Sundance, Black List Partner to Aid Aspiring Filmmakers

The Black List and the Sundance Institute have partnered to offer a bevy of services to aspiring filmmakers, formalizing a relationship between two organizations dedicated to developing new talent.

Aspiring screenwriters who upload their scripts to the website of the Black List by April 15 can ask to receive a Black List referral and apply to the Sundance Institute’s 2014 January Screenwriters Lab for free.

Lab fellows will be able to upload their scripts for free and producers and directors who have been lab fellows since 2010 are eligible for a free membership to the Black List.

“In the last three years alone, more than a dozen scripts sourced from the annual Black List have been made into films that premiered at Sundance Film Festival,” Black List founder Franklin Leonard said in a statement. “Put simply, no single organization in the United States has done more to promote American filmmaking voices in the early stages of their development than the Sundance Institute. It’s a tremendous honor to formalize a relationship and share in their work.”

Though initially launched as a survey of industry executives’ favorite unproduced screenplays, the Black List has expanded into the service business. Screenwriters can pay to upload their screenplays for members to review and can pay an additional fee to have the scripts evaluated by industry professionals.

Leonard aims to turn the service into an industry mainstay, facilitating connections between aspiring screenwriters and the people who can help turn script into film.

Both Sundance’s Feature Film Program and the Black List have endorsed successful works. Three of the last five best pictures winners and seven of the last 12 screenwriting Oscars have gone to scripts that appeared on the Black List while the Sundance program supported Oscar nominee “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and 2013 Sundance favorite “Fruitvale.”

“We are very excited to collaborate with Franklin Leonard and The Black List to identify new writers to be considered for support by the Feature Film Program Labs,” Michelle Satter, Founding Director of Sundance's Feature Film Program, said in a statement. “Additionally, we want to expand the audience for our Lab fellows and see The Black List website as a great avenue for industry discovery, promotion and potential support.”

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Rock Documentary, Brad Pitt-Produced Look at Oil Industry Openers at 2013 Tribeca Film Festival

Forty-six of the 89 feature-length films slated for the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival were announced on Tuesday, including the world premieres for the documentary, narrative and viewpoints selections. 

The festival, founded by Robert De Niro, Jane Rosenthal and Craig Hatkoff after 9/11 to help revitalize the lower Manhattan neighborhood, runs April 17 to 28.

As previously announced, the documentary "Mistaken for Strangers" will make its world premiere on opening night. The film follows the Brooklyn-based band the National on tour and is directed by Tom Berninger, brother of lead singer Matt Berninger. The opening screening will be followed by a performance by the National.

“Big Men,” the Brad Pitt-produced African oil industry documentary written and directed by Rachel Boynton, opens the world documentary section. The narrative selection competition kicks off with “Bluebird” (pictured below right) starring Amy Morton, which director Lance Edmands gives a small Maine logging town the butterfly-effect treatment.

And “Flex Is Kings,” directed Deidre Schoo and Michael Nichols, opens the viewpoints section with a film about the Brooklyn street dance performance called "flexing."

All three films will premiere on April 18.

In all, the 2013 slate includes feature films from 30 different countries, including 53 world premieres, 7 International premieres, 15 North American premieres, 6 U.S. premieres and 8 New York premieres, festival organizers said in a statement.

A total of 113 directors will present feature works at the festival, with 35 of these filmmakers marking their feature directorial debuts. Among those directors, 26 are women. The 2013 film slate was chosen from a total of 6005 submissions.

Following are the films announced on Tuesday; the remainder of the festival's films will be announced Wednesday.


World Narrative Feature Competition

Alì Blue Eyes: Directed by Claudio Giovannesi, written by Filippo Gravino and Giovannesi; Italy. A coming-of-age story about an Muslim immigrant who will stop at nothing to fit in.

Before Snowfall: Directed by Hisham Zaman, written by Kjell Ola Dahl and Zaman; Norway, Germany, Iraqi Kurdistan Region. Zaman brings the moral crisis of honor killing front and center in this international drama.

