NYFF51: Celebrated Leading Men Mark Festival’s Second Week


12 Years A Slave star Chiwetel Ejiofor along with fellow cast members and director Steve McQueen on the red carpet. Photo by Godlis

The 51st New York Film Festival is in the home stretch, but the second half of the 17-day event has continued with gusto. Tuesday night was a busy one with the premieres of Alexander Payne's Nebraska starring Bruce Dern, J.C. Chandor's All Is Lost starring Robert Redford, and Steve McQueen's 12 Years A Slave starring Chiwetel Ejiofor. That was followed up with NYFF's Gala Tribute to Ralph Fiennes on Wednesday night, including the U.S. debut of his film The Invisible Woman, which he directed and stars in as Charles Dickens.

The male leads in all these films are likely contenders for awards this season. Dern won accolades in Cannes in a role that even he said he was surprised to get. Redford was nominated for Best Actor in 1974 for The Sting and has received two Oscars for Directing and an Honorary Academy Award in 2002. Awards prognosticators have speculated whether this will be his year for another run at the Acting category. And 12 Years A Slave has been widely tipped as an early favorite for the Best Picture category and a number of acting categories including Best Actor for Ejiofor.

Nebraska

Bruce Dern won the Best Actor Award at the Cannes Film Festival in May for Alexander Payne's black and white feature, Nebraska. In the film, Dern plays stubborn father and husband Woody, who faces uncertainty in his golden years. Like his small Midwestern town, he is well past his prime, though he actually has little to show from his productive years. But he believes he's been given a chance at redemption when he receives a notice that he's the lucky winner of a million-dollar sweepstakes.

In order to cash in on his winnings, however, he has to head to Lincoln, Nebraska to turn in his ticket at the sweepstakes office. But Woody is growing physically, and perhaps mentally, frail and the 750-mile trek is seemingly impossible.

"He sent me the script maybe six month or a year after he saw it and I was stunned because nobody had considered me on that level," said Dern at the Walter Reade Theater in a pre-premiere screening, adding jokingly, "so I went to Toys R Us and sent him over a little truck that I bought… Nine years went by and he made a couple of movies. I heard he'd maybe make Nebraska and then I heard maybe not." But the project's long gestation eventually lead to production. "He's a privilege to work for and work with," added Dern.


Alexander Payne, Bruce Dern and June Squibb at NYFF. Photo by Richard Jopson

Nebraska had been floating around Alexander Payne's to-do list for awhile. He made another road trip movie earlier last decade which won a bevy of Oscar nominations and a win for Payne for Best Screenplay, so the project remained on the shelf. "After Sideways, I didn't want to follow that up with another road trip movie," said Payne. The filmmaker recalibrated his aesthetic for Nebraska after it eventually went into production. The stark Midwestern landscape proved to be a contrast to the sumptuous colors seen in his previous Hawaii-set film The Descendantswhich closed NYFF49 in 2011.

"I owe it to the screenplay from the moment I picked it up so many years ago, I just envisioned it in black and white," Payne explained. "I knew it would have to be a relatively inexpensive movie for it to be done in order for it to get made through the studio system. Black and white is just so darn beautiful. Everyday the [cinematographer] and I would say that we're going to hate to have to go back to color."

All Is Lost

Robert Redford is in virtually every frame of J.C. Chandor's All Is Lost. The idea of a man fighting the elements alone out in the middle of the open ocean may be a marketing challenge, but the film was a hit with audiences at the Cannes Film Festival, where it debuted in May, and has been a favorite with critics ever since. Redford plays "Our Man," the capable skipper of a private craft sailing in the Indian Ocean. Disaster looms, however, when his boat collides with a shipping container. "Our Man" springs into action, using material to temporarily repair a gash in the hull, but despite his efforts, he faces a long journey in which he must confront his own mortality.

"There's not a lot of dialogue, but it's beat by beat, moment by moment," said Chandor at the Walter Reade ahead of the film's premiere on Tuesday night. "I completed a 31-page draft of the screenplay and it's non-traditional, but it did read like a film. It's almost as identical to what you saw… It's meant to be a bit of a swashbuckling adventure, so by the time you get to that third act, emotionally you feel as an audience what he has [gone through]."

Chandor won over Redford with the script and its lack of dialogue. Sound is a very important element in the film, but Redford speaks few words. Redford only knew of Chandor through his first feature, Margin Call, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, but the two met at Redford's office to discuss the possibility of him starring in the film. Also a filmmaker, Redford said he had mostly decided to do the film based on the script, but wanted to double check one particular point before giving the final yes.

