comedy is patriarchal. "It's really irritating. Even people who like my work sometimes come up to me and say, 'I usually don't like female comedians, but your material is great!'" She feels pigeonholed by the idea of comedy being conflated with gender. "It makes the job prospect more daunting. Funny is funny, you know?"

When I tell that I've finished asking my questions, Peretti tries one more prank. She raises her eyebrows and curtly replies, "Welp, bye." She feigns to get up from the table, which would leave me alone with the bill. My eyes widen as I fire back with mock indignation, "If you think you can just dine and dash on me after an interview that's going to be nationally published, maybe you'll become most controversial comedian in the game." She giggles and throws a $5 bill on the table.

This article appears in an upcoming column for the Huffington Post.

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Jerry Seinfeld, Comedian, and the Myth of Effortless Creativity

 

This past Wednesday, I hit a creative writing plateau. With each paragraph I composed, I slammed my fingers on the “delete” button as if it were a whack a mole game at a carnival. If I had chosen to keep the amount of pages I scrapped, I would have printed out a scroll longer than Jack Kerouac’s initial draft of On The Road. Dejected by my mind’s inability to salvage a single entertainment article pitch, I discovered that the only antidote would be for me to laugh.

I nestled under my bed sheets and popped on Comedian, a 2002 documentary starring Jerry Seinfeld. To my surprise, Comedian is not a comedy film, although it certainly has some funny moments. It explores the other side of stand-up comedy; that is, the preparation, politics, nerves, and creativity. Arising from my mattress after the film’s credits, my belly didn’t ache like it did after watching the amusing observation oracle’s 1998 HBO special I’m Telling You For the Last Time. But I did walk away with a few lessons.

The first takeaway is that natural talent only a forms a fraction of a comedian’s success. The Seinfeld chronicle of a reinvigorated career is that of an emotional endurance battle— one on par with the physical anguish of the Tour De France. At one point in the beginning of the film, Seinfeld is unable to remember a new routine. As he scourges his notebook for a recollection, a woman pithily asks:  “Is this your first gig?”

The film also features comic Orny Adams as he tussles to make it in show business. Seinfeld mentors the 29-year-old protégé even though they’re essentially walking through the same wasteland together. The former is an up-and-coming comic hungry for his first bite of fame; the latter is struggling for a second course of it, hoping he can still remember the taste.

Adams, who has been on the stand-up circuit for roughly a decade, feels like success is owed to him: “Let me just give a little advice to the industry,” he says, giving a cocksure glance to the camera. “Stretch before you go up on stage. Because when you come running after me, I don’t want you to pull a muscle.” For Seinfeld, even the low maintained gigs have high stakes. Before a showing at a small comedy cellar, Seinfeld squeamishly sits in a dark corner of the backstage room as he paces around, the palm of his hand inseparable from his forehead.

Seinfeld’s grand return to the Late Show stage wasn’t an Osiris-like rebirth; it was the reward of trudging out and editing material for months on the road, half convinced that his act wasn’t worthwhile. His body language appears smooth and comfortable despite a post-performance revelation: “It felt like my first Tonight Show, in that I came off stage and I have really no idea what happened.” The higher he climbs, the more humbled he becomes – see his agape mouth at Bill Cosby’s rigorous performance schedule after hearing it from Mr. Jello Puddin’ Pop himself.

As an entertainment journalist, I have never performed at an open mic night or exchanged verbal barbs with a heckler. Nor have I been on the road, pressing my cheek against the tour bus’s windowpane in an attempt to squeeze in a few hours sleep before another performance. Suffice it to say, Seinfeld and I don’t share everything in common. But in the middle circle of the comedian/entertainment writer Venn diagram lays issues and responsibilities of any aspiring creative person: learning to synthesize constructive feedback, possessing the scrap or die mentality that it takes to thrive, and playing the game without losing your marbles. This past Wednesday, like a comedian shying away from the stage, I mistakenly chose to shut down instead of stand up.

Perhaps writing this essay about not being able to write was a step in the right direction, a way to clear the cobwebs. If you don’t take my word for it, I’ll leave you with this jewel from the omniscient Bill Watterson, who named his Calvin and Hobbes comic strip after two esteemed philosophers: “Shutting off the thought process is not rejuvenating; the mind is like a car battery – it recharges by running.”