Bluebird: Directed and written by Lance Edmands; U.S. On a freezing January evening, the seemingly inconsequential actions of a school bus driver forever changes life in a small Maine logging town.

The Broken Circle Breakdown: Directed by Felix van Groeningen, written by Carl Joos and van Groeningen; Belgium. A couple from different worlds (he plays in a bluegrass band, she runs a tattoo shop) fight to save their marriage after their daughter is born.

Hide Your Smiling Faces: Directed and written by Daniel Patrick Carbone; U.S. During a hot summer in rural America, two brothers are confronted with devastation as death forces its way into their young lives.

Just a Sigh: Directed and written by Jérôme Bonnell; France. In the short break between performances, a stage actress makes a quick trip to Paris and meets a mysterious English stranger.

Lily: Directed by Matt Creed, written by Amy Grantham and Creed; U.S. Nearing the end of her treatment for breast cancer, a woman focuses on life with newfound clarity, reevaluating her relationship with an older man and her feelings about her long-absent father.

The Rocket: Directed and written by Kim Mordaunt; Australia. Set against the lush backdrop of rural Laos, this drama tells the story of scrappy ten-year-old who yearns to break free from his ill-fated destiny.

Six Acts: Directed by Jonathan Gurfinkel, written by Rona Segal; Israel. North A naïve teen is determined to improve her social status by hooking up with her new school’s coolest guy. 

Stand Clear of the Closing Doors: Directed by Sam Fleischner, written by Rose Lichter-Marck and Micah Bloomberg; U.S. When an autistic teen is scolded for skipping class, he escapes into the subway for a days-long odyssey among the subway’s disparate denizens. 

Sunlight Jr.: Directed and written by Laurie Collyer; U.S..  – A Quickie-mart employee and her paraplegic boyfriend are blissfully in love until she gets pregnant and their happy life comes crashes down. Stars Naomi Watts and Matt Dillon.

Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?: Directed and written by Arvin Chen; Taiwan. Strait-laced optometrist is finding the typical married life difficult until he bumps into an old flame, setting off an unexpected array of dormant emotions.

World Documentary Feature Competition

Aatsinki: The Story of Arctic Cowboys: Directed and written by Jessica Oreck; Finland. In the forests of Finnish Lapland, two brothers carry on the generations-old tradition of reindeer herding.

Alias Ruby Blade: A Story of Love and Revolution: Directed by Alex Meillier, written by Tanya Ager Meillier and Meillier; U.S. Kirsty Sword Gusmão went to Timor-Leste to document injustice and struggle for independence in an area closed to Western journalists.

Big Men(directed, written by Rachel Boynton; U.S. Director Rachel Boynton gains unprecedented access to Africa's oil companies.

The Genius of Marian: Directed by Banker White and Anna Fitch; U.S. Weaving past into present, filmmakers immerse the audience in the daily life of a mother suffering with Alzheimer’s.

The Kill Team: Directed by Dan Krauss, written by Lawrence Lerew, Linda Davis and Krauss; U.S. In 2010, the media branded a platoon of U.S. Army infantry soldiers “The Kill Team” following reports of its killing for sport in Afghanistan.

Let the Fire Burn: Directed by Jason Osder; U.S. Documentary of the incidents leading up to and during the 1985 standoff between the extremist African-American organization MOVE and Philadelphia authorities.

Michael H. Profession: Director: Directed and written by Yves Montmayeur; Austria, France. A career-spanning documentary about director Michael Haneke’s work, offering insight into his creative process through on-set footage and interviews.

Oxyana: Directed by Sean Dunne; U.S. Oceana, West Virginia — known as “Oxyana” after its residents’ epidemic abuse of OxyContin — is a tragically real example of the insidious spread of drug dependency throughout the country.

Powerless: Directed by Fahad Mustafa, Deepti Kakkar, written by Mustafa; India.Film sheds light on the people of Kanpur, India, who put themselves in harm’s way to get electrical power is all too common.

