‘Boyhood’ Tops Gotham Award Nominations

Richard Linklater‘s “Boyhood” led all films in nominations for the 24th annual Gotham Independent Film Awards, the Independent Feature Project announced Thursday. The film received four nominations in the Gothams’ six categories...

Indie Filmmakers Debate Post-Sundance: ‘Where Is Harvey?’ (Video)

Change continues to buffet the independent film industry, and about 100 writers, directors and producers got together on Thursday to talk about it, courtesy of Rick Rosenthal’s Whitewater Films. Over Mexican food and under Rosenthal’s white...

How Oscar-Nominee ‘War Witch’ Improvised the Gut-Wrenching Tale of Child Soldiers

“Amour” was always the clear favorite in the Oscar foreign-language category, and its win on Sunday was one of the least surprising parts of a generally unsurprising ceremony.

But if Michael Haneke’s drama hadn’t been in the mix, there’s a good chance that Kim Nguyen’s “War Witch” would have emerged as a serious contender for the prize.

The film is the wrenching story of a teenage girl who becomes a child soldier in an unnamed African country – and then, because she can see the dead, the “witch” of the gang of rebels.

Also read: 10 Moments to Remember From a Long, Strange Awards Season

Starring the remarkable Rachel Mwanza, who won the best-actress award at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival, it will receive a post-Oscar release from Tribeca Film on Friday in New York and March 8 in Los Angeles.

Born in Montreal to a Vietnamese father and a French-Canadian mother, Nguyen has made four features. He was able to secure a visa for Mwanza and bring her to the Oscars.

How did you hit upon the story?
I was hunting for good stories, and I just found this amazing story about Johnny Htu, who was a Burmese child soldier. Johnny was nine years old, and he woke up one day and said he was the reincarnation of God. He became a kind of half God. He was forbidden to walk on the soil, because they were afraid it would soil his visions, so he was carried around all day. And he would smoke cigars every day.

Also read: Somali Refugees From 'Asad,' Congolese Actress From 'War Witch' to Attend Oscars 

As a storyteller I thought his story had power and humanity and all the elements that make a good film. And slowly I got pulled into the child-soldier element.

Did you meet with child soldiers while writing the script?
I went to Burundi to meet ex-child soldiers. What I saw in Africa was this complete superimposition of these heavy, intense, war-ridden countries where the love stories are the same as here. You still have boyfriends and girlfriends, and the girlfriends that are jealous because the boyfriend came home late last night. It's very simple. I find that odd and beautiful at the same time, and I wanted to try and convey that.

The story has its supernatural elements – but did you feel pressure to accurately convey a world of child soldiers in which truly horrifying things have happened?
Absolutely. And for me, the way to get it right was not to try to make the characters symbols for any political point of view. In fact, for many drafts we were so worried that we wouldn’t give the right message that we weren’t telling a good story. In the end, that was the greatest gift that this film has given me: to accept brutal honesty and truth. 

In what way?
The best example is the rebels forcing children to kill their own parents. It’s not a generalized way of indoctrination, but it’s quite frequent. We kept trying to make it so maybe the [lead character] didn’t really kill her parents. Maybe she got slapped and lost consciousness, and the general put his finger on her finger, and we keep thinking that she did kill them but she didn’t. And it didn‘t work. In the end, we just had to say, “No, this is how it is.”

Where did you find your lead actress, Rachel Mwanza?
Well, I was really fearful that we weren’t going to find the right actress, because in this case I wouldn’t have a movie. One of the reasons we chose to shot in the Congo is because there was great amazing natural talent there. I guess it‘s from the heritage of verbal storytelling, you know?

And so we did an open call for actors. We already had the intuition that kids from the street could be pretty amazing, because of their rawness and their fearlessness. And it turned out to be pretty true. In the cases where these people could project their own personal lives onto the screen, it was just amazing. And Rachel was the best of them. She had this nonchalance. I guess when you live in the streets and you sleep on the side of the road, you don't care anymore about what people think. You're just there. And that's an amazing tool for an actor.