 

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2013

I stared idly at the ceiling for hours; I was abundant with imagination. I soared higher than the heavens; I peeled myself off the pavement. I was betrayed by people I cared about the most; I forged better friendships. I felt real romance; I endured fleeting crushes. I slept comfortably on hammocks; I dug my fist into walls. I was plagued by colorblindness; I learned the world wasn't black and white. I was deprived of human desires; I was been given more than I could ever require. I framed articles; I scrapped manuscripts. I was the life of the party; I was the fly on the wall. I indulged in self-destruction; I tempered in good health. I mislaid my ambitions; I regained a refined purpose. 

"We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope."

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High Fidelity: 10 Things I Wrote in 2013

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Soul Survivors: Exile on Main St. Enters its Fifth Decade - A modern take on the Rolling Stones' ramshackle classic. 

Watch Out, the World's Behind You: RIP Lou Reed (1942-2013) - I pour out a personal obit for the frontman of the Velvet Underground, my favorite band of all time.

This is It: The Strokes' Room on Fire at 10 - The New York quintet's debut Is This It gets most of the street cred, but their second album is just as great. 

Talking With Neighbors Actress Carla Gallo - I profiled the Undeclared star and one of the most talented actresses within Judd Apatow's crew.  

Albert Hammond Jr. on new EP AHJ, 10th Anniversary of the Strokes' Room on Fire - I conducted an interview with the guitarist of the rock band that defined my teen years, and learned a few new things. 

Forest Swords Emerges Through the Floodgates on Engravings - A review of the best album of the year; a journey into tinnitus, isolation, and other adventures. 

The Mystery of Darkside's Psychic and the Art of the Rain Album - If you like Pink Floyd and/or opiates, you need to check out this LP. 

Question in the Form of an Answer: Rob Delaney - A rare music-related interview with the funniest man on Twitter. 

Q&A: Award-Winning Actress Brie Larson Talks Short Term 12 and Basmati Blues Larson was a very humble and sweet girl who happened to start winning a bunch of awards as I transcribed this interview. Look for her in 2014. 

Passion of the Weiss' Top 50 Albums of 2013I was fortunate to contribute three blurbs (covering the artists Logos, DJ Rashad, Shlohmo) alongside the most talented music writers on the net. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Q&A: Award-winning Actress Brie Larson Talks Short Term 12 and Basmati Blues

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To actresses, Hollywood is often their church. Under the city’s mutated skyline, neon lights glow along the horizon. One would be remiss to not see the sign, a cultural icon resonant atop steep mountains, coined after the city’s namesake. When embarking on a career in a town dominantly characterized by flash, fame, and fortune, it’s tempting for any dreamer to be driven by a lust for luxury and decadence.   

Brie Larson is the exception to that assumption. When I greet her over the phone for our interview, she says she just finished a casual lunch with her mom. On break from shooting films, she likes to read and tend to her gardens. She speaks with a humble and quiet grace; her personality is both friendly and forthright, as though we’ve been friends for years. 

But even if Larson wanted to flex her credentials, she would have every right. She recently received one of the most prestigious honors in the independent film circuit—the Gotham Award for Best Actress— for her performance in Short Term 12. The Critics’ Choice and Independent Spirit Awards also recently nominated her for "Best Actress." 

As Oscar season rolls around early next year, Larson’s career has potential to blossom as fully as spring orchids in a flowerbed. I spoke to the 24-year-old actress about her role as the formidable foster-care supervisor Grace in this year’s Short Term 12 and next year’s romantic musical comedy Basmati Blues, her burgeoning talent as a screenwriter and director, and the nexus between actors’ chemistry in real life and on screen.

What was it about the script of Short Term 12 that made you want to portray Grace?  

The script itself was told honestly and simply but was filled with complexity. It deals with all the different hopes and fears humans of any age struggle with in a setting we don't know much about. Grace, for me, stood as an example of a strong woman struggling to keep herself and the people she loves together.

Were you surprised by the positive response to the film and your performance, or did you have a sense from the get-go that this would be something special?

I was surprised. I didn't go into the project thinking anyone was watching. It was a story I loved, and I worked with people I loved and I did it for my parents. I usually anticipate that they will be the only ones to see the movies I'm making. To watch the film take on a life of its own has been exciting. 


A significant part of Short Term 12 was the romance between Grace and her boyfriend, Mason. How did you and actor John Gallagher Jr. work together to create that chemistry? 

