When I first saw first-time feature filmmaker Leah Meyerhoff’s I Believe in Unicorns at SXSW 2014, one of the things I loved most about it was, just about every time I was afraid the plot would kick in – it didn’t. The indie drama, which debuts simultaneously this weekend in New York and on VOD platforms, is a sensitive and engrossing drama about Davina (Natalia Dyer), a naive young beauty who tries to make her dreams come true – only to find how easily dreams turn into nightmares. As I wrote in my Variety review, Davina “often seeks refuge from the universal anxieties of adolescence and the specific demands of caring for her handicapped mom (Toni Meyerhoff) by escaping to a fairy-tale world where unicorns frolic, dragons lie in wait, and a lovely princess like herself can gracefully traverse the landscape. Prince Charming is nowhere in sight, so Davina is drawn instead to Sterling (Peter Vack), a slightly older, punkish skateboarder who casually deflowers her in the back room of a music club, then treats her with stinging indifference the next time they meet… “The heartbroken girl is elated when Sterling changes his attitude yet again: He behaves tenderly, even lovingly, and invites her along for the ride when he impulsively opts to take an open-ended drive toward ‘anywhere but here.’ The longer they’re together, however, the more Davina realizes that mood swings aren’t Sterling’s only unattractive quality.” Think you know what happens next? Well, you’re probably wrong. Again, as I said in my Variety review:
“There are moments here and there — during an instance of shoplifting, for example, or an argument that dangerously escalates — when the filmmaker appears ready to impose a traditional doomed-lovers-on-the-run plot on her freeform scenario. As it turns out, however, this is not that kind of movie.”
Indeed, I Believe in Unicorns is something unique and enchanting – and, as befits a movie that includes elements of fantasy and fairy tales, more than a little magical. At the 2014 Nashville Film Festival, I had the privilege of hosting a Q&A session with Leah Meyerhoff after a screening of her debut feature. I enjoyed the opportunity to speak with her. And I suspect we’ll be hearing more from her.
Back when you were in the pre-production phase, did you have trouble explaining to people what your movie would – and wouldn’t – be about? Well, obviously, this script does not have a very traditional plot-based structure. So it did take some convincing, particularly to some of our investors and producers, to say this vision will work even though it's execution-dependent. Even though the script doesn't have these traditional plot points that you’ve seen before again and again and again. Visually, it's going to create this world and this feel. So how did you convey this? Actually, in the screenplay process, I wrote both a traditional screenplay and I also did a visual lookbook. I did a lot of photographs [to illustrate] what the feel of the film is going to be. It's going to be very visceral, and very subjective, and in this girl's head. By doing that, I was able to shut down some of those people who said, "Oh, you need to have a gun be introduced there. It’s a lovers-on-the-run story.” Those sorts of things. Which is not to put down, say, Badlands or anything like that. But this isn't that kind of movie. Yeah. It's a different film. Of course, I would imagine that, right after you finished the script and you’re feeling very proud of yourself, it hits you: “OK, now I have to find someone who’s actually capable of playing Davina.” How did you find Natalia Dyer? She’s really fantastic, isn’t she? And she’s actually from here, from Nashville. It took me a long time to find her. Our casting process was really extensive. I knew that I wanted to cast a teenager to play a teenager. Traditionally -- or often, in Hollywood -- you see a 25-year-old playing 16, that sort of thing. We did as much of a nationwide search as we could. I went to high school plays, I watched short films. I called up every casting director I knew and said, "Who are the best teenagers out there?" The casting directors from True Grit, the Coen Brothers’ film, actually recommended Natalia. They said, "There's a girl in Nashville that you should be aware of." We met via Skype originally. We Skyped together, and then she ended up flying out to LA. We had an audition. And I just fell in love with her. She just brings so much of herself to the character and to the performance, and was so brave, and so vulnerable. She’s so intelligent as an actress that it made my job easy while working on the set with her. The male actor, Peter Vack, who plays Sterling -- I found him more traditionally. My agent connected me to his agent. He came in for an audition. And I knew