"When we met, I was already inclined. I just had to make sure he wasn't nuts…" said Redford. "These days there are so many players in the kitchen—publicists, agents, etc.—in the way of having a direct relationship. With JC, it was one of those rare situations where you go on vibe and instinct and you just do it because you trust him. I got the script and there were a lot of things that I was impressed with and attracted to—no dialogue and it was bold. It seemed that this person had a strong vision, which came through in the script."


J.C. Chandor and Robert Redford on stage discussing All Is Lost. Photo by Godlis

"When I first went into the office, I was prepared to give him a big spiel on why he should do this," added Chandor. "He said, 'For a guy who wrote a script with few words, you sure talk a lot…' But I was prepared to tell him why he should do it. He looked at me and literally said, 'I just want to make sure you're not crazy, but looks like you thought it through,' and then he patted his knee and said, 'Let's do this.' From that moment forward, there seemed to be a trust."

12 Years A Slave

Having screening his first two feature films here—Hunger at NYFF '08 and Shame at NYFF '11—Steve McQueen returns to the festival with a film that will likely reignite discussion of one of the country's darkest eras. Based on the 1853 autobiography Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup, the film stars Chiwetel Ejiofor in a heart-wrenching story of a free black man who was kidnapped in Washington, D.C. after being lured from his home in Saratoga Springs, NY and sold into slavery in 1841.

McQueen had been writing a fictional account of a story about a free black northerner being sold into slavery, but ran into difficulty. Then fate turned when a true story mirroring his fictional quest landed on his plate. "I got together with John Ridley to write the script  and things weren't going as well as I wanted," McQueen said in Toronto. "I was talking to my wife and she said, 'Why don't you do a true story,' and then she put this book in my hand, Twelve Years a Slave, which is Solomon Northup's autobiography. It was just remarkable. Each turn of the page was such revelation."

The full breadth of subject matter 12 Years a Slave brings to the screen is insurmountable in brief. The film received a lengthy standing ovation after its premiere at the Walter Reade Theater on Tuesday night and it's not exactly easy viewing. Kidnapping, whipping, murder and other forms of violence both physical and psychological are not treated delicately, but with full impact to give a personal account of slavery. McQueen credited his cast for their performances in telling a story that, he believes, has not received its due.

"They have to be artists, that's the difference. I don't want to work with movie stars; I want to work with actors. Michael Fassbender is an artist because whatever it takes he'll do it. He's a worker and he's not a complainer. He wants to go further beyond his own reach. What he does is that he elevates other people's work. It becomes very infectious." Continuing, McQueen said, "These things have not been dealt with. If you look at the Holocaust, people have been studying it, have dealt with it and continue dealing with it, but with slavery, it hasn't been dealt with. And it's a deep psychological wound."

"Survival is the biggest thing. You do what you have to do to survive. I'm here because some of my ancestors did what they had to do to survive. They had to deal with it in the way they had to deal with it. Can you imagine being born a slave? I can't even imagine anything worse than that—being born and never thinking of yourself as anything more than what the master thinks of him, which is nothing. The psychology of that is that you are born into an environment where you are nothing."


The Invisible Woman director-actor Ralph Fiennes with co-star Joanna Scanlan at NYFF Wednesday afternoon. Photo by Brian Brooks

The Invisible Woman

Ralph Fiennes took on the role of director-star once again with his Charles Dickens drama The Invisible Woman. Fiennes, who was honored Wednesday evening by Film Society with a Gala Tribute, stars as Dickens. The Invisible Woman follows Nelly Robinson (Felicity Jones), a married mother and schoolteacher with a past. Memories of guilt and remorse travel back to her relationship with Dickens, who was drawn to her as an 18 year old actress, when he was at the height of his fame. Nelly is from a family of cultured actors and the literary celebrity was drawn to the theater and thrived on the stage himself as an amateur actor. The two grew closer as Nelly took on the role of muse, but secrecy in Victorian England was essential.

"I was largely ignorant of Dickens' work and about Dickens himself… I was handed this screenplay based on Claire [Tomalin's] book The Invisible Woman and I was affected on this story of Nelly," said Fiennes on Wednesday. "What hooked me is someone carrying the burden of an unresolved relationship. I was smitten by the story of Nelly Turner and [through her] suddenly my eyes were opened to Dickens and to all his capacity, and then I gobbled up David Copperfield and now I'm a convert."

After his dual role as director and star in Coriolanus (2011), Fiennes was reluctant to take up the mantles simultaneously again and initially said he could not be both when offered the jobs for The Invisible Woman. But after he started going over the script, he changed his mind. "When I was invited to do this, it came with the same possibility of doing both, directing and playing Dickens. And I initially said no, but in the process of working on the screenplay, I got to rehearse playing Dickens—everybody's lines in fact—and I became, I suppose, enamored of Dickens in the process. And I felt that I should play him."

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