Jay Baruchel Interview

It’s been a very successful franchise and more big things are expected from the third instalment, How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World.  I recently had the chance to speak with star Jay Baruchel about the film and the series as a whole…

Matt:  I’m guessing with an animated film you’re spending all your time in a recording studio.  Do you get to meet or interact with any of the other cast members at all?

Jay:  I used to but that’s kind of changed now.  We’ve been doing these movies for a while and we know the lay of the land but more than anything, our cast is exceedingly internationally based.  I’m in Toronto but others are in Los Angeles, New York, London and Sydney.  It’s hard to get everyone in the same place so it’s usually just me at a microphone and sometimes I’ll be with the director on Skype.

Matt:  So how does your relationship work with director Dean Deblois?  What sort of instruction does he provide?

Jay:  Yeah, often he’s in California when I’m in Canada.  I would say the relationship is as strong as it’s ever been.  He and I have a type of shorthand that we’ve developed over a decade of working together.  We take pride and ownership in this character and he’s always afforded me a great deal of trust and respect.  I’ve treated him the same way and as a result, there’s a lot less that has to be said.  We don’t need to be in the same room to “rock and roll” together because we’ve been through it so many times.

Matt:  Is it tough getting into the emotion of the role when do you have other actors to work alongside as you would in a live-action movie?

Jay:  Obviously, if I was in period piece Viking clothing with stuff burning around me then it’d inevitably help your performance.  I don’t mean to sound coy but the gig is the same whether you’re in front of a camera or a microphone or whether you’re being funny or serious.  The job is always to be compelling and truthful.  It sounds like a cliché but you just need to keep it simple and remember what you’re there for.

Matt:  How long does it take to record all your speaking lines?

Jay:  It translates to 1.5 to 2 hours for 3 to 5 times a year over the course of 3 years.  That’s me recording a How to Train Your Dragon movie.

Matt:  Wow!  So why is it spread across such a long period?  Is it to tie into the work of the animation team?

Jay:  Yeah.  These films are significant endeavours and there are armies of artists and animators involved.  It takes time to be the movie that sets the gold standard which the How to Train Your Dragon movies have consistently been.  I admit that I have no background in animation as a technician but I know that it’s a piecemeal, back-and-forth process that isn’t fully done until the film comes out.

They’ll record me saying stuff and they’ll realise after doing the animation that they need more lines and so I go back and give them more.  It’s not like a movie you shoot and put it together in the editing room.  This is a thing that is constantly evolving and is fluid.

Matt:  Was it like seeing the finished product for the first time?  Is it anything like what you imagine?

Jay:  It’s hard to imagine how special it ends up being.  Even having done two of these and also eight seasons of the TV shows, it’s still amazing to see it for the first time.  It’s such a stark transition from sitting in a soundproof booth with script pages at my feet that smells like McDonalds.  That compared with the majesty, awe, wonder and beauty of these movies is a million miles away from how it starts.

It’s like an assembly line in that I work on my piece of the car.  I take care of my lines and my guy and that’s it.  I assume that if you only handle the spark plugs on a Ferrari assembly line and then you see a Ferrari come out of the assembly line, that must look pretty cool.

Matt:  You’ve been involved with this franchise for a while now and it’s been a tremendous success in terms of box-office and critical acclaim.  What do you think the secret has been?  Why are audiences so engrossed by these characters?

Jay:  The answer is going to sound hokey but it comes down to sincerity.  The movies start from a place of truth.  A cursory glance of today’s news headlines may imply otherwise but people, by and large, have pretty good bullshit detectors.  People don’t suffer nonsense and I think they can tell these movies have the “ring of truth” to them and that’s because there’s a heart and an earnestness that they have.

They’re also damn good stories.  You can be transported into this immersive universe with colours and you could never see here.  They’re entertaining stories with really solid characters.  It’s a funny thing because everyone knows what a good movie is supposed to be and yet they’re such a miracle.

Matt:  The original was released back in 2010.  Can you remember how you were first cast?  Do you know what it was about your voice that stood out to Dean Deblois?

Jay:  I was lucky enough to be making a film called Tropic Thunder in Hawaii.  One day on set, I got word that they wanted me to audition for this new cartoon they were trying.  On an off day, I went to a little studio on the island of Kauai and read a bunch of lines.  A few weeks later they asked me to come in to do the next session and I realised I had the job.

It’s funny that you ask about the quality of my voice.  In my first version, I was trying to age my voice down by going with a higher pitch.  I was very thankfully that version of Hiccup never saw the light of day.