that he would play well with her. They just had this fantastic chemistry. What led you to cast your own mother as Davina’s mom? That's kind of an autobiographical thread in the film. While I was writing the script, I just kind of naturally drew upon memories from my own childhood. I had an unusual childhood in that my mom has MS. And she has been in a wheelchair since I was born. I grew up taking care of her, was the caretaker in the family -- and never really had a childhood of my own, so to speak. In collaboration with Natalia, we kind of fleshed out what happens when you have a girl, a teenager, who has grown up quickly and never really had a childhood. She's kind of clinging to this lost childhood and these unicorns. These kinds of very girly, young childhood objects. Yet, at the same time, she’s wanting to escape from that and wanting to become an adult. She’s often very selfish and really very much in her own world -- as sometimes happens when you're a teenager. Just how autobiographical is I Believe in Unicorns? I would say maybe 50 percent autobiographical. I think it comes from a personal place. Not just making the film, but wanting to be a filmmaker in the first place. When I was growing up, there weren't that many films that spoke to me, that I related to. That had a female as a lead character. That’s what drove me to be a filmmaker. I think we need more films that have alternative portrayals of young women. I brought as much of my own experiences as I could to this film. [Laughs] And then a bunch of fictional as well. Like, obviously, the dragon and the unicorn. How difficult was it to do the stop-motion animation in the fantasy sequences? We did it the hard way -- we did it on film. We literally built a miniature forest in my living room. Then, built puppets. The dragon puppet is made out of the jacket that the Sterling character wears. The unicorn is made out of ribbons that Davina's character has in her outfit. We would take these puppets and shoot one frame of film. Then move them. An hour would go by in the real world. Then another frame of film. Ad nauseam. Eventually, we would have enough to put on screen. There are some very affecting – well, I guess I would call them privileged moments throughout the film. Like, the day after Davina loses her virginity to Sterling, we see her reaction when he's more or less brushing her off. I've got to tell you, that hurt. I'm a guy in my early 60s, so I have no idea how a 16-year-old girl would feel in that situation. But you made me feel her pain while watching this movie. How do you direct an actress to give us that privileged moment? Natalia and me, we just bonded. Physically, she looks quite young. But emotionally and intellectually, she’s very intelligent and mature. We communicated so clearly ahead of time about, "How are we going to navigate some of these delicate scenes?" We created a really safe space. We had a lot of closed sets. We talked through it all of the time. In terms of our working method, both actors, Natalia and Peter, came out to California in advance. We just hung out and got to know each other. We kind of blocked everything out and figured out, "How can we get through the technical aspects of filmmaking?" So that while we're actually rolling film, we can allow there to be these moments that feel really fresh and vulnerable. I think it helps that I’m a female director. Honestly, I think this is a female-driven film. That goes all the way to a lot of our crew as well. A lot of the people really connected to the film through their own coming-of-age experiences. So it was a really safe environment for the actors. Finally, I’d like to ask about the look of the film. In addition to animated sequences, you experiment with varying film stocks. Did you indicate this in your shooting script, or…? Like I mentioned, I had a traditionally formatted script. But I also had this visual lookbook. I have a visual art background as well. I'm a photographer. What ended up on the screen – I would say it was maybe 80 percent scripted. But by doing the film in stages, we were able to have what we called this “fantasy shoot,” where we did allow ourselves to do some visual experimentation. When I worked with a couple of cinematographers, we bought expired film on eBay. We're like, "We don't know what this will turn out like." We did some time-lapse photography, where we weren't sure what it was going to look like. Even the animation, like I said, we did it on film. Which no one does anymore. We wouldn't know until we got it back from the lab how it was actually going to look.
A lot of it was from the gut. Like, "I know this will work." Luckily, some of those experiments were some of my favorite moments. Maybe that 20 percent of the film was just left to magic.