Well, we didn't have very much time. John got in to town a few days before shooting so all we could afford to do was meet for dinner. Destin found out about it and dropped off an envelope on John's doorstep that said, "Do not open until you get to the restaurant." When we met for the first time and opened it we found it was filled with conversation starters. "What are your hopes and fears of being a parent?" "What's your favorite childhood memory?" "What was Grace and Mason's first date like?" It was brilliant. We never had to feel the awkwardness of stale conversation and at the same time we were creating an entire mythology of our characters that we could reference whenever needed on set.

A similar question: how did you, Kaitlyn Dever, and Keith Stanfield work together to strengthen Grace’s on-screen bond between their characters? 

Like I said, we didn't have time to rehearse. The only time I had was a few minutes with each kid where I was given the time to ask if they had created any backstory that Grace would know about. Every kid was encouraged to keep their characters secrets to themselves but if there was something that would have realistically been in their "file" it was important that I knew it. That informed how Grace spoke to each kid and what her expectations were for them
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You stated in a previous interview regarding Short Term 12 that you believe females are underwritten, and that the business side of the industry believes that women have to do things that are beautiful, catchy on a poster and sexual. What can women do more to get on screen that doesn’t involve them catering to the business side of the industry? 

That’s tough. I certainly can't tell anyone what the "right" thing is to do. But I will say, as a hint - the sooner that women stop allowing themselves to be portrayed as sex objects the sooner we can make a more balanced history. 


Without giving too much away, what was it about the story Basmati Blues that made you want to be a part of it?

The only way I can feel comfortable being an actor is if I can find stories that I believe are important to be shared. The less about "me" it is, the better. Basmati Blues deals with a great social issue - GMOs - but it's told through love and song and dance. I love discussing social issues but I'm not interested in scare tactics. I believe there is a way to bring awareness in tandem with forgiveness and love.

You’re heading to the Baja film festival in Mexico. How do international audiences receive your films compared to American ones? 

They do! I feel each individual has their own experience and those from different cultures make the interpretations even more across the board. I love hearing the thoughts of audience members who don't speak English. I've found their experience with the movie to be much more metaphorical. It's beautiful to hear. 

When making Weighting and The Arm, was it a difficult transition to go back and forth from acting to directing the short films? Will we see more of your writing and directing in the future?

I don't find it difficult. Both take a lot of preparation and confidence. Different things are required for directing versus acting but I find the balance to be necessary for my brain. And yes - more writing and directing to come! 

The pace of Weighting moves quickly, and a lot of events happen over a span of just a few minutes. What made you want to make it a short film, as opposed to a longer one? 

I love trying to see how much information can be said with as little dialogue and time as possible. Weighting in particular was a way to portray an experience that seems to go by so quick; it's gone before the characters even know what has truly happened.

What future projects are you looking forward to? 

I'm excited to finish writing songs for an album that will hopefully be completed very soon. Along with a screenplay and then all the other good stuff. Hikes. Cooking. Watching good movies. Coffee.

 

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Albert Hammond Jr. on new EP AHJ, 10th Anniversary of the Strokes’ Room on Fire

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To know Albert Hammond Jr. is to know his appearance just as well as his anthems. You might remember the heels of the frizzy-haired rocker’s white sneakers curling in as he unleashed a napalm nightmare of a guitar solo on “Take It Or Leave It” during the Strokes’ Late Show with David Letterman set in 2002. Your humble journalist’s memorable Albert Hammond Jr. image was ingrained during the Strokes’ 2006 performance at Club Cinema in Pompano Beach, FL., when a robin’s-egg-blue Fender Stratocaster was held against his black vest, bound by a cherry-red strap with a white lightning bolt.

Longtime fans and new ones caught Hammond on this year’s feature story with NME, which showed a picture of him glancing soberly at the camera as he divulged his former heroin and cocaine habits in syringe-sharp detail. So when I spoke to Hammond over the phone—as opposed to in-person— this past November, I knew I’d receive something beyond the bold attitude and telegenic charm of which I was accustomed. Our interview took place as he rode his tour bus up the open highway from Madison to Minneapolis, surrounded by nothing but arid vegetation and the occasional pit stops for gas.

