Lightyear Entertainment releases The Etruscan Smile at Village East Cinema on November 1st, 2019.
NYC MOVIE GURU: One of The Etruscan Smile's many strengths is that it brims with humanism. The filmmakers treat both the characters and the audience as human beings from start to finish. The actors, I believe, exude the many shades of humanism because they, like the filmmakers, also grasp human nature. How do you think humanism is created in a film?
JJ Feild: It starts with a script and a story. As an actor, you pick up a script and you look for the journey of the character. Primarily, in a journey, there's some development or growth. On big plot-based movies, it might be a physical, external journey. What was attractive about this script goes through some inner transformation and some relation. All the characters across the board go through that journey, not just Rory. That's, tragically, very rare. I know the big conversation today is Scorcese's bashing of Marvel. I've done a Marvel film, [Captain America: The First Avenger]. I don't find anything wrong with them at all. I just wish that they didn't take up 8 out of the 10 screens at the multiplex. That's not because they're not selling out. I don't know what deal the theaters are making with the distributors, but of the 8 screens that they're on, 4 of them are empty when there could be other films. It wouldn't touch the profit margin of the Marvel films. That's my only question about that.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Francois Truffaut once observed that a great film has a perfect balance between Truth and Spectacle. The Etruscan Smile has a truly magical, intangible form of Spectacle, in my opinion: the Spectacle of human emotions that's found within its Truth. What do you think?
JF: I love magical realism. I love the idea that you get to have an incredible character story within something quite wonderful and surprising. That's a genre that seems to be disappearing. We don't have any Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind at the moment. Midnight Special was like that recently which I thought was wonderful and magical. That's the Spectacle of film. We get to go somewhere interesting which creates sort of magical backdrops. For The Etruscan Smile, it was San Francisco and for me it was the molecular gastronomy cooking world or the geography---to shoot at Half Moon Bay up there on the coastline of San Francisco was extraordinary, and then to go up into the highlands of Scotland, right into the tip of the Scottish isles and shoot those pieces, that was the Spectacle and the magic for me.
NYC MOVIE GURU: A filmmaker once told me that a screenplay is very deceptive because you think that everything is there when it's really not. The intangible elements are created during the filming and editing process. How do you know if and when a film will have those intangibles?
JF: The thing about storytelling from a film perspective is the synergy of all different parts. You get a screenplay and then you have to find a great cinematographer, a great director and a great producer---that's another dying breed!---and great actors, crew and everything else. If one of those pieces doesn't work, you lose that magic and intangibility. If one of those piece wasn't pitched right, you lose that mystery that you need. There's a great lack of producers. There's too many producers and not many single ones like Arthur Cohn or Lord Puttnam, so you had one producer. Now, if you look at a movie, they're extraordinarily top-heavy. There's 20 producers. A producer needs to be on the set all day every day and be the right-hand man or woman of the director. He's the person who can create the practical solid vision of the director, and now you don't have that. Instead, you have a committee which needs to approve things that's different to manifesting what the creative poetry needs to come alive. Maybe the lack of leadership is what this industry need to bring great independent cinema back. I say "back" because it's been since about 2003 when independent cinema moved away from the studios and went completely independent. That financial structure just crushed down and down until the microbudget films appeared, and now we're trying to build it back up. Certainly, The Etruscan Smile had a budget larger than any independent film without having to put a superhero in it or a pop star in it.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Part of what's so refreshing about The Etruscan Smile is that it tells a story without anyone pulling a knife or a gun. Instead, they fight each other through words. The power of the tongue more powerful than the sword. Words, especially coming from those whom you love, can hurt the most while also have the capacity to heal the most. What do you think?
JF: My great mentor and hero is Fred Schepisi who directed me in the Last Orders. One of his great inspirations and best friends was Robert Altman. These are filmmakers who can make a conversation thrilling. I'm reading John le Carré's new novel at the moment. It's no wonder that Fred Schepisi directed The Russia House. John le Carré's spy novels are about human beings. It's not James Bond with action and tricks and gadgets; it's just human relationship. He proves that that can be as thrilling as a shoot-out or an overly choreographed action sequences.
NYC MOVIE GURU: There are many characters in fiction, like Enid in Ghost World or Shirley in Shirley Valentine, who can be misconstrued as mean when they're really not because they don't intend to hurt anyone. Do think Rory can also be misconstrued as mean? What adjective would best describe Rory?
