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10 Questions for Director Bernard Rose | reviews, news & interviews

10 Questions for Director Bernard Rose

10 Questions for Director Bernard Rose

The British filmmaker, working in the best American indie tradition, on bringing Tolstoy to California

Alone in the snow: Bernard Rose (left), as cameraman and director in 'Boxing Day', filming lead actor Danny Huston

Who ever said making a movie was a glamorous business? Shooting the climactic scene of his most recent film Boxing Day, British-born director Bernard Rose (pictured below right) found himself in the freezing Colorado mountains - so cold you couldn’t even see your breath - with just his two stars, Danny Huston and Matthew Jacobs, and a sound-recordist for company.

Rose was his own cameraman, as well as editor, and a major inspiration behind the redemptive musical score.

Rose may live in Los Angeles, and have made plenty of films on a much larger scale, but his ongoing series of adaptations of short stories by Leo Tolstoy are as indie in inspiration and execution as they come. Boxing Day follows Ivans xtc and The Kreutzer Sonata - a fourth work from Tolstoy, Two Jacks, is already shot - that show us not-very-likeable people in the not-immediately-likeable environment of contemporary America. Boxing Day, with its central character an on-the-hoof businessman hoping to make a quick buck out of other people’s misfortunes, in particular their repossessed homes, goes further than before.

Rose started his career making music videos, including Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s "Relax". His more mainstream work has included the Beethoven biopic Immortal Beloved, starring Gary Oldman, and Mr Nice (2010), adapted from the autobiography of drug-dealer Howard Marks.

So you might have thought he was going to be very comfortable in Hollywood. That was until a decade ago, and the release of Ivans xtc, based on Tolstoy’s lacerating The Death of Ivan Ilyich, in which we saw Hollywood talent agent Ivan Beckman, whose fate had clear similarities to the real-life story of Rose’s own agent Jay Maloney, destroy himself through drugs and other indulgences. “Ivans xtc’s close-to-the-bone depictions of Hollywood caused such a stink around town,” the trade bible Variety wrote.

Today, such rifts are long made up, and Rose’s next major picture is about virtuoso musician Paganini (The Devil's Violinist). Before then there’s sxtape, another in the horror genre that Rose most memorably entered with Candyman in 1992. He answered theartsdesk's questions by email from Los Angeles.

TOM BIRCHENOUGH: How did the idea of updating Tolstoy's short stories to the contemporary West Coast come to you?

BERNARD ROSE: I wanted to make the films with the resources and in the environment that was available to me. I live in Los Angeles and the stories fit there with very little alteration. I had made a more traditional adaptation of Anna Karenina, in period and in Russia, and I felt the message of the book got swamped in all the furs and gold ballrooms.

What are your feelings about Tolstoy today, not only as a writer but as a thinker?

Tolstoy was a brilliant and unsentimentally honest recorder of the human psyche. He was working before Freud and the theories of psychoanalysis and thus sought spiritual answers to the anxieties and depressions that plagued him. In many ways that still has great resonance for us today.

Is it fair to say that the three story adaptations to date are in different ways about hubris?

The stories are about men and women who have put their faith in things that are guaranteed to disappoint - careers, money, prestige, a lover - and the unendurable misery that ensues as a result.

Was Danny Huston always the inspiration for the central roles? How much do you write characters around actors?

The films were all written with Danny (pictured above: Huston, right, with Boxing Day co-star Matthew Jacobs) in mind to play the leads. He is a perfect actor for Tolstoy's heroes who tend to be troubled and aristocratic. Danny has a huge amount of charisma that makes the audience want to go on the journey with him. I always prefer to write with actors in mind as it makes it all much more specific.

How much did improvisation play a part during filming?

The films are not strictly speaking improvised as there is a detailed screenplay written in prose form with some of the key dialogue included. The actors then expand on that and bring much more of themselves into the role.

You have worked, and are still working, on “large” films - how do “small” films like the trilogy refresh this process?

I try to make the large films with as much spontaneity as the small ones. Both kinds of films have different challenges and definitely one feeds off the other.

You have spoken of how advances in technology have freed up that process. How are they going to go on developing?

We have now reached the point where the equipment to make a professionally acceptable film is within the scope of any dedicated person to obtain at a reasonable cost. But like writing a novel it still demands a huge commitment of time and of course the access to actors and other collaborators.

Distribution is the big problem, but as everything moves online that will change. Making a successful movie involves a large number of interconnecting skills and I think the next generation of filmmakers will be self-sufficient and multi-tasking.

The trilogy is part of the American independent film scene - how much, if at all, are you involved with Hollywood “proper” these days?

I am ready and willing to take on a superhero franchise anytime.

And how does Hollywood look at you, after Ivans xtc?

Hollywood agents taking offence at Ivans xtc (poster pictured above left) was a storm in a teacup 10 years ago. But Hollywood memories are short and amends have been made.

You’re currently in post-production on sxtape, and Candyman has earned its place in the horror genre - what’s your secret to getting a horror film just right?

A horror film is like a comedy. It's all about timing, taking things slow.

  • Boxing Day is in cinemas now

Watch the Boxing Day trailer

The equipment to make a professionally acceptable film is within the scope of any dedicated person to obtain at a reasonable cost

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