Raw Herring: Directed by Leonard Retel Helmrich and Hetty Naaijkens-Retel Helmrich; Netherlands. Raw Herring celebrates the cultural legacy maintained by Holland’s last great herring fishers even as new trends and foreign competition threaten their way of life. 

Red Obsession: Directed and written by David Roach and Warwick Ross; Australia. – Documentary about France’s Bordeaux region as it struggles with and courts the spike in demand, sending prices skyrocketing.

Teenage: Directed by Matt Wolf, written by Jon Savage and Wolf; U.S. Documentary repositions the historical origin of teenagers and shows why those years are more than just a stepping-stone to adulthood.


A Birder's Guide to Everything: Directed by Rob Meyer, written by Luke Matheny and Meyer; U.S. On the eve of a widowed father’s second wedding, 15-year-old son leads members of his local Young Birders Society on rollicking, interstate search for an extremely rare duck.

Bending Steel: Directed by Dave Carroll, written by Ryan Scafuro and Carroll; U.S. Follows Chris Schoeck as he parlays his extraordinary strength into the pursuit of his lifelong dream — becoming the Coney Island Strongman.

BIG JOY: The Adventures of James Broughton: Directed by Stephen Silha, Eric Slade, and Dawn Logsdon; U.S. Follows poet-filmmaker James Broughton's deeply intertwined creative and personal lives.

Bridegroom: Directed and written by Linda Bloodworth Thomason; U.S. Gives an intensely personal edge to the ongoing debate over the legal rights of same-sex couples.

Cutie and the Boxer: Directed by Zachary Heinzerling, written by Ada Bligaard Soby; U.S. Once a rising if unruly star in the ’70s art scene, eighty-year-old “boxing” painter Ushio Shinohara now struggles to establish his artistic legacy.

Dancing in Jaffa: Directed by Hilla Medalia, written by Philip Shane and Medalia; U.S.. Renowned ballroom dancer Pierre Dulain stars in this charming documentary that offers a unique perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Deep Powder: Directed by Mo Ogrodnik; U.S. A boarding school senior makes a cocaine run to Ecuador. 

Farah Goes Bang: Directed by Meera Menon, written by Laura Goode and Menon; U.S. Coming-of-age tale about a girl who hits the road with her buddies to stump for John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election, hoping the trip will be her opportunity to finally shed her unwanted virginity.

Flex Is Kings: Directed by Deidre Schoo and Michael Nichols; U.S. Journey to the edge of Brooklyn and of street performance itself in this sparkling portrait of the freeing power of art.

Floating Skyscrapers: Directed and written by Tomasz Wasilewski; Poland. Two young men meet at an art opening and sparks fly in this story of finding love.

Harmony Lessons: Directed and written by Emir Baigazin; Kazakhstan, Germany, France. Symbolism and striking cinematography help us navigate the complicated landscape of a teenager’s mind in this insightful Kazakh film about violence among children.

Jîn: Directed and written by Reha Erdem; Turkey. Erdem relays in radiant detail the effects of the decades-long Turkish-Kurdish conflict.

Kiss the Water: Directed by Eric Steel; U.S., U.K. Travel to Scotland’s far northern highlands and explore the life and remarkable influence of Megan Boyd, fishing fly-maker extraordinaire.

Lenny Cooke: Directed by Benny Safdie and Joshua Safdie; U.S.. – World Premiere, Documentary follows Lenny Cooke, the most hyped high school basketball player in the country, ranked above future greats LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony in 2001. A decade later, he has never played a minute in the NBA.

The Moment: Directed by Jane Weinstock, written by Jane Gloria Norris and Weinstock; U.S. Narrative film about the mysterious disappearance of an artist.

Northwest: Directed by Michael Noer, written by Rasmus Heisterberg and Noer; Denmark. Territory, power and pride are the seismic forces in this adrenaline-fueled narative crime thriller.

Odayaka: Directed and written by Nobuteru Uchida; Japan. North American Premiere, Narrative film about the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011.