Matt:  What are you working on at the moment?  What will we see from you next?

Jay:  I wrote a book called Born into It: A Fan’s Life which came out in Canada a month ago and I’ve just finishing going around the country and talking about that.  I also directed a film called Random Acts of Violence which we are currently editing in my basement.  We just finished for the day 20 minutes ago.  It stars Jesse Williams and Jordana Brewster and hopefully it’ll be out in late summer or the fall in 2019. 

Tony McNamara Interview

It’s one of my top 10 films of 2018 and so it was great to speak with Australian screenwriter Tony McNamara about his involvement with The Favourite…

Matt:  I believe the original script was written by Deborah Davis so can you tell us how you become involved in the project?

Tony:  Yorgos Lanthimos, the director, read Deborah’s script and he liked the historical story of it.  He’s a very particular director and he wanted it be different.  He was looking for a tragic kind of comedy.  He had liked a couple of things I’d written and so he rang me up and we then spent the next 7 years turning it into what he wanted it to be.

Matt:  Yorgos Lanthimos is seems to make such wonderfully messed up films.  Can you tell us about your interaction with him?  Do you guys have a similar sense of humour?

Tony:  Yeah, we’re different but we have a similar sensibility which is what he looks for in everyone he works with.  We hit it off immediately and became good friends.  I’m writing another movie for him at the moment.  He’s a director I admire and I think he’s really funny.

Matt:  I think is the first time he’s made a film where he’s not the writer and so handing that control over to you is a big step for him.

Tony:  It was.  He’s very involved and we spent a lot of time together.  At the time, he’d just moved to London and I think we wasn’t comfortable writing a script in English because usually he writes in Greek and then it’s translated.

Matt:  Without giving too much away, one of the most striking elements in the profanity and sexual references.  Not exactly something you’d expect from British royalty in the 18th century.  Is there poetic license being used here or is that actually how they dealt with each other?

Tony:  Deborah’s original script was very historical but when Yorgos and I got involved, we decided to be a bit “fast and loose” with it.  We wanted a period movie that was more fun than usual.  They did swear a lot.  In Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales there’s a lot of bad language which was the sort of language they used.  I thought to myself “we use it, they use it so let’s use it.”

Matt:  And what were you able to draw on historically in trying to make these characters as authentic as possible?  I admit that I found them so wonderfully complex.

Tony:  There wasn’t heaps about them.  We understood the basics of what happened but there was no real detail about why the story happened or what their individual desires were.  We tried to come up with the most interesting version of this story.

Matt:  The film is very careful in how it divides up its time between the three leading ladies.  How easy did you find it giving the balance to each of their particular storylines?

Tony:  It wasn’t easy.  The trick of the movie was how to create this triangle, go back and forth with their respective stories, and give them all enough weight.  That took a few years to get right.  It wasn’t like we were doing it all the time though.  Yorgos was off making movies and I was here making TV shows.

Matt:  Perhaps the thing I love most about the film is the dark humour and the way it’s delivered by these characters.  How easy was it taking this rather serious narrative about war and conflict and weaving in such wonderful comedy?

Tony:  It wasn’t that difficult because it’s how Yorgos and I think about things.  It wasn’t possile for us to make a straight, serious movie.  In our first conversations, we knew it should be funny.

Matt:  You’ve been in the industry for a while now.  This film has received such incredible critical acclaim.  Did it come as a surprised to you or was there always something about this project that felt special and different from the rest?

Tony:  It has come as a surprise.  Once you’re in the industry for a long time, you don’t know what’s going to go and what’s not going to go.  I knew we had a chance once we got Emma, Olivia and Rachel on board.  Yorgos had also become a bigger director.  He hadn’t made The Lobster when I first met him.  Even once it was made, we didn’t know if people would like it and so that too came as a relief when we found out.

Matt:  You’ve earned your first Golden Globe nomination and the ceremony will be in a couple of weeks in Los Angeles.  Booked your flights and ready to head over?

Tony:  Yes, I’m heading over for it.  Absolutely.

Matt:  And I’ve got to say, you’d be a strong chance at an Oscar nomination.  What would that mean to you?

Tony:  It’s be great so fingers are crossed.  The people who worked on this film are all great.  There’s another Australian, Fiona Crombie, who did the production design and we’ve known each other for 20 years.  The actors were also super lovely people and we spent a lot of time with them.

Matt:  As the writer, did you get a chance to speak a lot with the actors?

Tony:  Yeah, we did three weeks of rehearsal and I was then on set for a couple of weeks in case Yorgos needed me.  I then got to spend more time with them during the film festivals in Venice and London and New York.  They’re all really great.