Because shrubs and 711s aren’t usually hooked up to 3G networks, our call dropped twice. Half a bar of cellular reception be damned, Hammond was sharp and eager to reminisce about the 10th anniversary of the lads’ superlative but slept-on sophomore album Room on Fire as well as this year’s Comedown Machine, his latest solo effort AHJ, and the dynamic of playing in a band versus venturing out on his own.  It’s apt that he spoke as the van was in forward motion, as it unraveled the journey of a man possessing a focused rear-view mirror when it came to his past and polished dashboard when it came to his future.

What’s the biggest realization you’ve made about yourself since becoming sober?

It’s hard to categorize life into big statements. Hmm… I’ve never really thought about this. I guess just learning how to be with one’s self. Anything that’s good takes a while.

Do you believe that sobriety has lessened your creativity? Do drugs make you more creative?

No, drugs definitely don’t make you more creative. You don’t give drugs that kind of power. I think they bring you into different places. If you stop using them you can still go to the places you’ve been with them. But I think it comes to a point where they affect the work and leave you less creative. I’m much more creative now than I’ve ever been.

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Moving on to your solo career, what inspired the cover of your new EP, AHJ?

Oh, the dog? It seemed striking. It felt good. The cover is a mixture of an old German movie poster that we turned into our own thing. Warren Fu did the album art.

How have you grown as a songwriter between this year’s EP AHJ and your previous album, 2008’s ¿Cómo Te Llama?

Well, there is a pretty far gap in between them. [Laughs] In the time between those records, I wrote some songs on the two Strokes albums [2011’s Angles and 2013’s Comedown Machine]. In terms of growing as a songwriter, I’m just a guy who understands the craft better. I understand what I want to do with it. I think that’s where I’ve grown. Have I fully achieved that? No, but I don’t think you ever do. There’s always room to grow.

In the beginning of the Strokes’ career most of the songwriting credit went to frontman Julian Casablancas, but Angles and the new record Comedown Machine have shown more of a group effort. How have the band’s songwriting dynamics changed over the years? 

It seems like a natural progression, but Julian was always ahead of us. He never let anyone play him anything; we had to like it in the end. He had this thing and we were all attracted to it. It was powerful, and we helped in every way we could. It was his brainchild. And then as we became better musicians as time went on, it became more of a writing process between us. It’s a learning curve to throw that into the mix after having defined a sound from one person’s head.

The Strokes’ sophomore album Room on Fire celebrated its 10th anniversary this past October. How do you feel about that record now?

I loved it then and I love it now.

What memories, whether it was from recording or touring the album, stick out to you the most?

What I remember most was that it was frustrating, because I thought we made something better than the first one. The music to me sounds different and the songs are great, but people kept comparing it to the first one and saying we didn’t challenge ourselves. It was just frustrating.

It was always funny to me that critics weren’t saying the album sounded bad, just too similar to Is This It.

It doesn’t to me. It didn’t then; it doesn’t now. It sounds uniquely on its own. And what’s funny is to hear everyone say that, and then you do change, and hear everyone say, “Why can’t you be like that?” [Laughs] I don’t think people know what they want. I think that’s what I’ve come to learn.

One of the heroes of the Strokes, The Velvet Underground’s Lou Reed, recently passed away. What was your reaction when you heard the news?

Yeah, I mean it was a very sad thing. Besides being an amazing musician, I imagine he did everything to fight for his life. It’s not a nice thing for his friends and family. He affected my life very profoundly.

I remember the Strokes performing a cover of Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” in 2006.

Yeah, we played it live with him at a Rolling Stone party [to honor the magazine’s 1000th issue]. We shared the same booking agent, and the agent told us that he was really moved at the way we played one of his songs. He was touched, which in turn touched us, because we were trying our hardest to do it justice.

We were never close friends or anything like that, but we knew and supported each other. I think now in the later years of the band, maybe we would have been friendlier, but obviously that didn’t work out.

What are some of your favorite Lou Reed songs?

“Street Hassle” is my favorite solo cut of his. As far as the Velvets: “New Age,” “Pale Blue Eyes,” and the album Loaded.

One thing that was always cool to me about Loaded was that even though Lou Reed was the front man who wrote all the songs, he handed off lead vocals to bassist Doug Yule on four of them because Doug could hit a higher octave. As a singer, you can reach notes that Julian can’t. Have you thought about switching up the vocals on the next Strokes album?  

