My interview with J.J. Abrams in ‘Day & Night’ in the Irish Independent
It’s JJ Abrams’ world and the rest of us just live in it. If that wasn’t apparent before, then Day & Night is being fully brought up to (warp) speed on that reality by sitting with the writer-director-producer superstar at lunchtime in a swanky hotel lobby in central London.
The man seems to know everyone. At several points, he nods and waves at people walking past. Twice, people come over to our table to say hello. Granted, one of those people is Katie, his wife of 16 years and the mother of his three children – not to mention the source of his connection to Ireland.
Yes, that’s me geekgasming out with J.J. Abrams, director of Star Trek Into Darkness and the upcoming Star Wars Episode VII.
My latest Upfront column for ‘Day & Night’ in the Irish Independent
I love a good café, so I do (“far from them you were raised”, I can hear Mother Cashin chirruping from her armchair in Kilkenny).
But the simple café of yore that I’ve always found so appealing isn’t enough for this crazy modern world of ours. Cafes are now diversifying and specialising in order to cater for just about every taste, whim and desire.
In Japan – where else? – the first “cuddle café” opened at the end of last year – a place where male patrons can go for a nap while being snuggled by a female staff member.
Then, last month, came the news that London is to get its first “cat café”, where feline lovers can come to have a coffee while stroking a moggy to their heart’s content.
In that vein, ‘Upfront’ would like to make a few suggestions – complete with business names — to inspire any budding entrepreneurs looking to cash in on all of this innovation in café culture.
We might as well start with the opposites of the two examples mentioned above:
*Café Oh Hate. This would be the place to go for us self-loathing types who require a dose of criticism and abuse when that persistent internal voice that tells you that you’re not good enough and will never be loved just doesn’t cut it.
Trained staff will quickly analyse your character and/or appearance, and proceed to highlight all your flaws and failings while you sip despondently on your cappuccino, or, the house specialty, a ‘mockiato’.
*Purranoid Blendroid: Cats. Ugh. I hate them. They’re vile creatures. Didn’t you see that startling documentary, Batman Returns? Remember how that lovely young secretary was doing just fine, thank you very much, until she took a fall out of a window and was then transformed into a malevolent sociopath after being infected/possessed by a bunch of rotten cats nibbling on her fingers? A cautionary tale, if ever there was one.
Anyway, this place would be the equivalent of those 19th century parlours where enlightened types produced pamphlets detailing plots to overthrow the bourgeoisie, except here we’d be planning how to fight back against the feline tyrants that are taking over the world. And by ‘the world’, I mean, ‘the internet’.
*Freshly Brood: I think there’s a gap in the market for a café where people who like babies, but don’t necessarily want one of their own, could come, make silly faces at a toddler, find ways to make them chortle, and/or breathe in that great baby smell off their little heads. It goes without saying that this one would require quite a strict and thorough door policy.
*Grinder: Taking direct inspiration from the “social networking” app of the same name, this would be a coffeehouse for gay/closeted men to go to hide their faces, flash pictures of their private parts, diss effeminate homosexuals, and boast about their gym attendance.
*Embarrassita: A café to frequent with those friends/family members/lovers you’re too mortified to bring anywhere else owing to their appearances, table manners, personal hygiene and/or their volume of speaking voice.
*Ex-Presso: A break-up café where different specially-named drinks can help to communicate the awkward news to a paramour that you’re no longer going to be making the beast with two backs. Eg: “I’ll have a low-fat ‘It’s Not Brew, It’s Me’, and she’ll have a double ‘Soy You Latte-r’.”
*Chai A Little Tenderness: For those mornings when you wake up with a raging hangover and you can’t decide just what you crave to feed and/or vanquish ‘the fear’. This café will offer a bespoke service to the “socially jet-lagged”, satisfying any and all food and drink requirements all while you curl up on a sofa, watching repeats of The Golden Girls. Sample order: “I’ll have a Solpadeine and Chipsticks omelette, a Berocca-cino, Malteser chips and an intravenous drip of Coke and Club Orange. Oh, and a HB Super Split. Thanks.”
Another recent Upfront column from the Irish Independent
Few things in life petrify me more than having to cook for others.
I can only marvel at those people who proclaim their love of cooking in general, and who emphasise how relaxing and therapeutic they find it.
Well, I marvel for a moment — before I start estimating just how much Valium they’ve popped before taking to the kitchen.
Because, to my mind, there are few things more stressful than cooking — perhaps being an IED-disposal expert, or show-runner on the TV series Smash come close, but only just.