The Associated Press confirmed the bad news late Monday afternoon: Omar Sharif, the Egyptian-born actor who shot to superstardom in the 1960s after scoring back-to-back-to-back hits with Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago and Funny Girl, is battling Alzheimer's disease. And here's a bittersweet irony: In what likely will be his last feature film, Laila Marrakchi's amusing dramedy Rock the Casbah, Sharif gives one of his finest performances of recent years -- as a ghost who invites us to join him at his own funeral. As I wrote in my Variety review from the 2013 Toronto Film Festival: Omar Sharif — who’s appropriately acknowledged in the credits for his “exceptional participation” — suggests a tone of magical realism during the pic’s opening minutes, as he playfully introduces himself to the audience as Moulay Hassan, a recently deceased industrialist who’s eagerly awaiting the gathering of his clan for three days of mourning at his palatial villa in Tangiers. With a beaming smile and a courtly stride, Hassan offers to serve as a combination narrator and master of ceremonies, in the manner of those who hosted public movie screenings — and repeatedly warned audiences not to take anything they see too seriously — ages ago in Morocco. Sharif makes such a winning impression as Hassan during this prologue, it’s actually disappointing that the role turns out to be little more than a sporadic cameo. Even so, Marrakchi makes clever use of the iconic actor as comic relief whenever the plot threatens to turn too soap-operatic... Sharif leaves the audience wanting more. But, then again, perhaps Marrakchi figured that if she gave him more screen time, he might fold the pic into his pocket and jauntily stroll away with it.
As fate would have it, I've had only one opportunity to speak with Sharif, during a 2003 interview graciously arranged by the folks at Sony Pictures Classics to promote Monsieur Ibrahim (for which Sharif would win a 2004 Cesar award as Best Actor). The conversation would also serve well as background material for a profile of Viggo Mortensen I later wrote for Cowboys & Indians magazine. Sharif and Mortensen had co-starred in Hidalgo, the 2004 adventure drama about an American cowboy who competes in a long-distance horse race across the Arabian Desert. During the on-location filming in Morocco, the two men developed a mutual admiration society that greatly enhanced their on-screen interplay. “Not only was I working with this wonderful actor I knew best from Lawrence of Arabia," Mortensen told me. "We were working in some of the (Moroccan locations) where they shot some of that movie 40 years ago. That was an amazing experience for me. I mean, to be working there with the man himself, Omar Sharif, was great just in terms of being a witness to film history. “But it was even better to get to know that man as a human being. He’s a very generous, extremely professional actor. But it doesn’t take more than a few minutes to tell that he’s also a genuinely intelligent, well-read person. And he’s got this aura about him that’s beyond anything a lighting designer or a cameraman can do. He just has a certain gleam in his eye, and that smile of his. He’s so in the moment, and so alive. He just radiates a love of life.” I dearly hope I captured some of that spirit in a 2004 piece I wrote about Sharif. Here it is, in a slightly expanded version.
Omar Sharif is on the phone, calling from his home in Paris -- specifically, a suite in the luxurious Hotel Royal Monceau, near the Champs-Elysées – and cheerfully confiding that, all things considered, life is good. At 72, the Egyptian-born actor and perennial bon vivant devotes most of his days to leisurely meals and animated conversations with close friends, and spends most evenings at favorite restaurants, or attending the theater or the opera. “I still gamble,” he admits with a chuckle, “but only very, very lightly, on the horses. Because I love horses, I love going to the races, and being with racing people. I love the company of jockeys and trainers.” Despite his international reputation as a bridge player, he rarely touches cards anymore. “But I still play sometimes for charity,” he admits. “I put myself up for auction, and people bid for the right to play with me.” Occasionally, filmmakers still bid for his services as well. He bluntly disparages most of the movies he has made during the past three decades as insubstantial, disappointing or, in more than a few instances, just plain godawful. During recent months, however, he has appeared in two much worthier features: Hidalgo, Joe Johnston’s period drama about an American cowboy (Viggo Mortensen) in an Arabian horse race, and Monsieur Ibrahim, in which Sharif plays the title role.