The Patience Stone: Directed by Atiq Rahimi, written by Jean-Claude Carrère and Atiq Rahimi; Afghanistan, France, Germany. Narrative. A woman tends to her comatose husband, an injured rebel fighter in an unnamed, war-torn village, only whispering of her fear for their two young daughters' lives.

Run and Jump: Directed by Steph Green, written by Ailbhe Keogan; Ireland, Germany. Narrative. After a stroke leaves her husband disabled and fundamentally changed, a spirited Irish wife struggles to keep her family members together.

Taboor: Directed and written by Vahid Vakilifar; Iran. Narrative. A lone motorcyclist travels the empty streets of Tehran at night.

Wadjda: Directed and written by Haifaa  Al-Mansour; Saudi Arabia, Germany. Narrative. Meet Wadjda (Waad Mohammed., a feisty, funny and wholly unconventional ten-year-old girl determined to scrounge up enough money to buy a bicycle, despite the societal repercussions sure to follow.

What Richard Did: Directed by Lenny Abrahamson, written by Malcolm Campbell; Ireland. Narrative. Charismatic Richard leads a group of devoted friends through the rituals of their final summer break together: partying on the beach, hazing younger students, hooking up. But the good times will not last forever.


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James Franco Protests Australia’s ‘Really Silly’ Decision to Ban Gay-Themed Film (Video)

James Franco is asking the Australian Classification Board to reconsider its decision to ban "I Want Your Love," a feature film from Franco's "Interior. Leather Bar." co-director, Travis Matthews.

"This just is such a disappointment to me and just seems really silly," Franco says in a video uploaded to Matthews' YouTube channel on Monday. 

Also read: Who Is James Franco? Artist Marina Abramović Wants Her Film to Answer That

Matthews' film –'I Want Your Love" –exploring gay male relationships has been banned from screening at festivals in Australia due to scenes containing explicit sex that the censors don't believe have any narrative context.

Franco disagrees.

"Travis is making this film, including sex because he wants to explore story and character in the nuances that sex contains," the actor says. "Because films have been banned because of sex, sex in films hasn't had a chance to grow and become a sophisticated storytelling device."

"I Want Your Love" was scheduled to be screened twice at the Melbourne Queer Film Festival this month, but organizers have reluctantly replaced the programming and apologized to the audience.

"We're shocked that Classification Australia have taken this path. 'I Want Your Love' has screened to critical acclaim at dozens of festivals around the world. Australia is the first film festival to have it banned," a message on the MQFF's website reads. "We're sorry our audience won't be able to make up its own minds about adult content."

Franco, who returns to the box office this weekend in Sam Raimi's "Oz the Great and Powerful," agrees that adults should "be able to choose" their own viewing. 

"They're not going in blind. I don't know why, in this day and age, something like this — a film that is using sex, not for titillation, but to talk about being human — is being banned," he concludes. "It's just embarrassing."

Watch Franco's plea:

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Sundance Expands Film Festival to Hollywood This Summer

Sundance is coming to Los Angeles. The Sundance Institute will launch a four-day film festival in Hollywood this summer, an extension of the Sundance Film Festival’s NEXT section.

That section of the Park City, Utah-based festival features films that take risks with visual and narrative style, defined by little more than their audacious filmmakers. It launched in 2010, and has been home to such projects as Craig Zobel's divisive thriller "Compliance," Mike Birbiglia's "Sleepwalk With Me" and Alexandre Moors' unreleased "Blue Caprice."

The new festival will feature unreleased films, panels, a shorts program and the annual ShortsLab: Los Angeles, a short filmmaking workshop. There is no lineup yet for this summer.

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Running from Aug. 8 to 11, NEXT Weekend will be headquartered at Sundance’s own Sundance Sunset Cinemas in West Hollywood and will have additional screenings around the city at venues like the Museum of Contemporary Art and Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Sundance has already expanded to London.