The funny thing is that I love food. Eating is probably my only hobby. I’m a horse of a man for the food – so much so that my cadaver will make for a great beefburger some day.
But when I say I love eating, I mostly mean eating out (oh really, grow up you immature lot at the back).
There’s no problem when it comes to my making breakfasts and lunches. I rock a mean bowl of porridge of a morning, and I’m uncharacteristically arrogant about my recipe for scrambled eggs and toast or tomato soup.
It’s dinner that stumps me. The nature of my job means I spend most evenings during the week relying mostly on a staff canteen and its subsidised fare of gastronomic mystery (is it chicken? Is it fish? Ground-up carpet? Who knows!)
I might have two evenings off a week, and on those days I’ll either have plans made to dine out with friends or I’ll nip in for a bite somewhere in the course of my gallivanting.
I do cook myself sometimes – but only by myself, for myself. I’ve mastered a few basics — ah, sweet, precious, no-hassle noodles — and I know what I like and consider edible.
But I get a knot in my stomach at the thoughts of anybody else eating what I’ve whipped up.
It’s hard to explain why that is — my best guess is that it’s just due to lack of confidence, coupled with an infuriatingly Catholic sense of guilt that if others in my company don’t enjoy what I’m offering – in this case, food — then lives are ruined, the sky will fall in, and I’ll have earned (yet another) stamp on my loyalty card for one free express trip to Hell.
But, some of you might protest, this is the age of Jamie Oliver and his 30-nanosecond meals. There’s no excuse!
Ah, I’d counter-argue, I’d feel more pressure to make a decent meal because of that Oliver culture, not despite it.
I mean, if you’re at all sensitive about cooking ability, and you fail to master a seemingly simple guide to a quick two/three course meal, it might be enough for you to retire that food processor for good.
Also, I’d have to do a few dry-runs of any recipe before I’d ‘officially’ make it for others, which would automatically induce paralysing anxiety as it would seem too much like work.
I’ve got away with my dinner-dodging tactics for the best part of a decade, but I’m 31 now, which is apparently the age when the dinner-party invite becomes a regular feature of one’s social life.
I’ve noticed too that “grown-ups” like to cook for another person on a date — as if there wasn’t enough to be anxious about there already.
Painfully aware that my failure to reciprocate in the cooking-for-others field might be considered rude, I know the time is coming when I’ll have to step up.
It’s either that, or I simply decline all invitations to eat food prepared for me, and thereby exclude myself from any obligation to return the favour.
Frankly, that option doesn’t sound sustainable, so I think I might just have to get over my fear. If I end up poisoning my guests with my fare, it will be a lesson learned for all of us.
So, with that reassuring thought in mind, anyone for dinner?
My recent Upfront column from ‘Day & Night’ in the Irish Independent
Do you want to know my new guiding mantra in life? It’s ‘What Would George Takei Do?’
You’ll know Takei as Sulu from the original Star Trek. Today, he’s a totes hilarz 75-year-old homosexualist who consistently cracks me up with his Twitter feed (@GeorgeTakei).
Anyhoo, the other day I was procrastinating…erm, I mean, researching…online when I came across a picture that Takei had just posted.
It featured several mobile phones, piled up one on top of the other, with faces down. A caption underneath read: “The first person to check their phone during a meal pays the bill. Awesome idea.”
Awesome, indeed. For something needs to be done to claim back some degree of basic social etiquette.
Be it at the dinner table, in the pub, on a date or even while in/on the toilet (seriously), the phone is now an ubiquitous, unavoidable – though hardly vital – part of just about every common, daily experience.
We’re all divils for it. Hell, one photograph from a reception following last month’s US presidential Inauguration showing all four members of the Obama family fiddling with their phones, ignoring everything and everyone around them.
If even the scale and pageantry of an Inauguration can’t compete with the lure of the smartphone, what hope is there for us mere proles trying to snatch a few disconnected minutes in order to connect properly with one another?
How many times have you sent – or received – a text/email along the lines of, ‘It’s been too long/badly overdue a catch-up/can’t wait to fill you in on all the goss’, only for the planned encounter to be hijacked by technology?
Why bother meeting in person at all? Why not just arrange a Skype conversation where you can check email, update Facebook, LOL at your Twitter feed, and trawl Instagram at the same time?
That’d be considered rude though, right? So what makes it less rude when we do most/all of those things when face-to-face in others’ company?
A poll last year found a majority of us would consider losing a smartphone more stressful than losing a wallet, keys or luggage, a sign that we’ve clearly given over too much power to technology.
Anymore, it seems like we have such an emotional attachment to these devices that I’ve actually heard people say that being without their phones is like “missing a limb”.