Both films are worth a visit to your friendly neighborhood video store. And while you’re there, you also can check out Omar Sharif in such career highlights as David Lean’s Dr. Zhivago (1965), William Wyler’s Funny Girl (1968), James Clavell’s The Last Valley (1971), Blake Edwards’ The Tamarind Seed (1974), Richard Lester’s Juggernaut (1974) – and, of course, Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1965). Has anyone in movie history ever had a better entrance scene than you did in Lawrence of Arabia? When you appear from out of nowhere in the middle of the desert, and ride that camel right toward the camera? It’s not only a great entrance for the character, but also for a new actor. That was my first American movie. And after that, I couldn’t put a foot wrong. I always say that any actor who would have played that part with that entrance would have succeeded. And now you’re back in the desert in Hidalgo. The big difference is, this movie looks like a Western. Actually, it’s more of an adventure film, set in the late 19th century. And it’s a true story. Viggo Mortensen plays a [former U.S. Cavalry scout] who comes to Arabia to compete in the “Ocean of Fire,” a long-distance race in the desert. I play a sheik who bets on the race. Did director Joe Johnston ever mention why he wanted you for the role? [Laughs] Well, really, if I don’t get the part of an old Arab, what am I going to get? I might as well throw myself out the window. I mean, if they don’t cast me, who are the going to cast? After all, Anthony Quinn is dead. So it doesn’t take a lot of imagination for them to choose me. You actually did appear in a Western called Mackenna’s Gold back in 1969. How did that come about? I had a son who at that time was 8 or 9, and he hated all my films because he hated love stories. He wanted me to be in a Western, so that he would enjoy it. So I put the word out in Hollywood that I wanted to do a Western. That’s why I did that picture. I played a bandit named Colorado. The movie wasn’t very good, I’m afraid. But can you imagine the cast that was in that film? I remember I had a scene by a sort of campfire or something. And there was Gregory Peck, there was Lee J. Cobb, there was Edward G. Robinson, there was Eli Wallach and Telly Savalas and Raymond Massey. All these great actors were sitting around the campfire, and I was making a speech to them. The thrill of just meeting these people – that’s a thrill that can’t be duplicated. Speaking of stars: How did you get along with Viggo Mortensen during the making of Hidalgo? It’s so important when you’re making a film to get along with your partner. And I must say, I found Viggo Mortensen to be a very quiet, very gentle person. I know he’s becoming a very big star, but he is not at all big-headed or somebody who thinks he’s everything in the world. He even gave me copies of books he’s written, with his poetry and photographs, and signed them for me. We got along so well because he was so charming and nice. He appears to be very serious about his work. Do you think actors of his generation might be a tad too serious? I think young actors today are really terrific. They’re much better than young actors were in my day. But, yes, they do take their work much too seriously. They get into trances almost. For actors of my generation, when we used to play scenes and work at films, we used to have a laugh before the shot and be relaxed about it. And when the time came to shoot, we concentrated and did the job. We didn’t have to go into a trance and sit in a corner and go into a whole mood-altering thing to do a scene. So you’re saying that, as an actor, you can be a professional while still enjoying yourself? Look, for me, acting is a vocation. From when I was 13, that’s all I’ve wanted to do, I didn’t consider anything else. I feel like the only way you can get away from it is when you don’t get any opportunities at all. I think there are people who are born and die and who are great actors, but who never get an opportunity to act. If you’re fortunate enough to have people to hire you and give you parts, you’re very lucky. And you shouldn’t throw it away. You should take advantage of that luck that you have. So it’s not like actors of my generation don’t take it seriously. It’s just that we had fun doing it. Were you always so happy with your co-workers when you started making Hollywood movies in the ’60s? My thought was that I wanted always to work with good directors. That was my ambition. Whatever genre it was, all I wanted to do was work with a good director. And I started off my American career by working with the greatest directors in the world. After Lawrence of Arabia, I worked with Fred Zinnemann on Behold a Pale Horse. It’s unfortunate that it wasn’t successful. I later worked with Anthony Asquith [on The Yellow Rolls Royce] and Anatole Litvak [The Night of the Generals] Maybe they weren’t successful films, either, but these are things that you don’t turn down. I mean, you can’t turn down co-starring with Ingrid Bergman, can you? Unfortunately, too many of these movies flopped, and that’s what killed my career at that point. Still, you continued to make movies for decades afterward. But didn’t you announce you were retiring a few years ago? I never said I wasn’t interested in making movies anymore. I said I wasn’t interested in making bad movies. That’s something completely different. You’ve been known