Holiday Movie Madness
By Carl Kozlowski
Two brothers fighting to stay afloat amid hard times in a rusted-out, nearly abandoned Northeastern steel-mill town; a Hollywood mogul battling to make his children happy by making their favorite children’s book into a movie at all costs; and a hot rising young standup comic who aced the surprise audition of a lifetime to land a role working with Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio on his first film . . .
All three of these tales reflect the best that America has to offer—resilience, tenacity and the hope that can lead to life-changing luck—even as they are unflinching in their portrayal of the American character’s worst moments as well. What better way to stop eating fruit cake and instagramming your latest presents? Movies! And each of these respective films—Out of the Furnace, Saving Mr. Banks and The Wolf of Wall Street—are sharing theatre space at the multiplex during a holiday-movie season that’s rich in quality as well as engaging viewers in reflecting on their own lives, hopes and dreams.
In a mad dash through the cinematic promotional jungle, we managed to interview those involved in the making of all three films, in the hopes of sharing extra insights into their creation and the meanings behind them. Each of these movies is well worth seeing, and here’s hoping that these viewpoints will make the holiday movie-going experience even better.
“The Mark of a True American”
“I grew up in a small town in Appalachia, in Virginia, as the grandson of a coal miner and spent a lot of time in small town America,” says Scott Cooper, the writer-director of Out of the Furnace who directed Jeff Bridges to a Best Actor Oscar in his 2009 debut, Crazy Heart. “It was important to me to shine a light on not only small towns, but what we as Americans have undergone these past five turbulent years.
“That blue collar milieu was familiar to me yet under-represented in films. It was very prevalent in the 1970s but not since then,” adds Cooper. “I wanted to see that represented on screen again because I knew these people very well, their values and mores, and could weave all those things into a narrative in a very personal way.”
Furnace (out since December 6) shines an unflinching light on the lives of Russell and Rodney Baze, two fictional yet highly realistic and relatable brothers slogging their way through life in the dying steel town of Braddock, Pennsylvania. Rodney, played by Casey Affleck, is a soldier suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after serving four grueling tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.
His brother Russell, played by Christian Bale, is struggling with plenty of other problems himself. He’s working hard days in the same steel mill that made his elderly father fall sick, is using his wages to pay off Rodney’s gambling debts and cares for his bedridden father, and accidentally kills a mother and child while driving drunk. By the time he gets out of prison, Russell has lost his longtime girlfriend—whom he hoped to marry—to another man. With all that weighing on him, Russell also finds himself facing the greatest crisis of his life: Saving his brother Rodney from his dangerous involvement in an illegal fighting ring run by a vicious criminal named Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson).
“You walk into a town like this and gain a really unique insight,” says Zoe Saldana, who plays Bale’s former girlfriend in the film. “It’s very easy to walk away when things go wrong, but to stick around and basically give life to a town because of everything it gave you generation after generation after generation, that’s a real mark of a true American.”
“I’ve been to places around the world that can give you knots in your stomach, and Braddock was one of those places, but once you sit down with those people, you wish you had an ounce of the strength that they possess every day in sticking around. That was something I was really moved by.”
Indeed, Furnace is an often bleak movie, but it is nonetheless worthy of consideration not only for its sympathetic portrayal of the stresses our soldiers face coming home, but for the way it shows Russell as an example of the decent “everymen” and “everywomen” who refuse to give up in the face of soul-crushing circumstances. For Russell, that solace is found as a man of faith, who attends catholic mass even while behind bars and in the face of his many crises in regular daily life.
“When I was writing the character, I always thought of him as a very good man who was beset on all sides by a relentless fate,” says Cooper. “It was based on someone in my life who has suffered a tremendous amount of pain and loss, and who is also one of the most positive people I know and has given me a great source of inspiration. That man’s faith has carried him through, whether with absolution or whatever he was asking for.
“Directors can go their whole career without telling personal stories. I don’t even consider it work, it’s a privilege to have actors of this caliber help me reach my vision,” says Cooper. “After growing up with very little money and still having very little after Crazy Heart, you can get tempted to make movies for the wrong reasons. You have to stick to your artistic worldview and this was a risk certainly. I could have taken a much less risky route after my first film, but as one of my filmmaking heroes, Francis Ford Coppola, said, ‘if you’re not taking the highest greatest risk, why are you filming?’”