Ye gods. Remember when you used to be happy enough just to pass some time playing ‘Snake’ on your prehistoric Nokia 3310 but cutting yourself off so that you wouldn’t “wear down the battery”? Such innocent times.
There seems like nothing else for it but for the much-maligned “Nanny State” to intervene to save us from ourselves.
In New York, some restaurants have slapped a ban on patrons taking photographs of their food to upload to social media — which, I think you’d have to agree, has been one of the more irksome developments of recent times.
Maybe we need public establishments to go further than that to wean us off our tech-dependency – blocking mobile signals, for instance? Withholding food/drink until you turn in your phone?
Should we call on the government to bring in a law akin to the smoking ban in order to make phone addiction in public as big a social no-no as lighting up indoors?
We better figure something out, because the tech firms are determined to keep coming up with ways to ensure that we weak, faulty, magpie-attention-span humanoids conduct all social interactions with — at best — just one ear free for a conversation.
Just last week, one firm revealed plans to release an iWatch — meaning we will soon be able to carry about these weapons of mass distraction on our wrists.
Come on, people, we’re better than this. Surely this age of massive technological innovation deserves a less dysfunctional Zeitgeist-defining summary than its current one, as articulated by one modern philosopher: “Together, truly, is the new alone”?
My recent interview with Brandon Cronenberg for Antiviral in Day & Night in the Irish Independent.
There are not many upsides to being struck down with the flu — except perhaps for a day off work that you’ll then likely spend miserably “talking to God on the big white telephone” — but Canadian filmmaker Brandon Cronenberg credits the winter bug with inspiring his directorial debut, Antiviral.
The film is a body-horror satire about an agency that sells injections of live viruses harvested from sick celebrities to those fans who wish to fulfil an obsessive desire for real intimacy with their idols.
The plot focuses on one agency employee (played by rising star Caleb Landry Jones), who infects himself with an unusual virus from a young superstar. All manner of unpleasantness ensues.
So you can tell that the 32-year-old Cronenberg had disease on the brain when he first conjured the plot.
“It was 2004, and I’d just started film school when I had this flu and these weird fever dreams where I was half awake,” he recalls during a meeting in his publicist’s office in London.
“I was obsessing over the physicality of illness, and how I had something physically in my body and in myself that had come from someone else’s body. That’s a weirdly intimate thing.
“I was trying to think afterwards of a character who would see disease as something intimate, and I thought a celebrity-obsessefan might want Angelina Jolie’s cold as a way of feeling physically connected to her. From there it developed into what I thought was an interesting metaphor for discussing that culture.”
Cronenberg’s film very much speaks to our celebrity-saturated times. He doesn’t see Antiviral as being predictive. Rather, he views it as “an alternate present”.
After all, this is an era where eBay has to have a strict policy outlawing the sale of bodily fluids — celebrity and otherwise — on its site, but where it’s still possible to purchase William Shatner’s gallstones or a used tissue or retainer once owned by Britney Spears.
“One of the questions I get asked a lot is, ‘Is celebrity culture raging out of control, and is this a disease?’,” he says. “And yes, the metaphor in the film goes that if we participate in that culture we are making ourselves diseased. I think celebrity obsession beyond a certain point, where it has a mania to it, represents a loss of perspective that is unhealthy.
“But I don’t think celebrity culture is unique to us. We’re consuming media at such a rapid pace that people like Paris Hilton are becoming famous very quickly for no reason, but it really connects to a broader, older human impulse.
“Look at sainthood, for instance. People were elevated almost to the status of gods. The iconography of it is repeated everywhere and it’s the same physical fetishism with the relics. Churches claim to have the finger-bones of a particular saint, and there’s a history of a black market industry trading those relics. So it’s not just now. It does connect to something that we tend to do as a species.”
For the record, Cronenberg isn’t totally down on celebrity. Though he stresses he was never a huge fanboy, he admits to being a Pink Floyd fan as a teenager and being “invested in their personal story beyond the music”.
“I don’t think it’s unhealthy to respect someone for doing something,” he continues. “If someone is a great novelist, it’s not unhealthy to know who they are and to recognise them. It’s the same for great filmmakers and musicians.
“But when you’re crying just because a celebrity looks at you or you’re going through their trash, then you’ve lost perspective.”
Of course, the crazier elements of fan worship would tell Brandon that he has precious celebrity blood running through his veins.
That’s because he’s the son of director David Cronenberg, the man behind such classics as Scanners, Videodrome, and The Fly, as well as his most recent works A History Of Violence, Eastern Promises and Cosmopolis.