JF: Flawed. I think that Brian Cox would describe him as flawed. He's a man of a certain place who is limited by the horizon that he sees and the parameters that he lives in. We're all products of our surroundings. To make characters real, they can't just be black-and-white, good or bad. They can't just be mean or kind; they have to have a bit of everything. My character could be seen in two dimensions: he's the victim of an absent father, but he becomes pissy and vindictive and snappy. I think that it's good to see a character behave in a way that's uncomfortable and to understand why they do it. That's not to justify bad behavior, but to understand it. I don't see the point of storytelling if we can't dissociate with it or if we don't have a safe space to look at behavior that's maybe uncomfortable.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Even Emily's father, as unlikable as he may be, isn't actually a villain.
JF: He's doing what he perceives to be right in the circumstance that he's in. He's a businessman and a capitalist. It doesn't make capitalistic sense to invest in a way that his daughter wants to invest for her husband. It could look a bit heartless, but he's just trying to do what he thinks it right in a capitalistic framework. For someone who's capitalistic, they may go, "Of course! That makes perfect sense to me!" For someone who's not capitalistic, someone who's more socialist may go, "He's a bit selfish!"
NYC MOVIE GURU: Would it be accurate to say that Rory's cancer is a silent villain?
JF: Yes, but even with that, it's a silent villain that brings them together. If it weren't for the cancer, would they have a chance to be together?
NYC MOVIE GURU: There's a very raw and intimate scene when the audience peaks behind Emily and Ian's curtain, so-to-speak, to observe Ian candidly talking about his happiness while Emily vents her frustrations about her parenting skills and her domineering father. It's a beautiful scene that shows how marvelous, brave and, ultimately, human Ian and Emily are. Amazingly, it somehow avoids being maudlin and preachy.
JF: That comes down to what the actors, directors and the cinematographer want. That's where conflict happens on set where, let's say, an actor wants to move away from the schmaltz, but the doesn't or vice versa. Or if an actor wants to be indulgent, but the director wants to shoot it from the perspective of the coffee cup. That's also something that's been lost in filmmaking: we used to do something called rehearsal, so that we were all on the same page and it would save us a fortune on set. We wouldn't have to spend hours and hours of figuring out what the scene is about; we figured it out beforehand. We all discussed that scene in the bathroom. I was certainly inspired by the film Force Majeure which has, not to blow the lid on that homage, a very similar sequence. Force Majeure is about a relationship falling apart and maybe getting back together under extreme circumstances with no schmaltz, no sympathy and loads of humor. I laughed out loud during that film. What's amazing about that film is that it keeps the debate alive. I watched it with my wife and at any given time we were at either one of the relationship's sides and then flipped again and again.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Ian does get angry, but we never see him crying. Do you think he might be holding back his tears?
JF: One of the old Golden Rules is that if you cry you eyes out, your audience won't because everyone feels that you've done it for them. If you try not to cry, the audience will cry for you because you haven't done that. That wasn't in any of the decision-making during those scenes, but it's certainly a very good warning to actors who want to turn on the floodgates too much. I think that it's much more powerful trying to watch someone trying to hold back the tears. When you're at a funeral and someone's giving the eulogy, if they start crying, it's almost a relief in the room. It's that bit when they start shaking and can't quite speak and the congregation wishes, "Oh, god! Please finish what you were going to say!" I find that part much more dramatically interesting.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Rory tell Ian to be man. What does that even mean?
JF: Macduff says in <>Macbeth after his children and wife are slaughtered and Malcom says, "Let's avenge them and go to war!", he says, "Wait! I have to feel it like a man, too." There's an open debate about that part. What determines being a man? Feeling. Men and women feel just as much. It's how we act on and how society makes us act on.
NYC MOVIE GURU: The Etruscan Smile has some poetry in its words, scenery and cinematography. Poetry, after all, is often a form of protest. What is the film protesting against?