One Fierce Disney Battle
Walt Disney was such a successful film mogul that one could easily assume that he’d never question his filmmaking prowess or creative purpose. But the new movie Saving Mr. Banks, out Friday nationwide, reveals that Disney (played by Tom Hanks) did face at least one fierce yet unlikely battle in his career: The one he waged against British writer P.L. Travers (played by Emma Thompson), whose beloved children’s book Mary Poppins was a favorite of Disney’s daughters.
In fact, Disney had vowed to his girls that he would make the movie of Poppins just for them. But Travers was a woman who didn’t want to sell her book off as a film, and the battle between these two fierce-willed creative turned into one that became intensely emotional. In fact, it’s surprising to see just how unflinchingly Banks writer-director John Lee Hancock looks at Travers’ troubled past.
“Pamela Travers hated Walt Disney, America, movies and cartoons, and she hated that she had to give up this creation of hers over to this commercial buffoonery,” says Tom Hanks. “Some of it was bluster, but Walt Disney was not used to coming across someone like that who did not succumb to his charms, as he was a beloved guy.
“To have to fight for so long for the books I think he felt he’d already won, and then find he almost lost it because Travers maintained script approval—how that happened is beyond me,” Hanks continues. “I think it might have been a concession Walt and Roy Disney made to advance the movie. I think Walt would hear no maybe three times, but yes would always fall in place, and that did not happen with Pamela Travers. I don’t think he ever had to do that before.”
For lifelong Disney fan Hanks, the biggest highlight of his role as the legend was a simple one. Having grown up watching Disney on TV each Sunday, Hanks loved the seemingly-throwaway moment in which he got to re-enact an episode of Disney’s old weekly series.
“My favorite scene to shoot was getting to do one of those openings of Wonderful World of Disney where Walt’s interacting with Tinkerbell,” laughs Hanks. “That was a dream come true, and just a blast.”
A Lesson in Hubris
If a 30-year superstar like Hanks can still get excited by playing his hero, imagine the thrill that a young comic-turned-actor named Barry Rothbart had upon meeting Martin Scorsese for the first time. Not only was he meeting the legendary director, but Rothbart was auditioning for a role in his newest movie The Wolf of Wall Street before he was even 30-years-old.
“The actual first audition came from my agent, but the callback was Scorsese specifically requesting me to read for him,” Rothbart recalls. “I went to a hotel room in NYC and had to audition. F*ck yeah, I was nervous! He wanted it mostly improvised, so I went overboard and I splashed water in the other guy’s face when I got angry while pitching stocks in a fake cold call to a customer!”
That extra dose of enthusiasm was enough to get Rothbart cast as one of the lead financial henchmen to star Leonardo DiCaprio’s shady investment advisor Jordan Belfort. Over the next six months, Rothbart received a world-class film-school education just by watching Scorsese and DiCaprio in action together.
“I’d had a lot of experience from pitching shady mortgages in a boiler room operation in the early 2000s, where people didn’t know what they’re buying til they bought it, says Rothbart, who played Peter Bilasio, a role that was largely cut in post-production but left him with a great shot of being arrested at the end.
“I had three orgy scenes, and every scene my character was coked to hell,” says Rothbart. “The coke was vitamin B12 in powder form, so it would still amp you up. There were a few shots where I had to do multiple lines of this stuff. They had to call a medic once because I was dizzy.
“The atmosphere was fun, and we held it together for six months on the set, but it was like summer camp among the lead six stockbrokers who pal around with Leo,” Rothbart continues. “Yet we mostly improvised, the script was thrown out, and people were trying to one-up each other with funny lines onset and off.”
Yet just as the real-life Belfort eventually met his downfall, the movie does show the harrowing descent from greatness as well. It’s a lesson that Rothbart is taking to heart as he enjoys the ride through late-night joke spots like “Conan,” the Craig Ferguson show and Leno while awaiting his next acting move.
“It’s a lesson in hubris. He needed more humility, that’s what took him down. It was never about the money for him, it was about having this lifestyle that was bigger and bigger,” Rothbart says. “I’ve seen a lot of change in people when they succeed, and it’s impossible not to change because your priorities are changing. The people who lose track of those who were important to them before are the ones who wind up in trouble.”