As a young director starting out, does Brandon see his father’s name and reputation as a shadow that he has to escape? Does he feel he has to work harder to prove himself?
“I don’t really think about it,” he replies. “I knew getting into film that people would compare me to my father. They’ve compared me to my father before I even got into film. I used to take martial arts, and one instructor started calling me ‘David’ in the middle of an exercise once.
“So it’s something that’s always been part of my life. That’s just a thing if you have a famous parent – your identity becomes entangled with their career and public persona in a weird way.
“In terms of filmmaking I just decided to do whatever was interesting to me and not really worry about that.”
He pauses before continuing: “I imagine my film is much more visible because of my last name, and that people were more immediately interested in what I was doing. In the film industry that’s beneficial because it’s hard to get noticed.
“But on the other hand, to those people who are interested in me because of my last name, everything I do is framed in the context of my father’s career. So it does affect the way people see my work and respond to it.” He shrugs. “Double-edged sword, I guess.”
Cronenberg clearly isn’t too weighed down by the association: Antiviral trades in a similar kind of body horror aesthetic pioneered by his dad.
But maybe Brandon — who, growing up, says he wasn’t a cinephile and thought he’d end up a writer, painter or musician — would have gravitated towards that genre or style regardless.
“He’s my father – I share his genes, I grew up around him – and as a filmmaker I don’t think I was that influenced by him because I don’t have any distance from his films,” he says. “I just don’t have the perspective to see them the way people usually do.
“As a father he had a huge influence on me and we have a good relationship so I didn’t “reject” him the way sons sometimes do.
“I think for whatever reason this film represents my interests as a filmmaker. People have made comparisons – some are legitimate, some are very overstated. There’s a mix. That’s fine – there was no escaping that. But I didn’t set out to make a body horror film just to be like him.”
My interviews for movies.ie with John Hawkes and Oscar nominee Helen Hunt for the movie The Sessions.
My interview with Jessica Chastain in ‘Day & Night’ in the Irish Independent
‘Day & Night’ is busy listening to Jessica Chastain’s voicemail.
Calm down: before you rat us out to Lord Leveson, know that we’re doing so with the actress’ permission.
‘Hey Jessica, it’s Kathryn Bigelow calling,’ the message says, playing on loudspeaker. ‘I hope this is the right number. Anyway, I’m calling to talk with you for a minute, if you have a second. My cell number is…’
“Oh wait, LALALALALALA!” Chastain interrupts, laughing, knocking off the message.
“That was the very first time Kathryn ever called me. I was filming [upcoming horror movie] Mama in Toronto at the time. Isn’t that incredible? I love that she was like, ‘I hope this is the right number’. I have the date saved on it: November 21, 2011.”
The project that said voicemail was concerning was Zero Dark Thirty, which opens in cinemas here today.
Directed by Bigelow — the double Oscar winning director and producer of The Hurt Locker — it’s a brilliantly executed (in every sense of the word), knuckle-knawingly intense fact-based thriller about the 10-year manhunt for Osama bin Laden, as seen through the eyes of a determined, true life CIA agent named Maya, played by Chastain.
The 35-year-old Californian native — whom some are calling ‘the new Cate Blanchett’ — has already won a Golden Globe award for the role, and she is currently the frontrunner for next month’s Best Actress Oscar.
It’s a difficult part, seeing as we’re purposively given very little background information on Maya. So how did Chastain go about embodying her for real?
“I learn what I can from the page,” she explains. “I always start with every character I play by making two lists: what does my character say about herself, and what do other people say about her? And in that, shockingly, it tells you everything you need to know.
“For example, Washington says Maya is a killer, that she’s on a crusade, and that she’s out of her mind. And Maya herself says, ‘A lot of my friends have died trying to do this. I believe I was chosen to finish the job’.”
She might be playing a ferocious machine in the movie, but in reality, Chastain is so petite and youthful that she could still convincingly play a high school girl (talk about versatility!)
Decked out in a grey Alexander McQueen dress and a black Ali Ro jacket, her legs tucked beneath her (a pair of YSL black heels are kicked to the side), Chastain is almost lost on the hotel’s giant sofa. In fact, with her alabaster skin and light red hair, she’s almost camouflaged amidst the room’s soft tones.
When we met last Monday evening in London, President Obama’s second Inauguration was playing on silent on a TV screen outside the room.
That event provides an apposite background to our interview, because politics has come to cast a very long shadow over Zero Dark Thirty, making it, arguably, the most controversial American film of the decade.
That’s because the opening act of Zero Dark Thirty features scenes of torture, where prisoners in CIA “black sites” are put through “enhanced interrogation techniques” (like water-boarding and sexual humiliation).
