No one can ever criticize Marc Forster for covering the same ground. Thematically, all his works tie together, but rarely does he play in the same genres and styles. Over the past ten years, he’s made a James Bond film, a meta drama, a number of raw dramas, and is now working on an epic zombie film. Clearly, he’s not a man interested in repeating himself.
Forster is not only a talented and eclectic filmmaker, but a candid one. In our interview for his latest drama, Machine Gun Preacher, the acclaimed director could not have been more self-aware and objective about his work, and what people think of it. Prime examples: Quantum of Solace and Stay. Upon the the release of both films, they were heavily criticized, and unlike how most directors may have responded to such criticism, Forster didn’t go with a simple “they didn’t get it.”
In our chat, he openly discussed issues with some of his work, along with capturing his imagination, making blockbuster films personal, and the ethics of Machine Gun Preacher.
You’ve said how you like to take on scripts that you find challenging. What did you see as the biggest challenge when it came to Machine Gun Preacher?
It was challenging to begin with, since you’re capturing a real-life person over the course of 15 years; you basically go through a lot of changes. To capture it in two hours, it’s a tricky thing to do. Things can become pretty episodic, so you have to make sure that it’s not too unbalanced and feels right — that’s pretty challenging. Also, you’re dealing with a character who’s not that likable, has a very dark side to him, and carries a shadow with him everywhere he goes. To actually make him intriguing and let you invest into his character in a certain amount of time, it’s a challenging thing to do.
Finding Neverland was also based a true story, but you took some liberties with that, since it was about imagination. Did you want to stick more to reality in this case?
Finding Neverland was different because you’re dealing with someone that has passed away, and it was really about imagination. Here, the writer spent two years with Sam [Childers], going through his stories, creating a script with him involved, and choosing what matters. Like, what needs to be done in that amount of time to capture Sam. Sam saw the movie two weeks ago, and he was really pleased; his friends and family thought we captured him. Here’s an example: Michael Shannon‘s role, Donnie, is a character that is three friends of his, because we couldn’t have three or four friends of his in the movie. It would be too much, so we combined certain events.
Since dramas like this are fairly tough to get made, did Quantum of Solace grant you enough clout to get this financed?
Not necessarily. I think people are scared of dramas and movies like this in general. You believe if you do bigger or more commercial movies, then it’s easier to get financing for the smaller ones, but that’s not necessarily true.
Does the initial idea of the film being an awards contender help?
Not really, no. The financiers believed in the story, and that the story needed to be told, so that people could know about the atrocities happening there. They were very touched by the kids, the orphanage in Sudan, and the kids there. They had never invested in films before, so it was the story that grabbed them. I don’t think it had anything to do with the awards.
You’ve said how, when it comes to drama, you always have an exact idea for what you want. Are there ever cases where you’re executing an idea you have a precise vision for, but it doesn’t work?
No. For me, I always have a clear vision of what I want to do. If you’re walking into a very clear situation when you have an actor come in and it’s not working, you change it and adjust to the situation. The key thing for a director is to have a clear vision, but then allow yourself to change, and that happens. Sometimes you have schedule changes and things are always changing, so you have to go with that flow. At the same time, don’t leave your vision out of sight.
And you’ve mentioned it’s important, for actors, to leave room for the “magic.” Were there any spontaneous moments on Machine Gun Preacher that standout?
When the child enters the room for that scene, you have to find the right rhythm. That particular child is not an educated actor, and I basically found him off the street. What you get is very raw and very truthful, so you want to leave some breathing room for that. It’s very tricky with children — and I’ve worked with a few — to direct them. You want to be as raw and as truthful as possible, because they carry that truth.
Is it trickier trying to find that magic on films like Quantum of Solace or World War Z, where you are under more time constraints?
Yeah, you are under a lot more pressure on those movies. There’s much more money involved, and it’s like running a marathon — you’re working on the film for months and months straight. On smaller films, you’re up and running, but it’s almost never ending.
Does your on-set work ethic change, from working on something more contained versus something bigger in scope?
The thing with small, personal movies — they’re your movies. When you’re doing these bigger commercial movies, they’re still your movies, but you also have the responsibility that the movies play to a wide audience. You have to make sure there are genre pieces in the story you’re telling there to work for a mass audience.
I guess the challenge there would be to not dumb things down, right?
I think that’s often mistaken, because Inception was a huge success. I don’t think Christopher Nolan was trying to dumb anything down.
Sure, but don’t you think that movie and Nolan are rare examples?