“The best part of independent filmmaking is the freedom to tell your stories your own way, to take risks and not be beholden to convention of any kind. At the core of NEXT Weekend are artists that are taking risks and pushing boundaries,” Robert Redford, president & founder of Sundance Institute, said in a statement. “As such, it’s fitting that Sundance Cinemas will be the home for this festival and these films.”

The festivities will begin with an outdoor screening Aug. 8 at the cemetery and end with screenings at venues across the city.

The Los Angeles summer festival lineup grows more and more crowded, as this new event follows June’s Los Angeles Film Festival and July’s Outfest. 

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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.

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Independent Box Office: ‘Stoker’ Debuts to $22K Average

“Stoker,” the psychological thriller from director Park Chan-wook, averaged an impressive $22,689 per theater in its specialty box-office debut this weekend.

Fox Searchlight released the film, starring Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode, and Nicole Kidman, in seven theaters and its grossed $158,822 over the three days. In "Stoker," a mysterious and charming man comes to live with a young woman and her unstable mother after her father dies.

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Also debuting was “Leviathan,” the documentary about the commercial fishing trade in the North Atlantic. It took in $10,018 on one screen at New York's IFC Center, distributor Cinema Guild reported.

Tribeca Films' “War Witch,” the Best Foreign Language Oscar-nominated tale of a 14-year-old African girl telling her unborn child the story of her life amid a war, opened to $10,260 on two theaters.

Also opening was "Hava Nagila," a documentary on the history, mystery, and meaning of the ubiquitous Jewish standard that follows the around-the-world journey of the song from Ukraine to Youtube. Harry Belafonte, Connie Francis and Leonard Nimoy appear in the film, which took in $9,521 from a single New York theater for International Film Circuit.

The Weinstein Company expanded “Quartet,” Dustin Hoffman's directorial debut set in a retirement home for musicians, from 356 theaters to 725. It took in $1.7 million, an average of $2,428 and raised its domestic total after eight weeks to $8.9 million.

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‘Stoker’ Review: When Style Becomes Self-Parody

The translation of foreign films for American audiences involves subtleties as much as it does subtitles. The unspoken social norms of a Japanese movie, say, or the lugubrious personal tragedy of a French film work perfectly within their own cultural c...

Sofia Coppola’s ‘The Bling Ring’ Arrives in June; Sundance Darling ‘The Spectacular Now’ Set...

A24 will release Sofia Coppola's "The Bling Ring" June 14 and James Ponsoldt's Sundance hit is set for "The Spectacular Now" Aug. 2, the independent distributor announced on Thursday.

A24 acquired both projects in January — "The Bling Ring" on the eve of Sundance and "Spectacular" after it screened well at the Utah-based festival.

Coppola's film stars Emma Watson as one member of a group of real-life kids who tracked celebrities' wherabouts in order to rob their homes. They stole more than $3 million of goods from the likes of Paris Hilton.

Coppola wrote and directed the film based on Nancy Jo Sales’ Vanity Fair article, “The Suspects Wore Louboutins."

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Ponsoldt's film stars Miles Teller as Sutter, a high-school senior who refuses to think about his future as those around him begin to plan for college and the next phase of their lives. After breaking up with his girlfriend, he meets Aimee (Shailene Woodley), a sweet, hard-working girl whose life contrasts with his own more hedonistic approach. 

"(500) Days of Summer's" Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber wrote the script.

A24 launched publicly last August and just released its first movie, Roman Coppola's "A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III." It will open two more in March, "Ginger & Rosa" and "Spring Breakers," before turning to these two summer titles.

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Steven Spielberg to Head Cannes Film Festival Jury

Steven Spielberg, the Oscar-winning director, will head the jury of the Cannes FIlm Festival, the festival announced on Thursday.

The 66th Cannes Film Festival will take place from May 15-26 of this year.

The Oscar-winning director, fresh off the success of his epic "Lincoln," said in a prepared statement: “My admiration for the steadfast mission of the Festival to champion the international language of movies is second to none. The most prestigious of its kind, the festival has always established the motion picture as a cross cultural and generational medium.”