Yeah, for sure! It’s just, the politics of the band and everyone who has gotten so comfortable with Julian. But I’ve talked to Julian about me getting to sing a song on a record. Obviously I’ve made solo records so it wouldn’t be that weird now [laughs]. But yeah, there’s a possibility for everything. If you continue through the challenges of life you can end up doing some pretty cool stuff.

Your father is an esteemed songwriter on his own right, writing hits like “Down by the River” and “It Never Rains in Southern California.”  Has he imparted advice to you as a musician? 

Mm, not really. We haven’t bonded over music yet. I guess maybe when I was young he didn’t realize how much I loved doing it, so I guess he wanted to make sure I was doing it for the right reasons. He would push me to work harder, and say there was nothing he could do to help me. I’d be like, “Yeah, it’s fine! I wasn’t asking!” [Laughs]

But yeah, we haven’t really bonded over music yet. When I fell in love with it, it was my own thing. Maybe that’s how I was even able to do it. I don’t know.

A major music mentor for you during the Strokes’ early days was JP Bowersock. He was even credited on the sleeve of Is This It as the “guru.” What’s an example of him pushing you to do something better?

JP would always say, “It’s not what you know, it’s what you do with what you know.” I think he’s always tried to instill confidence in me. Cause when I first met him, I just wanted to learn some lead guitar stuff for fun, because I didn’t see myself as a serious lead guitar player. I didn’t know it then, but his goal was to change that. In early Strokes stuff, I ended up doing a lot of lead work and that instilled a lot of confidence in me.

I remember writing the “Last Nite” solo and we were figuring out something, and JP helped write the last part of it. But he was an all-around teacher. You could talk to him about music history. I remember him showing us the Mississippi Sheiks’s “I’ve Got Blood in My Eyes For You.” He showed us a different insight. You could take what you wanted and leave the rest behind.

Going back to your solo work, the AHJ EP is your first release in five years. Is there a full-length LP coming out in the near future?

I’d like to not make LPs anymore. They get a little old-fashioned. So I’m going to try to release enough songs to add up to the length of an album in a year. That’s the way press and television works; you don’t get too much attention. It’s a little bit of a bummer.

These days, do you prefer to release solo records more than working with the Strokes?

I like both. I mean, it’s not 100% my decision when I’m in the band. So when we’re deciding stuff and what I contribute doesn’t go into the Strokes, it goes to my solo work. I figure stuff out from there, and then go back to the band stuff. It’s an amazing thing to have. If I have an audience, I’d like to make music for my whole life. But it’s not really up to me. 

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Ahoy, Greta Gerwig! Talking to the Star of Frances Ha

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There are filmmakers who use the story of growing up as a business scheme, a way to capitalize on the industry’s market for coming-of-age parables. Then there’s Greta Gerwig, who is guided more by truisms and theatrics than Hollywood hustle. The tall, dirty blonde-haired actress is the title character and co-writer of Frances Ha, a low-budget masterwork about life’s bittersweet symphony, the beauty and pain endured during one’s late 20s.

Gerwig’s Frances is a dancer in both a literal and figurative sense, swiftly shirking relationship responsibilities, leaping towards an uncharted career course, yet landing on her feet, preserving a quiet grace. As Frances Ha chronicles the burdensome bloom from youth to adulthood, it remains an uplifting story. Its narrative is guided by street smarts instead of fraternal humor, harkening closer to the elusive American Dream than American Pie.

Less than an hour after Gerwig’s film was nominated for two Spirit Awards, the vivacious actress talked about her upcoming film with her boyfriend and mumblecore-film maven Noah Baumbach, collaborating on a live performance with Spike Jonze and the Arcade Fire for the YouTube Music Video Awards, and how she came up with Frances Ha’s meme-worthy pick-up line, “Ahoy, sexy!”

You woke up to some incredible news today: Frances Ha was just nominated for Spirit Awards for best feature and best editing. How does that make you feel?

I’m so excited and happy! I’m really happy for Jen, our editor, because I think she’s so awesome and should be recognized. But to be nominated for best feature is ideal—we always want that one because everyone shares it. It’s not just like getting nominated for yourself. Everyone got recognized, which is really great.

The film is about a 28-year-old woman who wants to become a dancer. Was that your idea, and if so, what made you want to write the script?

Yes. I have never been a professional dancer. In fact, I have never been close to being a professional dancer. But I’ve known a lot because my college had a very good modern dance program. I spent time trying to keep up with them, but also appreciating how talented they were.

