Archive for July, 2008

In-depth Interview with Director Alex Monty Canawati

July 17, 2008

I recently conducted a telephone interview with filmmaker Alex Monty Canawati to talk about his most resent feature film, Return To Babylon. The audio of the interview was recorded and is presented here for you to listen to. After the interview, I took our conversation as a starting point and formed a written interview based off of what we originally discussed, we then conducted a full fledged print interview as well that differs significantly from the phone interview in many places. You can read that as well below.

Audio Stream:

http://www.archive.org/download/ReturnToBabylonInterview/RTB_full_WAV_64kb.mp3

Download:

http://www.archive.org/details/ReturnToBabylonInterview

Print interview:

Return to Babylon Interview

With Alex Monty Canawati and conducted by Jonathan Douglas Duran

JDD: My name is Jonathan Douglas Duran and this is an interview with Filmmaker Alex Monty Canawati. We will be discussing his most recent film: Return to Babylon.

First off Monty, thank you for finding some time to be interviewed, thank you for doing this.

AMC:  it’s my pleasure Jonathan.

JDD: So then, this new film of yours – Return to Babylon – is based off of a short film you had made back in 2001, called “Birth of Babylon”, correct? So then is “Return to Babylon” a remake or an entirely new project just based off of the same concept?

AMC:  the Birth of Babylon is a short “one reeler” about the true life murder mystery and scandal of silent film director William Desmond Taylor.  The case is still unsolved.  I won the grand prize award at a Los Angeles film festival and a huge party was thrown for me as a result.  It was at this extravagant affair that I met actress Maria Conchita Alonso, you urged me to do another silent film with her.  So that led to the “Lupe Velez” scandal, and eventually RETURN TO BABYLON was born, which showcases a number of other true life Hollywood silent tragedies and scandals. So in essence, RETURN TO BABYLON is inspired in style and genre from BIRTH and BIRTH is incorporated into RETURN.  We actually show a piece of the William Desmond Taylor scandal.

JDD: I’m assuming Kenneth Anger’s ‘Hollywood Babylon’ books were the main inspiration for these projects, is that right?

AMC: ‘Hollywood Babylon’ was one of the several books we used a reference.

JDD: Of course you’ve decided to portray the Arbuckle/Rappe scandal, but what smaller, more innocuous events did you choose to portray?

AMC: The tragedies of silent film stars Barbara Lamarr and Alma Rubens were portrayed, which remain some of my favorites; they would both meet their demise due to drug overdoses.

JDD: What are a few events that you’d have loved to re-tell if you’d been afforded the money and time to do so?

AMC: I wish I could have enhanced the Rudy Valentino segment; many of his films were costume dramas and that can get pricey.  His Hollywood golden years had to be cut short and we focused on his earlier years as a hustler in New York.

JDD: So this film was shot in 2004 yet still, now in 2008, has yet to be released due to financing issues, is that correct?

AMC: The film actually started shooting in 2000 and 2001; since this movie was completely independent and comprised of a series of shorts, money trickled in here and there.  It would be long periods of time before I can secure the needed financing.  My goal is to put the film in the Toronto film festival this year in September.

JDD: This reminds me of reading about Lynch’s struggle with getting his INLAND EMPIRE to the screen; perhaps you should seek French funding? Have you looked to International distribution sources?

AMC: Right now I am completely focusing on getting RETURN TO BABYLON completed; I just completed final cut and now I am focusing on starting the original music score; a brilliant composer named Peitor Angell is set to do that; he scored THE BIRTH OF BABYLON and did a wonderful job.

The idea is to get the film into one of the more prestigious film festivals; I have submitted the project to the Toronto International Film Festival.  Hopefully it will get accepted and a distributor will pick it up for some type of theatrical and DVD distribution.

JDD: I assume there are no recreations of magnificently opulent Stroheim orgies or unassuming renditions of the court lazily reading from Mary Astor’s diary… did you leave out these polar opposites – extreme bombast and extreme subtlety- for reasons of tone; to keep the film more cohesive, or was it due purely to economical and logistical constraints?

AMC: There is nothing of Mary Astor’s diary and there is one character that is inspired from the von Stroheim orgies in a salacious scene in a supper club.

JDD: Did the aesthetic of the film, i.e. it, technically speaking, emulating the time periods in which the events would have occurred, by being silent, black and white, the grainy, overall distressed quality of the image itself, etc. did that… help you as a director? What I mean is, was it perhaps easier, or even just more freeing to know that things didn’t have to come out technically perfect by today’s ‘technical’ standards? Did it provide you more leeway, more creative license during the editing process?

AMC: Yes, it certainly did provide more leeway that things didn’t need to be technically perfect; the hand crank camera would often jam and this would creative some fabulous and “natural” jump cuts.  The distressed look adds to the mystique of the film.

JDD: In my experience, each time I’ve made a film, when it’s all over and done with, I usually have something exponentially different that what I had originally set out to create. Perhaps, not even meaning literal deviation from the script, just that the image you had in your mind of what the film was going to be and what it meant, somehow changed along the way for you. It naturally evolved into something much different. Does this happen to you as a filmmaker, did it occur on this film?