The inference is that information gleaned from such methods played a central role in bin Laden’s eventual capture.
But that view can’t be written off as mere Hollywood poetic licence, as a newspaper report last year alleged that Bigelow and writer Mark Boal had gotten “top-level access to the most classified mission in history” from CIA top brass.
Now, the US Senate Intelligence Committee is investigating not only the extent to which the agency co-operated with the filmmakers, but also the possibility that they might have misled Bigelow/Boal about the facts on torture too.
It’s caused an almighty stink at both ends of the US political spectrum; as a taster, feminist writer Naomi Wolf has compared Bigelow to the notorious Nazi propagandist filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl.
And though Zero Dark Thirty is nominated for five Oscars — including Best Picture — Bigelow was snubbed in the Best Director category. The row isn’t dying down.
“I do feel that [the anger] is misdirected,” says Chastain. “Kathryn made a beautiful statement to the ‘Los Angeles Times’ last week in which she said the criticism should be focused on the Government officials who implemented the policies.
“We know this [torture] happened. It was in the media. We all saw the pictures of the detainees wearing dog collars. And there was a big uproar, but then what happened is that it was swept under the rug and we forgot it happened.
“If you’re covering 10 years in the CIA and you don’t show any of that, you’re whitewashing history. It’s just like when I was growing up in my public school in California, the history books never talked about the slaughter of Native Americans.”
She continues: “I’m not interested in whitewashing history. I want to know everything. I want to know the things that my country did that were ugly. And how do we learn from our mistakes if we don’t acknowledge them?
“Picasso’s Guernica doesn’t mean he supports the horror of war. But he’s bringing it to the forefront of our minds. And if a piece of art can do that, then I believe it’s done its job.”
Chastain says, with presumably some understatement, that the filming of those grueling torture scenes was “intense”.
“I’m a hippie from northern California. My mom is a vegan chef. I’m a pacifist,” she exclaims. “So the idea of playing a character like this is a really extreme change for me. But as an actress it’s my job to play characters that are not the same as me.
“I’m more interested in the idea of walking in someone else’s shoes, disappearing into someone else’s life.”
The actress has been doing that a lot over the past 18 months. In that time frame, she has appeared in no less than eight movies, including The Debt, Take Shelter, The Tree of Life and The Help, for which she was Oscar nominated last year.
Today — this very week — Chastain is the lead in the two movies occupying the No 1 and No 2 slots at the US box office (Mama is on top, followed by Zero).
“It has just been mind-blowing,” she says. “Two years ago I was living in a rent-controlled apartment, worrying about paying my rent. When I was doing The Tree of Life I was living off of credit cards.
“Now I’m starting to go, ‘Okay Jessica, just breathe, just relax. You’ve found a place in this business. I mean, you’re not going to get this kind of attention for that much longer, but you’ve found a place’.”
With Chastain’s increased profile has come more attention from the press. Now, the paparazzi lurk outside the New York theatre where she’s currently starring in a Broadway production of The Heiress, and there are also rumours that she’s stepping out with British actor Tom Hiddleston.
“I’ve noticed publications have made up stories of me dating every co-star I’ve ever had,” she laughs. “It’s funny because I’ve gone out in the press many times to say, ‘I have one rule of dating: I don’t date actors’. For some reason, even after I said that, they say I’m dating this person and this person. It’s like, ‘Wow, I get around town!’”
Finally, is she nervous/excited about the Oscars? Has she been practising her speech with a shampoo bottle for decades?
“Oh, no, no. I swear to God. I’m way too superstitious,” she replies. “I really feel I’m at the beginning of my career. Even though I’ve been working a long time to get here, I feel like this has been the beginning of this sweet spot.
“I want to be in the marathon. I’m a long distance runner; I’m not a sprinter. For me, it’s a big deal to be where I am right now compared to where I was. I’m not allowing myself to forget that.”
*Zero Dark Thirty is released today.
Timed to coincide with the release of Zero Dark Thirty, the IFI in Dublin will be screening two similarly themed documentaries over the coming weeks.
This is Where We Take Our Stand (screening today until Jan 27th) follows three servicemen and women from Afghanistan and Iraq up to and during the second Winter Soldier conference in Washington in 2008, at which 250 testified to their experience of assaults on and attitudes to civilians in those conflicts.
Meanwhile, in early February, there will be three screenings of Winter Soldier, a provocative record of a conference in 1972 that presented the statements of 135 Vietnam War vets about the atrocities they had witnessed and/or had taken part in. See www.ifi.ie.