to be quite critical of most films you’ve made. That’s true, I have a very low regard for a lot of them. When you’re a box-office draw, they can change things around, and cast you in any sort of thing. But when you’re not a draw anymore, and you’re an old guy, it’s difficult to find parts. So I decided not to do any rubbish anymore, just to keep some self-respect. It got to the point where my grandchildren were making fun of me. I only continued to get good work as long as I did because I made three consecutive films – Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago and Funny Girl – that were big box-office hits. It took a long time for me to get knocked down from there. Because I went up so many stairs, there were a lot of stairs to come down. I'd be remiss if I didn't tell you that, back when my wife and I were dating, one of our favorite movies -- one we saw time and again -- was The Tamarind Seed, the 1974 romantic thriller you made with Julie Andrews and her husband, director Blake Edwards. [Laughs] That was the last thing anywhere near-decent that I did. Still, you seem very pleased with Hidalgo. And you’ve gotten some of the best reviews of your career for Monsieur Ibrahim. You play an elderly Arab shopkeeper who becomes a surrogate father for a neglected Jewish youngster in ’60s Paris. It is a politically charged drama? It’s political only because of the actual situation. In other words, if the Arabs and the Jews were at peace now, it would be irrelevant that boy is Jewish and the old man is an Arab, a Muslim. It’s just the story of two lonely people, really. One lonely old man, and one lonely little boy. But it’s relevant because all the problems we have now between the Israelis and the Palestinians. And I wanted to make the statement that it is possible to live together and to love each other. That religion or race has nothing to do with love or friendship. But, really, I never have profound reasons for doing something. If I read something and if strikes me as something I’d like to do, I just do it. This was something beautifully written, I think. And I’m very suited for it. The character that I play has the same opinions that I have. And I thought it would be a nice little film. I thought it would be a labor of love. Does “labor of love” mean you were working on a limited budget? We did have a very small crew – maybe 10 people – and a hand-held camera. We were very intimate the whole time while we just went around shooting scenes. But it was a great experience for me, because I’d never done this sort of thing before. You had to always be in character, because you never knew when they were going to turn the camera on you. The director held the camera, and he could decide to look at you, or look at the boy, or he could pan from one to the other. You don’t know when he’s going to focus on you, so you have to be always in character, always concentrated. Which is a very good thing. It helps you in playing your role. You and your young co-star, Pierre Boulanger, develop a very affecting chemistry together. But don’t you remember what W.C. Fields warned about acting opposite children? Weren’t you worried about being upstaged? Well, this boy is very good, and he does steal all the scenes. But that’s OK, because the film’s really about the boy, it isn’t really about me. At this point in your career, what does it take to get you interested in signing on for a film? A good part. A good scene. One good scene. When they send me a script, I need to have one good scene. I don’t want to appear all during the film and have nothing to do, or saying nothing interesting. I want to have something to do that excites me, that makes me work hard. That makes me dig into myself, and get something out of myself. You seem to be enjoying life a great deal these days. Listen, I’m at an age now where if I don’t make myself happy all the time, I’d be an idiot. You have to live for the moment and be happy. And love people – I love people all the time. That’s why I want people to see Monsieur Ibrahim. I hope that people will see it and learn how to love each other just a little bit. Even if just one person learns how to love – if one Arab learns to love a Jew, if one Jew learns to love an Arab – it will be OK for me.
It's sad to think that the time will come -- hopefully not for a while, but it will come, just as sure as the turning of the earth -- when Omar Sharif remembers none of these things. That's not only tragic, it's more than a little unfair -- because many of us will continue to have so many fond memories of him. Strangely, yet perhaps appropriately, I am reminded of the orginal advertising slogan for, of all things, Heaven's Gate: "What one loves in life are the things that fade."
It's amazing what you can find under stacks of books and papers in your home office when you attempt to bring order out of chaos. This is a pocket calendar I kept during the 1989 Cannes Film Festival -- way, way back in the days before smartphones and PDAs. (Note: That's Personal Digital Assistant, not Public Displays of Affection.) I suspect my younger colleagues who currently are covering the Cannes extravaganza will find this... well, quaint. But for those who remember the bygone era when appointments were hastily scribbled and/or crossed out while on the run up and down La Croisette from screening to press conference to interview -- maybe it will jog some pleasant memories.