I think dancing is beautiful and I love seeing dancing on film. I also think there is something inherently sad, how the dancer’s life parallels female friendship that was changing. The female friendship of the early 20s gets very hard to sustain. It seemed like a good narrative for the movie.  

Critics and fans have labeled Frances Ha as a coming-of-age film. Would you say that’s accurate? 

I think it’s an incredibly late coming-of-age film. [laughs] I think a lot of films that deal with people accepting their lives and moving on, from what they thought their life was going to be to actually have the life they have, are all coming-of-age films in some way. So it falls in that tradition.

I mean it’s clearly not a film about a teenager. [laughs] I think that’s why it was so necessary that Frances let go of certain things.

A key theme of Frances Ha is growing out of old lovers and friendships in your late 20s. Have the struggles of Frances ever mirrored your own life?

Yeah, I mean Frances is a totally fictional person. All of her facts are made up and not part of me. I certainly went through the experience of having to let go of a certain type of intensity in a friendship. It was difficult and heartbreaking and I didn’t think there were a lot of examples in the film that showed what that was like.

I had a different experience in my 20s than Frances. I was a lot luckier and had more success in a typical way. I very much understand all of her feelings, even though hers are a lot more exaggerated than mine. They come from a place of really knowing it.   

Did coming-of-age books or films, like Catcher in the Rye or Almost Famous, inspire you when writing the film? 

I loved Catcher in the Rye, but I have to say I was never a Catcher in the Rye fanatic that some people are when they’re teenagers. I actually didn’t feel when I read it, “Oh yes, I am Holden!” I immediately felt like I didn’t see the world quite so bleakly. I was more of a schmaltzy person than that. 

What are some of your favorite coming-of-age movies?

There’s this Australian film called Flirting that I really love with a very young Nicole Kidman in it. I love all the John Hughes movies. I love movies with people who are reconciling themselves as individuals and with a group. I think teenagers work well in these films because they have such a strong pull to be accepted by a group, but they’re alone in it. Raising Victor Vargas is terrific; there are so many coming-of-age movies that are great. I think it’s pretty sad to not be able to let go of things at 27, but it’s actually pretty common. 

I’d be doing an injustice to my readers if I didn’t ask you for the origin of one of the most indelible lines in Frances Ha, “Ahoy, sexy!”

I came up with that line. It was made up, honestly! It was a totally made up line. I did once have a text that had the word “ahoy.” That word sounds hilarious. But I’ve never gotten “Ahoy, sexy.” It’s one of those lines that had a seed of inspiration from life, but it’s just a goofy thing I wrote.   

As part of this year’s YouTube Music Awards, Spike Jonze directed a real-time video for Arcade Fire's "Afterlife," and you starred in it. How did that come about?

That was the most surprising and joyful thing I’ve ever done. I loved doing it. Spike Jonze had seen Frances Ha and liked it, and asked if I was interested in doing it. Jenny Butler, who’s married to the Arcade Fire’s Will Butler, choreographed it. But a lot of the dance was improvised. Spike would videotape it and watch it back, noticing what moves he liked and didn’t like. That was what was shaped into the dance. We worked with movement that was native to me, and we made it so that it could be shaped and taught to children.  

What is your career plan for 2014?

Noah and I wrote a script together, which we shot and are finishing right now. I am in a film called Eden with the French film director Mia Hansen-Løve, who is one of my favorite directors and I am incredibly honored. I’m going to be in Barry Levinson’s movie The Humbling, which stars Al Pacino and is based on a Philip Roth novel.  

You made your first talk show appearance, on Jimmy Kimmel Live, in 2010. Mainstream success remained elusive for you up to that point, and you told Kimmel, "I was really depressed. I was 25 and thinking, 'this is supposed to be the best time and I'm miserable.’” Are you happier now?

I am happier now. I guess I feel more comfortable with who I am, and I guess that’s something you get as you get older. I don’t think that I’m perfect or that I’ve reached the end of what I’m trying to get to. I spent some of my 20s wishing I were different than I was, whether it was something superficial or something deeper. I stopped wishing that I were different.

Perhaps that’s a small victory, but it’s pretty essential. For me, it’s also got in the way of moving forward and making films and making projects. A degree of self-acceptance has not made me complacent—it has allowed me to work harder.

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This article originally appeared on The Huffington Post

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