Was she living on the streets?
She was living on the streets. But as soon as we cast her we established a reinsertion program. She has a caretaker and she has a place to live, and she's back in school. But at the time she was still living on and off the streets.

Does she want to act more now?
She does. I'll have to be honest, there's a long way before she can work. She doesn’t know how to read yet. She’s learning, and she’s getting better. And she has her Facebook page so we can contact her. But she’s still a long way from understanding the subtleties of dialogue. I thinking there’s at least five to 10 years of work.

So Uncle Kim, which is what I am, tells her that she should learn another trade. But she hates me for doing that. She’s a teenager. [laughs] We bought Rachel a phone, and she said, “Kim, I can't put music on this.” There wasn't an MP3 reader and she couldn't take pictures, so she wanted a better phone.

How could she act in your film if she couldn’t read?
Because we work in such a different way. The actors never read the script, and we filmed in continuity. Every day it was like directed improvisations. All of the script and the dialogue was written, but the idea was to direct the improvisation in such a way that the dialogue would appear even though they never read it. And what's strange is that it did. Maybe 85 percent of what is on the page is there on the screen, and the rest is better.

How did you hit upon that process?
I had seen “Fish Tank,” and Andrea Arnold's work method was a huge inspiration. It blew me away in regards to performances. For me, that's my mantra: everything for authentic performances. You don't have a film, for me, if you don't have those performances.

I think Andrea Arnold is really influenced by Cassavetes, and their approach really echoes what I want to do from now on: organize everything so the actors are projecting their own selves on the screen. It makes it really real and raw.

It it hard to get financing when the process is that unconventional?
It was for a while. But Canada has a funding system that is quite organized and specific, and we were fortunate that the script had the strength to convince script analysts that it should be done.

The hardest part was convincing people that there shouldn‘t be Caucasian actors in the film. I’ve seen a lot of films where Africa gets saved, symbolically, by North America. And I wanted to give a voice to the real heroes in the stories.

You’ve made several other films, but “War Witch” was your first to get an Oscar nomination and receive this kind of attention. What was different this time around?
I do feel that “War Witch” was a breakthrough for me, where I was rediscovering my initial impulses to do film. The first three films, they’re my babies and I love all of them. But I did feel that when I did the one before this, “City of Shadows,” I had reached a kind of wall where the pressures of funding institutions, producers, co-production deals and all of that put a kind of varnish over the film that. It wasn’t raw and I didn’t feel that my hand was at the heart of the actors, in a way. I let down the actors because I didn’t push them to where they should have gone.

But in a way, I guess you have to do these films and scrape your knees and stand up.

So what did you do differently?
The big thing was not overpreparing, oddly enough. You prepare in a different way. You prepare in the way of understanding the characters, understanding the people, getting drunk with people in Kinsasha and understanding their lives. It’s not storyboarded anymore. It’s more like, we look at what’s happening and where the actors want to go and we bend our method to what they’re doing on the set. Very different from the previous films.

Related stories from TheWrap:

10 Moments to Remember From a Long, Strange Awards Season

Somali Refugees From 'Asad,' Congolese Actress From 'War Witch' to Attend Oscars

Tribeca Films Acquires U.S. Rights to Child Soldier Drama 'War Witch'

‘Amour,’ ‘Argo’ Win at Cesar Awards

Michael Haneke's drama "Amour" cleaned up at the Cesar Awards in Paris on Friday, taking home numerous top honors including Best Movie, while Ben Affleck's "Argo" took home Best Foreign Language Film.

In all, "Amour" took five awards — Best Movie; Best Director and Best Original Screenplay honors for Haneke, and Best Actress and Best Actor awards for Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant, respectively.