AMC: This film turned out much more grandiose than I had envisioned it; since we were rushed in production, I thought the cinematography would suffer – but that was not the case.

JDD: Now, if I may say so, without sounding as if I’m fawning, you have an extraordinary cast in this film. Your cast includes such people as Tippi Hedren, Jennifer Tilly, Laura Harring, Maria Conchita Alonso, Debi Mazar and Ione Skye among many others. With these names attached how is it that proper funding is still unattained?

AMC: Funding is always elusive in this business; while they were some offers for funding, they wanted creative control – which I was not going to relinquish for obvious reasons.

JDD: Please talk a bit about a few of the actors in your film, the parts they play, how you got them for the role and what it was like to work with them.

AMC: Ione Skye plays Virginia Rappe, who would die at the hands of fatty Arbuckle;  she was very subdued and quiet in comparison with Jennifer Tilly, who played Clara bow, the “it” girl.  Tilly brought a lot of robust energy to the set.  Both were very professional and wonderful to work with.

Rolonda Watts plays Josephine baker and she was absolutely hilarious; I was quite embarrassed as she did most of her scenes topless and I must admit I had difficulty directing these scenes (I really recoil when it comes to nudity).

Debi Mazar plays Gloria Swanson and she was very professional and I was very nervous directing her as she is a perfectionist.

I had worked with Tippi Hedren once before and she called me to ask for a role; I wrote the role of “Mrs. Peabody” – a studio executive, specifically with her in mind.

To this day I am intimidated by her, despite the fact she is a very nice and lovely lady.

JDD: See, that’s a phenomenal cast in my opinion. The last time I saw Ione Skye she was playing a preacher’s wife on the brilliant and short lived television show Arrested development. Jennifer Tilly has been in so many great films; perhaps my favorite performance of hers was in Woody Allen’s “Bullets Over Broadway” where she played an outlandishly shrill gangster’s mol cum actress… an absolutely amazing, stand-out performance in a film full of outstanding performances. Then Debi Mazar, another actress that’s been in so many great films and always stands out-in fact she also had a bit part in Bullet’s Over Broadway as Chaz Palmentari’s girlfriend. I also must point out Laura Harring, who completely enthralled me with her role(s) in David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive” I fell in love with her during that film so I definitely have a soft spot in my heart for her as an artist. Of course then there is Tippi Hedren, I won’t even dare try to make reference to her career, everyone has seen “Marnie” and “The Birds”, every one who cares for cinema knows how amazing she is… just legendary, that word has almost disappeared completely from the vernacular of modern day cinema, but in this film it is not only celebrated, but utilized. I’m afraid I haven’t seen any of Rolonda Watts’ work, but she definitely stands out in your film so this was a fantastic introduction to her for me, I’ll definitely be keeping my eye on her future endeavors. That’s one of the things that struck me about your film immediately, before I had even seen it; the cast. So many greats and so many new faces… you’ve introduced me to some fascinating actors through your film.

AMC: Thank you Jonathan.  I try to use an eclectic cast and one that hasn’t worked together; in this case, of course, I was casting people to play infamous ones from the silent movie era, so there had to be a strong physical resemblance.  I am particularly proud with the casting of Rolonda Watts, who does an excellent job.  Most people actually believe they are watching Josephine Baker in stock footage!

JDD: Where did you shoot the film, on set, on locations?

AMC: I shot the film in the Los Angeles area at numerous locations.  Some of these locations include the queen Mary ship, and the silent movie estates of Antonio Moreno, Rudy Valentine, and Norma Talmadge.  We also filmed at the house of Ruby Keeler.

JDD: Please excuse my abstract flights of fancy, but this film strikes me as what may have come about if Guy Maddin and David Lynch made a film together. Who were your biggest cinematic influences while making this picture and who are your all-time favorites?

AMC: The biggest influences for this film were the silent films of the day.  I watched a lot of D.W. Griffith and Mabel Normand films.

JDD: What are a few of your favorite films?

AMC: Vertigo, Rebecca, The Fourth Man, Almodovar’s Matador, Suddenly, Last Summer, and various silent films, to name a few.

JDD: What’s the best film you’ve seen recently?

AMC: I really haven’t seen a good film in a really long time.

Part two:

The fantastic, the incredible, the unexplained…

JDD: You shot this film on 35mm black and white, correct?

AMC: This was shot on 16mm black and white Ilford film.

JDD: Why don’t you tell me from the very beginning how this film came about.

AMC: Well, I had always wanted to make a silent film and one day my producer and I found a bag of black and white factory-sealed film on Hollywood boulevard.  That is what started THE BIRTH OF BABYLON.  We found the bag on a Tuesday and filmed the entire short on that following Saturday.

JDD: So you found some black and white film right after discussing making a movie that would require such a stock, an interesting case of synchronicity indeed. Did anything else coincidental or odd occur during Pre-production?

AMC: No, nothing unusual happened during pre-production … just a lot of “prosperity” with actors wanted to be involved.

JDD: So pre is finished and shooting has begun, how do things go on set/location?