Spielberg has been a regular presence at the international film festival over the decades. His first film, "Sugarland Express," was selected for the festival in 1974 and won Best Screenplay.

Gilles Jacob, the president of the festival said in a news release: "I’ve often asked Steven to be Jury President, but he’s always been shooting a film. So when this year I was told 'E.T., phone home,' I understood and immediately replied: 'At last!'"

Here is the official news release:

Steven Spielberg, Jury President of the 66th Festival de Cannes

“My admiration for the steadfast mission of the Festival to champion the international language of movies is second to none. The most prestigious of its kind, the festival has always established the motion picture as a cross cultural and generational medium.”

Taking over the reins from the Italian Nanni Moretti, American director and producer Steven Spielberg agrees to head up the jury of the 66th Cannes Film Festival taking place May 15-26 this year.

“As they say across the Atlantic”, said Gilles Jacob, President of the Festival de Cannes, “Steven Spielberg is a Cannes ‘regular’: Sugarland Express, Color Purple. But it was with E.T. that I screened as a world premiere in ‘82 that ties were made of the type you never forget. Ever since, I’ve often asked Steven to be Jury President, but he’s always been shooting a film. So when this year I was told “E.T., phone home”, I understood and immediately replied: “At last!”

“Steven Spielberg accepted in principle two years ago”, declared Thierry Frémaux, General Delegate of the Festival. “He was able to make himself available this year to be the new Jury President and when meeting him these last few weeks it has been obvious he’s excited about the job. Because of his films, and the many causes he holds dear, he’s year-in year-out the equal of the very greatest Hollywood filmmakers. We are very proud to count him among us.”

“The memory of my first Cannes Film Festival, nearly 31 years ago with the debut of E.T., is still one of the most vibrant memories of my career, Spielberg goes on. For over six decades, Cannes has served as a platform for extraordinary films to be discovered and introduced to the world for the first time. It is an honor and a privilege to preside over the jury of a festival that proves, again and again, that cinema is the language of the world."

Steven Spielberg was born in Ohio in 1946. A film enthusiast from a very young age, one of his first shorts, Amblin – got him through the doors of Universal Television which produced his first films. Success came very quickly: Duel (1971), originally made for television, was so well received that a feature length version was released in theatres.

The first film he made for cinema, Sugarland Express, was selected for the Festival de Cannes in 1974 and won Best Screenplay.

Following these promising auteur debuts, he had a series of international successes: Jaws (1975); Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and E.T. (1982) which was presented as the closing film of the Festival de Cannes and was the very last Festival screening shown in the former Palais Croisette theatre.

In 1993, Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, like many of his films, beat all records for box-office takings in the United States: his big budget entertainment movies, of great and varied inspiration, brought about a renewal of the Hollywood entertainment genre, creating new ties with the themes of adventure and sci-fi, and are hugely popular with an extremely wide audience of all ages.

The abundant imagination that characterises Steven Spielberg and has him say of himself “I dream for a living”, is combined with boundless curiosity, a delight in innovation and a virtuoso talent for directing.

Famous for his commercial successes, he also astonishes with his more intimate and socially engaged works which confront audiences head-on: The Color Purple (1986), Empire of the Sun (1987) and Schindler’s List (1993), which brought him the highest accolades as well as a clutch of Oscars, including Best Director.

His filmography is a constant to and fro between dream and reality, switching from entertainment films to serious reflections on history, racism or the human condition, testimony to his hope for a peaceful, reconciled world.

In his 40-year career, he has made 27 films, most of which are important moments in the history of world cinema: everyone has seen, or will one day see Saving Private Ryan (1998), Minority Report (2002), Catch Me If You Can (2002), War of the Worlds (2005), or the recent The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn (2011), his first film in 3D.

His Lincoln, a captivating portrait of the man who abolished slavery in the United States, is currently a huge success in his own country as well as in France where it has already been seen by over a million people. The film enabled Spielberg to set Daniel Day-Lewis up for his third Oscar as Best Actor (no other actor before having accomplished this feat).

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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.

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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.

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