This was the day Spike Lee shook up the festival with the world premiere of Do the Right Thing, a movie that seemed to shock, if not terrify, some members of the U.S. press in attendance. I opted to attend all of the post-screening press conference in the Palais du Festival instead of leaving early to see a nearby market screening of Bill Forsyth's Breaking In(which I caught, and greatly enjoyed, two days later). A wise move: The press conference (which can be viewed in its entirety on the Criterion Collection DVD of Do the Right Thing) turned out to be classically confrontational in the grand Cannes tradition, with a few (white) U.S. journalists voicing concern that Lee's film would somehow incite race riots when it opened in urban areas across America a few weeks later. (BTW: It did no such thing.) But wait, there's more: Some more or less accused Lee of offering an inaccurate view of inner-city life because none of his African-American characters indulged in drugs. Not surprisingly, Lee had some choice words for his more outspoken critics. Around noon, the mood was somewhat lighter during a luncheon on the private beach of the Majestic Hotel for Wired, the ill-starred film version of Bob Woodward's controversial book about the late John Belushi. Mind you, the movie had for all practical purposes been declared dead on arrival after its world premiere screening (and subsequent press conference) the day before. And there already was talk that friends and admirers of Belushi would make sure Michael Chiklis -- who played the self-destructive comic star in the reviled biopic -- never worked again. (And we all know how successfully that turned out, right?) But I must admit: I had a very pleasant time sharing a table with Woodward and Roger Ebert, chatting about the life and legend of Belushi, and all the while thinking (not for the first or last time in my career): "And just think -- I'm getting paid for this."
A busy morning of back-to-back interviews with James Spader, who would go on to win the festival's Best Actor prize for Steven Soderbergh's sex lies and videotape (which was honored with the prestigious Palme d'Or); and Rod Steiger and Tom Conti, who were promoting something called That Summer of White Roses, a WWII drama I have never seen, or been encouraged to see. What I remember most vividly about this day is the moment when Conti told me his next project was a film version of Noel Coward's Private Lives. (Never happened, unfortunately.) Before I could tell him how promising that sounded, Conti proceeded to tell me what the play was all about -- and just who Coward was. Under normal circumstances, I might have felt insulted by his presumption of my ignorance. But I knew better than to take it personally: After all, this was Cannes, and Conti had likely spent the better part of the day talking with journalists who really didn't know, or care, who Noel Coward was.
I'm a tad surprised to see so little on my schedule for the penultimate day of Cannes '89. I mean, one lunchtime interview and a single evening screening? (Maybe I was writing, or packing, the rest of the time?) But never mind: My most cherished Cannes memory is my long chat with French film icon Phillipe Noiret. As I wrote nine years ago on the occasion of the great actor's passing: We were supposed to chat primarily about his performance as the projectionist who brings magic and memories to a small Sicilian village in Giuseppe Tornatore's Cinema Paradiso (which had received a standing ovation after its festival premiere on the previous evening.) But the conversation – lubricated, I must admit, by some splendid wine – weaved and wandered lazily among other items on his lengthy resume. I tried very, very hard not to gush, and I think I may have succeeded. But if I didn’t, Noiret was too kind to make sport of me. Indeed, as we parted, he leaned over the table, looked deep into my eyes and graciously murmured: “You asked very interesting questions.” Short, dramatic pause. “And I do not say that to all of your colleagues.” I think I saw other movies, and interviewed other people, during the remainder of the festival. But I don’t remember any of them. All I recall is people asking me why I had such a goofy, glowing grin on my face.
I have not been to the Cannes Film Festival since 1990. (That was the year David Lynch's Wild at Heart won the Palme d'Or -- and caused an even greater freak-out than Spike Lee did.) Have I ever wanted to return? I would be a liar if I said no. But each time I remember my close encounter with Philippe Noiret, I tell myself: Be grateful for the memories you already have. Memories like... being at that Do the Right Thing press conference.
"Completely and totally drawn, animated and created by Brad Paisley." No joke: The multi-platinum musician and dynamic multitasker takes full credit -- or, if you prefer, full blame -- for this hilarious music video, in which he cast himself and a slew of other country superstars (including Keith Urban, Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert and "George Freakin' Strait") as superheroes fighting for truth, justice and the Grand Ole Opry. (Looks closely, and you'll see cameo appearances by Jimmy Kimmel, Beavis and Butthead, and the Nashville skyline.) Could this Paisley's sly but none-too-subtle way of auditioning for a role in the next Avengers movie? Well, if Robert Downey Jr. ever does decide to hang up his Iron Man outfit...