AMC: Jennifer Tilly was quite vocal on the set that there were the presence of “ghosts” … she kept reiterating that they were touching her and such.  The still photographer would also capture some strange images on her stills.

JDD: Now let’s really delve into the supernatural aspects of the film. We’ve side-stepped the issue so far, but you do believe there is a supernatural aspect to this film, correct?

AMC: I’ve had the film studied by many film people and we have all concluded that there is paranormal activity going on; that is most certain.  When you study the film frame-by-frame you can see “morphing” taking place with the actors; morphing does not happen spontaneously … its very costly and time consuming.

But it happens in this film.

JDD: Now, for our readers who have not yet had a chance to see the film, would you please elucidate on exactly what occurs in the film?

AMC:  Basically, Jonathan, I have a strong amount of paranormal activity; numerous film professionals cannot explain a lot of the images on the film, and countless psychics and mediums in the field of the paranormal have concluded the presence of spirits and ghosts.  There is a strong similarity to famous silent movie icons, such as the original vampire “nosferatu” and the “phantom of the opera.”  You literally see the actors and actresses morph into these images in careful frame-by-frame study.

JDD: Here is a short clip of you showing the footage:


JDD: Very interesting… and it is interesting to not that ostensibly all of this really occurs during the conclusion of the film, was this a conscious choice made during editing for aesthetic reasons or were these scenes always intended to end the film, even before you were aware of their “hidden” content?

AMC: Most certainly not!  This was not a conscious choice at all; it was completely unintentional.

JDD: Of course many people out there will view this footage and information skeptically and say it’s a gimmick or a hoax, so to address those folks let’s talk about your painstaking efforts to have the film examined and verified as paranormal. You didn’t just jump the gun and proclaim these images and events to be paranormal; you decided to have expert opinions, second opinions and more, even at the expense of holding up the release of the film solely because you yourself were so flabbergasted at the images you were seeing.

AMC: I happened to be with a cinematography/photography instructor from BROOKS INSTITUTE OF PHOTOGRAPHY who kept asking me whether I had done any special effects in the viewing of the dailies.  I insisted I hadn’t.  He kept looking and the film and then he slowed it down, finally going through the footage frame by frame.  It was with him that we started discovering the first anomalies; over the course of the next three days we found all sorts of images and he verified to me that he had never witnessed anything like this in all his experience and teaching.  It was at that point that I started showing other film professionals the footage and no reasonable explanation could be given.  From that point on, I started showing the film to paranormal researchers who concluded that I was “sitting on something huge.” This can be proven that it is not a hoax because the morphing and the images are on the film’s original negative.

JDD: And of course it goes without saying that you yourself are truly amazed and shocked by what you have captured on film.

AMC:  Am I amazed?  … To say the least.  I am continuously finding more and more anomalies every time I study the footage…. talk about a directing never tiring of his film dailies!

JDD: And so you had all of these qualified experts examine the film and still, their conclusion was the phenomenon which occurs in this film is truly unexplainable, what then do you attribute it to? What is your honest explanation for what we are seeing in the controversial closing sequence?

AMC: there is no reasonable explanation.  It is obvious that a Higher Power is trying to get a message thru this movie … there is no question about that.

JDD: This is quite strange, the history of (for lack of a better term) “haunted” objects is as old as recorded human history itself, Ancient Egyptians, Knights, even Church Officials subscribe to the belief  that objects can contain other forms of energy; stains, echoes, traces, etc. People do believe that somehow energy becomes attached to, or within, the physical material; much the same way people often regard houses as haunted. Do you subscribe to this idea? Do you believe in ghosts, or do you genuinely think this is some sort of religious phenomenon?

AMC: You have posed a very interesting question; but don’t you think that “ghosts” and religion is intertwined?  After all, many Christians do believe in the Holy Ghost, which is discussed heavily in the New Testament.

JDD: Well, yes, in a sense that is true, but I mean ‘ghosts’ in the sense of not having anything to do with theism of any kind, specifically the monotheistic Judeo-Christian ideologies. I do believe spiritual energy does not explicitly denote any sort of exactly ‘religious’ credence. So I guess my question would be, if separated between genuine religious phenomenon or just general paranormal phenomenon, which would you be inclined to invoke as the cause of the strange occurrences with this film?

AMC:   After the experiences with this film, and what I have seen and continue to see, YES – I most certainly believe in ghosts.  I think the “other side” has many layers and levels to it….. Something that we are just scratching the surface of.

What is the soul cause of the occurrences with this film?  I would tend to lean towards “religious” simply because numerous Christ-like images are represented in the film.  And that alone is some pretty deep stuff.

JDD: This of course all begs the question: what do you imagine to be the history of the bag of film you found? Where do you think it came from?

AMC: because the bag was found on Hollywood boulevard next to a parking meter, I believe that somebody was loading or unloading their vehicle with production equipment, and simply forgot the film on the sidewalk.  Filmmaking can be so hectic and stressful, human error and simple mistakes are quite common.

JDD: Any closing comments, Monty?

AMC: yes, I am hoping RETURN TO BABYLON will get the distribution release it is entitled to; I really would like to see the film educate and touch people’s lives … and who knows?  Maybe there will be a leap of faith…