Jacques Audiard's "Rust and Bone" also racked up a number of awards, including Best Male Newcomer for Matthias Schoenaerts, Best Adapted Screenplay for Jacques Audiard and Thomas Bidegain, Best Original Soundtrack for Alexandre Desplat, and Best Editing for Juliette Welfling.

"Waterworld" star Kevin Costner took home the Honorary Cesar award.

 

Related stories from TheWrap:

'Amour' Breaks the 'Zero Dark Thirty' Streak, Wins L.A. Critics' Award

Cannes 2012: Michael Haneke's 'Amour' Wins Palme d'Or

'Amour' Sweeps 2012 European Film Awards

Cuban Women Filmmakers to Make Groundbreaking U.S. Trip

Four prominent Cuban female filmmakers will screen their films in the United States as part of a tri-city program to promote the work of Cuban women and empower women in the film industry. A bevy of organizations, including the Women In Film Internatio...

Drafthouse Film Acquires Punk Documentary ‘A Band Called Death’

Drafthouse Films has acquired North American distribution rights to “A Band Called Death,” Jeff Howlett and Mark Covino’s documentary about the titular proto-punk band. Formed in 1971 by a trio of teenage brothers in Detroit, Death was one of the first punk bands, predating the likes of the Clash and The Ramones.

It disbanded after years of struggling to make a living, only to experience a revival as people rediscovered the band’s music 30 years later.

The film, which premiered last year at the Los Angeles Film Festival, will screen at March’s South by Southwest Film Festival. Drafthouse, the film distribution arm of the Austin-based Alamo Drafthouse Cinema chain, will release it in theaters and on VOD this summer. 

“Howlett and Covino’s film rewrites punk history and also transforms a better-than-fiction music story into a moving, emotional story,” Evan Husney, Drafthouse's creative director, said in a statement. “We are thrilled to be introducing the legacy of Death to audiences around the country.”

Haven Entertainment’s Matthew Perniciaro and Kevin Mann produced, with Jerry Ferrara and OGB Inc.’s Scott Mosier. Cinetic Media’s Linzee Troubh negotiated the deal on behalf of the producers with Drafthouse’s James Emanuel Shapiro.

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AFI Sets Nov. 7 for 2013 Film Festival

The 2013 AFI Fest will present films from new and experienced filmmakers in five locations in Hollywood between Nov. 7 and Nov. 14, the American Film Institute announced on Tuesday.

Sponsored by Audi, the public will have free access to narrative, documentary, animated, experimental and short films at the TCL Chinese Theatre (formerly Grauman's Chinese Theatre), the Chinese 6 Theatres at the Hollywood & Highland Center, the Egyptian Theatre of the American Cinematheque and the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel.

Also read: 'Eat Sleep Die' Wins AFI Fest's New Auteurs Grand Jury Prize

“AFI Fest is where the films of talented emerging filmmakers have the opportunity to screen alongside the current works of masters of the art form,“ festival director Jacqueline Lyanga said in a statement. “Last year’s festival included many extraordinary films from across the globe, from the world premiere of Steven Spielberg’s 'Lincoln' and Ang Lee’s 'Life of Pi' to first-time feature filmmaker Tosh Gitonga’s 'Nairobi Half Life,' whose film was AFI Fest’s Audience Award Breakthrough winner and Kenya’s first-ever Foreign Language Film Oscar submission.”

The festival, which launched in 1987, brought over 200 filmmakers from all over the world to Los Angeles in 2012 to present their films. Highlights included a secret screening of the newest James Bond film, "Skyfall" and the world premiere of Sacha Gervasi's "Hitchcock." Gala screenings included David O. Russell's "Silver Linings Playbook," Dustin Hoffman's "Quartet" and DreamWorks Animation's "Rise of the Guardians."  

Related stories from TheWrap:

AFI Fest: Oscar Hopefuls Meet Indie Auteurs in a Hollywood Free-for-All

'Silver Linings Playbook,' 'Life of Pi' Headed to AFI Fest

Shane Acker to Direct Animated Version of ‘Beasts of Burden’ Comic Series

Shane Acker, Oscar nominee for his 2005 short '9,' will direct an adaptation of the Dark Horse Comics series "Beasts of Burden" for Reel FX, the company announced on Wednesday.

Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson created the comics series, which chronicles a group of animals, mostly dogs, that function as the protectors of a town stricken by paranormal events. Darren Lemke, who wrote "Shrek Forever After," will adapt the comics while Reel FX's Aron Warner will produce alongside Dark Horse Entertainment's Mike Richardson and Strange Weather's Andrew Adamson.

Acker made his first feature in 2009 with "9," which was based on his award-winning short and produced by Tim Burton.

“It’s a pleasure to be working with such accomplished producers and filmmakers on this incredible project," Acker said in a statement. "There is a real independent spirit at Reel FX — the studio is full of energy and fresh ideas — which is necessary to bring this unique story to life.”

Reel FX, a Dallas-based design, visual-effects and animation studio, has been ramping up its feature film division over the past few years. It is already at work on the Guillermo Del Toro-produced "The Book of Life," which Fox will release in 2014, and "Turkeys," which Relativity will release before Thanksgiving in 2014.

It recently hired Warner, who produced the "Shrek" franchise, to lead the company's charge into feature animation. Reel FX aims to make mid-budget animated movies for whichever studio offers the best fit, though in the case of "Beasts" no studio has come aboard yet.

“Reel FX is continuing to partner with some of the leading filmmakers in animation," Warner said in a statement. "Shane is an immense talent and will bring his fresh vision and approach to this adaptation of 'Beasts of Burden.'"

Related stories from TheWrap:

'9' Director Shane Acker: Grilled

Owen Wilson Animated Comedy 'Turkeys' Hitting Theaters in Nov. 2014

Former Village Voice Film Editor Dennis Lim to Program Lincoln Center Film Society

The Film Society of Lincoln Center has appointed former Village Voice film editor Dennis Lim as its new Director of Programming, a position previously held by Robert Koehler.

Koehler is resigning due to unspecified family health problems and moving back to Los Angeles.

Koehler, a critic and festival programmer, took the job in September after Richard Pena, head of programming for both the center and the New York Film Festival, stepped down. Koehler has written for such publications as the Christian Science Monitor and Variety.

“I am leaving the position of Director of Programming both with a sense of regret, particularly the feeling of personal separation from a wonderful staff and programming team, as well as absolute confidence, given the entrance of Dennis Lim, who has been a friend, colleague and fellow cinephile for several years and whom the Film Society is extraordinarily fortunate to have in a leadership role,” Koehler said in a statement.

Lim, who was the film editor of the Village Voice from 2000 to 2006, is a regular contributor to both the New York and Los Angeles Times. A professor at New York University, he is also the founding editor of Moving Image Source, the online magazine of New York's Museum of the Moving Image, where Lim has organized film series.

The Film Society of Lincoln Center spotlights independent and international filmmakers through screenings, retrospectives and festivals. As director of programming, Lim will oversee the curation of those events. He will begin April 1. In the interim Kent Jones, who oversees programming for the New York Film Festival, will do the same for the society as well.

Rose Kuo, executive director of the film society, described Lim as “an ideal partner and leader” thanks to his “important contributions to film writing and his talent as a programmer.” 

“I’m excited and honored to be joining an institution that has played a central role in the vitality of New York film culture and meant a great deal to me personally as a writer and a moviegoer,” Lim said in a statement.

Related stories from TheWrap:

Film Society of Lincoln Center Fundraiser With Tom Cruise Postponed After Newtown Shooting

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Tilda Swinton and Bennett Miller to Be Honored at Gotham Awards

Tilda Swinton and director Bennett Miller will be honored at the 24th annual Gotham Independent Film Awards on Dec. 1 in New York City, the Independent Feature Project announced on Thursday. The Gotham Awards are the primary East Coast award for indepe...

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