Maybe, maybe not; it all comes down to if it’s a good movie or not. I think the first Matrix worked very well, as well. Those are the kinds of movies that stand against the test of time: They can be both a commercial success and have a certain meaning. Maybe those are the movies that you call “dumbed down,” but in general, I think there are some commercial movies that really worked. I often feel a story can be very simple, but still be a very strong film. For instance, the first Die Hard. I don’t know if you like that movie…
I love it. That’s got the perfect structure.
Yeah, that’s a very simple movie, but I still really enjoy it.
Then is the main goal, for you, to personalize these bigger projects? When I watch Quantum of Solace, there’s definitely themes that connect with your other work, like isolation.
Yeah, I tried to make it a personal film [Laughs]. I inherited that character, and I felt that Casino Royale deserved much better. A lot of the people who criticized the movie felt there wasn’t enough drama and there wasn’t enough stakes. They might be right, but I still have to make the movie my own. If people like it or they don’t like it, I totally have to respect that. At the same time, it doesn’t work for me unless I made that character my own and identified with his pain, suffering, and isolation. You always have to look at a character and think about what he’s going through — what are his joys, what are his disdains, and what keeps him alive. That’s the interesting part for me.
So, how do you judge the success of a film? Like, I think Stay is excellent, but it didn’t perform commercially and wasn’t well-received, so does that response make it a failure?
I really like the movie, and I think there are very few people who like that movie [Laughs]. You’re definitely in the minority there. It was my only big flop, critically and commercially, but I like the movie. You know, I wouldn’t have been able to make Stranger than Fiction if I didn’t make Stay. Speaking objectively, narratively speaking, there are definitely things that do not work in Stay, and don’t tie together. That was more for me; it was like a painting and going through an experience of images. Narratively speaking, it definitely has holes. If you look at the film rationally you can point at the holes and say, “This and that are ridiculous.” For me, I didn’t really care if anyone didn’t like the movie, because I really like the movie. Directorially, I think it’s much better work than I did on Finding Neverland, which everybody loves. From a directing point of view, I think Stay is a much better directed movie.
With the ending Stay has, doesn’t that make the plot holes okay?
Yeah, absolutely, that was the whole point of it. Critics, the people who don’t like the movie, dismiss it very easily as being silly. It was many years after The Sixth Sense, and it was in that world and framework, worked very well. People really enjoy the last moments of films like The Usual Suspects, those trick endings. Stay definitely didn’t achieve that for the commercial or critical audience.
Since you mentioned how you think it’s a better directed movie than Finding Neverland, can you view your work pretty objectively?
Yeah, pretty much. I like some films better than others. With Quantum [of Solace], yes, I feel like my overall objective was to make a very clear, ’70s type of revenge movie, where the plot is pretty thin, and you just go from A to B. You go on an adrenaline rush right from the beginning, and there are these personal stakes, with Bond wanting to get revenge for Vesper. Bond himself cannot experience emotions, because he’s emotionally shutdown. I do feel, looking at the film on a pure script basis, the third act feels a little thin to me. Everything was very rushed, there was the writer’s strike, and there were huge obstacles. I would have preferred to develop it for another six months or a year before going into production, but that was not the reality. I accepted the chance and took the responsibility. I still achieved what I wanted to do with the film, but if you look at it on a wide spectrum, it could have been better.
Looking at Finding Neverland, I think the magic realism achieved in the film I really like, but directorially, I feel like there are some issues I have. Of all the movies I’ve made, I think Stranger Than Fiction is the most balanced one in story, editorially, visually, and performances. Personally, I feel it’s very well-rounded. I feel it’s a very strong film because every aspect of the filmmaking comes almost into harmony. Every aspect from the music, editing, to the script comes together in a very strong way.
What are your thoughts on The Kite Runner?
The Kite Runner was very similar to Machine Gun Preacher, it was a story I felt was important to tell. The book was hugely popular, but at the same time, you watch CNN and see people in the background [in Afghanistan], and you don’t really know who they are. I wanted to make a movie about those people. I thought the story was very compelling and important because, ultimately, most of my films deal with the theme of redemption — that’s a very redemptive story of how things ultimately come back to you.
I’d say that the theme of identity and finding yourself is a big part of your work, as well.
I think that’s our journey of life; ultimately, we’re all here to find out who we are. We all struggle through this life to find who we are, because it’s really hard. You get educated by your parents — if you grew up in that circumstance — and your parents basically describe the world to you, and in that framework, you still find your own identity and voice. I think a lot of people struggle with that. It’s very hard for us to be alone, and you want entertainment — TV, Internet, text messaging, or movies. We’re always trying to escape ourselves. To not have an escapism to really see who we are and how we are is one of the hardest things of our time.
Machine Gun Preacher is now in limited release and expands next Friday.