Matt:  Are you working on anything at the moment?  Could this film open a few more doors for you?

Tony:  I guess so.  People have liked The Favourite and so of course they’re more interested in hiring me.  I’m working on Yorgos’s new film and I’m also making a show for Hulu in America with Nicholas Hoult and Elle Fanning.

As I do each year, I always like to finish up by revealing my top 10 movies of the year.  It’s a tradition I’ve had since 1996 and you can see all of my old lists here –

Honourable mentions this year go to Roma, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, Blank Panther, Sweet Country, In The Fade, Avengers: Infinity War, A Star is Born, Love Simon, RBG, The Other Side of Hope, Isle of Dogs, First Man, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Bad Times at the El Royale, Hearts Beat Loud, Hereditary and Ladies in Black.  As you can see, there were a lot of great movies in 2018.

All of that said, I’ve been able to whittle down my top 10 and here they are in reverse order…

10. McQueen (out Sep 6) is a terrific documentary that looks at the life of British fashion designer Alexander McQueen. It finds the right balance between celebrating his beautiful creations while also exploring his troubled mindset. It's made even better by Michael Nyman's film score.

9. Unsane (out Apr 25) is the latest from director Steven Soderbergh and was shot entirely using three iPhone 7 Plus phones! It's a tense thriller about a young woman who is unwillingly incarcerated in a psychiatric ward and has to battle both capitalism (they're locking up sane people for profit) and a creepy stalker who has been following her for 2 years. Clare Foy is amazing in the lead role and the way she reacts is how I’d see myself if placed in the same position.

8. C'est La Vie! (out Aug 16) is a riotous French comedy about a wedding caterer trying to keep everything on track behind the scenes at a lavish wedding organised by a needy client. The characters are all fantastically memorable and it's one laugh after the other.

7. Custody (out Sep 27) is a French drama that delves into the complexities of a relationship breakdown when children get caught in the middle. Director Xavier Legrand uses a number of techniques to create a tense, uneasy experience for the viewer. The unrelenting narrative and flawless performances make this a powerful piece of cinema.

6. The Favourite (out Dec 26) is a rich, dark comedy filled with great one-liners and unexpected twists. For an 18th century period piece centered on British royalty, there are a wonderfully surprising number of sexual references and “c-bombs”. The most riveting element is the interplay between the three lead actors - Olivia Coleman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone. A fascinating tale of power. Grade: A.

5. Can You Ever Forgive Me? (out Dec 6) is based on the true story of Lee Israel, a struggling writer who forged personal letters from deceased authors in the 1990s to help pay the rent. Melissa McCarthy and co-star Richard E. Grant deserve praise for creating rich, complex, interesting characters. Audiences will form different opinions of them but hopefully most will agree this is one of the year's best films.

4. A Quiet Place (out Apr 5) is a terrific horror-thriller that should hook audiences from the opening scene. The world has been attacked by giant grasshopper-like creatures which devour any living thing that makes a sound. Could you go the rest of your life without making a noise if your life depended on it? Lacking in dialogue, sound and music, you may feel very uncomfortable watching this!

3. Back to Burgundy (out Jul 5) is a wonderful drama from French director Cédric Klapisch. It's the tale of three siblings who inherent their father's vineyard and must decide whether to sell or carry on the family legacy. It's a nicely balanced film that takes into account multiple perspectives while also exploring the wine making process.

2. Lady Bird (out Feb 15) is about a restless high school senior from Sacramento who isn’t sure what she wants out of life. There are storylines that we've seen before in other teen flicks but what separates this from the pack is the way in delves into the relationship between mother and daughter. Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf deserve all the praise they have received.

1. Phantom Thread (out Feb 1) is the latest from writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson and dissects the power struggles between a renowned fashion designer, his sister, and his latest lover in 1950s London. The less you know going in the better. These are fascinating characters who are part of an unorthodox love story.

Have a wonderful Christmas and a happy new year!

Mortal Engines

He’s an Oscar winning visual effects artist who has made his feature film directorial debut with Mortal Engines.  While he was recently in Sydney, I had the chance to talk to Christian Rivers about his blockbuster film…

Matt:  You and Peter Jackson have known each other for a long time.  Can you remember the first time you met?

Christian:  I can remember how we first met.  I was a teenager in Wanganui in New Zealand.  I loved drawing and I wanted to work in the movies and there was only one guy I loved who was making movies in New Zealand and that was Peter Jackson.  I sent him a letter with basically every drawing I’d ever drawn.  We got in contact and then he asked me to storyboard Braindead for him.