JF: I think that it's protesting against cynicism. I think it's a film that has the affirmation of life and shows heart. It's, as you said, a celebration of conversation. We have these, apparently real clinical terms now "FOMO" (Fear of Missing Out). We communicate in one direction. On no social media do you say, "How's your day?"; you just say, "I've just had this nice coffee at this place." So, we only start sentences with "I." The art of conversation and listening is gone. We know how to tell people what we're doing and we think it's our right. Narcissistic Personality Disorder seems to be a normal feel. That's not me saying that we should get rid of social media, I just wish that it were a conversation rather than a list of self-aggrandizing sentences. So, this film is a protest against singular statements and a celebration of conversation and human debate.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Social media, in my opinion, is a misnomer because it's not truly social. In many ways, it's a Faustian bargain. What do you think?
JF: If you would have said years ago that an adult would communicate in silly little faces, can you imagine the educators of the world, the people at universities and politicians saying, "I'd rather not dumb down the human experience!"? Yet, I do it. I put funny faces. I'm sure I've sent a turd emoji several times.
NYC MOVIE GURU: The Etruscan Smile has a number of beautiful scenes of quietness. Would it be fair to say that silence can speak louder than words?
JF: There's a scene that I remember most in 12 Years a Slave which is when [Solomon Northup] is tied to a post for what feels like hours when it's minutes. My favorite scene in Big Night is at the end when it finishes with a 7-minute silent scene cooking an omelet. This is a cliché, but silence is often the most deafening.
NYC MOVIE GURU: What makes blunt, honest characters like Rory so interesting and appealing?
JF: Is that because we're never that blunt? There's a bit of heightened reality! The great thing about good dialogue is that it sounds completely natural, but, really, if you met someone who was that blunt, would you sit and have a meal with them? You'd get up and leave. But it's thrilling to hear the things that you wish you could say. The difference between Ian and Rory is that my character is very passive aggressive while Rory is very aggressive. There's no passive aggressiveness in him. He says how he feels as I undercut him with emotional passive aggression.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Do you think that Rory could get along with Maude from Harold and Maude?
JF: [laughs] Well, can two blunt people get along? Can two alpha blunts along or do you need one who's sort of passive and subversive underneath?
NYC MOVIE GURU: Maude suffers from the emotion pains after surviving the Holocaust, the most dehumanizing event in history. Do you think Rory suffers from some kind of traumatic, emotional pain as well?
JF: Rory didn't go through the Holocaust, but the Outer Hebrides, I imagine, can be pretty bleak, especially in winter. As a parent myself, I've got two boys. We think that our parents don't have as much influence on us until we have our own children. Then we realize that we are so much the product of how we were loved, for good and for bad. I think that that's something that, hopefully, they appreciate about each other by the end of the film. Ian can say, "My father is the product of who he was and he did the best that he could with what he's got." I think that that's the ultimate acceptance of our parents. As a parent, it's what we hope. We hope to do the very best with what we've got and hope that we can do it a little bit better so that each generation gets a little bit more evolved, but perhaps not.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Would it be accurate to observe that Emily becomes like a surrogate parent for Ian?
JF: Look at Ian's parents. His mother died when he was young and his father was distant. He has a wife who's both wife and parent. I think that his personal journey is that he goes through someone who is parented and guided. Even from his businesses he has supporters and investors---there are other people above him. His journey is to go, "No, I can parent myself! I can look after myself. I don't need someone else to do that for me." If it wasn't for his wife giving him the space to do that rather than controlling him---although she is controlling at first, she learns to actually trust him and step back to allow him to be himself---then maybe that cycle would continue and he would do that to his child. But, hopefully, he learns from that and brings up his child in a different way.
NYC MOVIE GURU: How would the dinner with Ian, Rory and Emily been different if Emily were to come to Ian's defense when Rory was putting him down?
JF: That scene, for Ian, is a scene where he breaks. He stands up to his father. If Emily had stood up for him, he wouldn't have done it. If Emily had been the go-between, if she had defended him, then Ian wouldn't have had the necessity to stand up for himself. So, the critical question to debate is, "Does Emily do that consciously or unconsciously?" That's a scene where the tension is so palpable that even Emily has to step back. The tension has to be so strong that it makes Ian explode because, otherwise, he's still a bit scared of his father. That's why he doesn't explode before---he has subconscious, passive-aggressive comments, but he never stands up to his father. It takes the crucible of that scene of his father putting him down one last time for Ian to stand up to him. That's the turning point for Ian. From that point on, everything changes. From that point on, although you don't see it in the story, he would parent differently and husband different. That's the point in which he stands up for himself.