Matt:  Wow.  So have you worked with him on most of his films since yet?

Christian:  Yep.  Every one of them.  During Lord of the Rings, we transitioned from traditional drawn storyboarding to using CG pre-vis as our storyboarding tool.

Matt:  It’s such a fascinating world where this film is set but to create it, you are obviously relying on a lot of special effects.  How do you approach that as a director?

Christian:  We knew from the outset that we wanted to evoke the character of the books and we wanted this to be character driven.  Even though it’s set in a world of giant cities that crush the landscape and feed on other cities, that’s not the story.  The story is about a character.  We started there and built out the visual effects sequences we needed to convey how this world works.  Because we don’t have any landscapes that look like the Great Hunting Grounds, we had to create everything with sets or CGI.

Matt:  This is clearly a big film with a big budget.  Is there any limit as to what you can do?  Is there stuff you wanted to do but some accountant comes out and says “yeah, nah, we can’t afford that.”

Christian:  Yeah.  There are always financial limitations.  Actually, our budget was much smaller than you’d expect for a film with this much in the way of special effects.  We had to be smart about it.  A lot of visual effects heavy films creep up to the $200 million mark and we were sitting down around half that.  There’s always a balance with how much you want to spend with how much you’re allowed to spend.

Matt:  You’ve got a young cast here and a lot of names won’t be familiar to wider audience.  What was behind that decision?  Was there any temptation to cast a big Hollywood star?

Christian:  There always is.  In modern economic times, that always gives a certain amount of security to the studio to help get people to come and see the film.  When we were casting it, we wanted to create a completely new cinematic universe.  If you create someone who is too famous or too iconic, you can break that spell a bit.  We ultimately just tried to cast the right person for the right role.  If the right person was someone who is quite famous then we would have done that but we were fortunate to find these wonderful new actors who transform into these characters.

Matt:  I think the character I was most interested in was Shrike who is played by Stephen Lang.  Can you tell me a little about your thoughts in working out how to portray him and bring him to life?

Christian:  Mortal Engines is the first book in a series of four which tells the life story of Tom and Hester.  Shrike is central to that story.  He continues on through the stories in another capacity.  He’s one of my favourite characters and we knew we wanted an amazing actor to be the heart of Shrike and give us that consolidated performance.  We knew we were going to create him with CGI but through the experience that we had on Lord of the Rings and King Kong, we know the value of having a wonderful actor driving the performance of a CGI character.

We love Stephen’s work and we thought he had a wonderful voice.  He’s terrifying in Don’t Breathe – that voice from the shadows.  We met with him and he agreed to do the role but then we had a lengthy design process.  It really came together when we put a mummified version of Stephen’s features on Shrike.

Matt:  The film is set hundreds of years in the future and there are a few unanswered questions about what happened during the Sixty Minute War.  How do you balance up exploring the past in the film versus telling the current day story?

Christian:  Just as it is in the books, we didn’t want to over-explain.  The films I loved growing up included Star Wars.  The characters are dropped into this fantasy world and the audience is given the bare minimum that you need to follow them.  For the rest, you can draw your own conclusions.  Audiences are spoon fed so much that they stop engaging with the story.  We have moments where we need to explain some details but for everything else, we want to leave the threads hanging so audiences can grab onto them and use their imagination and have a greater connection.

Matt:  We hear references to the “ancients” and “old tech” and then there’s also the dialogue and accents of the characters themselves.  How did you approach the language of the film?

Christian:  A lot of that is in the book.  Philip Reeve wrote such a wonderfully rich world.  We love the idea of referring to us as the “ancients” and then you’ve got things like the Minions which are fibreglass statues that would have been in some cinema foyer that they dug up.  It all wanted to be an echo of our past.

It’s like going to ancient Rome and wondering how the world would look thousands of years into the future.  We still have sports stadiums based on things like the Colosseum and the Circus Maximus.  We still have pillars and arches in our buildings.  People visiting today from ancient Rome would see a lot of new stuff but they’d also see things that were familiar.  We treated it that way.

Matt:  It’s a very bold, distinctive music score which fits with the action packed nature of the film.  Can you tell us about your working relationship with Tom Holkenborg and how the score was developed?

Christian:  We were very lucky to work with Tom.  He’s a busy man and he’s highly sought after but just happened to have a window that worked for us.  We got him out early on and he saw a long cut of the film and then he wrote this beautiful music that we could pick and choose from.  He was so collaborative and a dream to work with.  He wanted our feedback on what we liked and what we didn’t.  I’d love to work with him again.