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I got to meet with the stars of three upcoming films from Lionsgate today. First was Australian Joel Edgerton and British Tom Hardy who play estranged brothers from Pittsburgh in “Warrior,” the story of a mixed martial arts championship bout that pits them against each other. Oh, and their father is played by Nick Nolte. I’ve seen it, and it is as fun as it sounds, sort of like two Rockys kicking and punching each other. They arrived two months before shooting to work on their fight skills (and “East coast with a blue collar edge” accent).  “I have mad love for Pittsburgh,” Hardy told us.  Working with Nolte was a huge draw, especially since the movie has a “70’s vibe,” he said.  “He’s got a face carved from the rock of method acting.  Very specific.”  Edgerton liked the way the story had “two protagonists marching toward the same battlefield.”

Dominic Cooper talked with us about “The Devil’s Double,” an amazing true story of a man hired to impersonate Saddam Hussein’s son Uday.  Cooper plays both roles.  “I loved it,” he said.  “Completely exhilarating.”  While it was a challenge to work without another actor to help develop the scene, he was grateful for the opportunity to take a break from the exhaustion of playing the psychotic Uday to play the double, “a good man, an observer, watching the madness play out.”  To find a way to reach into the character of Uday, who had “nothing I could find any remorse for, my way in was ‘why was he like this?'”

And then we spoke to the producer and three stars from the new “Conan the Barbarian” movie, coming out next month. Producer Fredrik Malmberg told us he worked for ten years to bring this movie to the screen. His primary focus was to return to the original spirit of Conan’s creator, Robert E. Howard, rather than try to remake the John Milius, Arnold Schwarzenegger classic of the 1980’s. “Schwarzenegger was his own special effect,” he said. “We are going back to the source material, back to Howard.” It was good to be back at Comic-Con, where the deal for the movie was made four years ago.  Jason Momoa and Rachel Nicols talked to us about playing Conan and Tamara, as he was eating all of the meat out of a Subway sandwich.  “Meat every two hours, bland, no salt, lift heavy weights, and sword training,” was his description of the regime required for the role.  Nichols talked about her character, who at first “has no idea who she is, what she is going to represent,” but “an innate warrior.”  And they spoke about filming in Bulgaria, which “offered up a lot” in terms of terrain and climate.

Dreamworks brought in the cast and the people behind “Fright Night,” who talked to us about remaking the 1985 horror film about the suburban teen with a vampire next door.  That film’s star, Chris Sarandon, appears in the remake, written by Marti Noxon, something of an expert on vampires from writing and producing “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”  The tone had to be updated, she explained.  “The boys would be aware of genre conventions.  We live in a ‘Twilight’ universe.”  It retains some of the humor of the original, “but in a very grounded way.  People are funny in a scary situation, not in a funny situation.”  But, she assured us, “it’s not campy because that makes you not believe the scary part.”  Colin Farrell, who plays Jerry, the neighbor, told us he views the character as enjoying the threat he imposes on the boys in the neighborhood, but he is “debonair, cultured, suave.” He “treats humans like a cat treats a ball of wool, like playthings.  He has no human virtues.”

You’d think that after helming the Starship Enterprise and three X-Men movies, Patrick Stewart would be an old hand.  But his first-ever visit to Comic-Con is on behalf of…”Dorothy of Oz,” an animated film opening in the summer of 2012.  It is based on a book written by the grandson of Oz creator L. Frank Baum and Stewart’s co-stars include Lea Michele (Dorothy), Kelsey Grammer (Tin Man), Jim Belushi (Lion), Martin Short (the villain), and Dan Ackroyd (Scarecrow).  He talked to me about the great advantage of doing voice work as an actor — being allowed to overact!


More coming soon — stay tuned.

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Mike Cahill and Brit Marling co-wrote “Another Earth.”  He directed, shot, and edited, and she stars as Rhoda, a gifted teenager who makes a tragic mistake.  Driving home after a party, she causes an accident that kills a young mother and her son and injures the father, a professor of music, played by William Mapother (“In the Bedroom” and “Lost”).  When she gets out of prison, she goes to see him to apologize, but when he answers the door she loses her nerve.  She tells him she is there to offer a trial house-cleaning service, and ends up going back every week.

Meanwhile, another planet has been discovered that looks exactly like earth, and an industrialist is planning to take an expedition to see if it is really an exact parallel.

It is an extraordinarily accomplished film and I was delighted to get a chance to speak with Mike and Brit.

Mike Cahill

What was it like to have your movie premiere at Sundance?

It was a dream come true, so much fun.  It was interesting to have this little baby and release it to the world there.  The programmers are so cool and thoughtful.  I loved every moment.

And what has been the reaction now that it is about to be released?

It’s been positive.  The Q&A’s have been one of my favorite things.  There’s always something new that comes out of them.  They haven’t been repetitive.

William Mapother is extraordinary in the film.  How did he work with you on creating his character?

I loved how in “In the Bedroom” he had such a fully realized character.  He had this intensity and intimidating screen energy that was wonderful because I could harness that for the beginning of his arc, and then as his character develops, we could crack that open and this joyous light that he does have inside could shine through and it would be really beautiful.  He read the script, we talked for two hours on the phone and he said, “I’m in.”  What was great was that he really dug into his character.  I really wanted to have rehearsals with Brit and he was very generous to give us two weeks.  We would meet every day at his house in Los Angeles and read the script and get on our feet and work through scenes.  I wanted to create an atmosphere that was very free and open for collaboration.  Because both Brit and William cared so deeply and did so much homework, their ideas about how things would unfold were very important to me.  So almost in a Mike Leigh way we would just freeform and feel it out.  We didn’t change too much but we did add a few scenes and tweak a little bit of dialog and subtract some things.  It was really organic and freeing and really helped me.  When someone enters the room who is living from the POV of their character so deeply, and you can tell that they’ve done that hard work of imagining the childhood, the lifelong experience prior to the first frame of the film, they have that passion for the project and what they are bringing is really valuable.

There’s a moment where he’s parked outside her house.  She comes over to the car and William said, “My character would ask her to come around the other side because he’d be scared of traffic, right?” One little line, one little idea, yet so meaningful about that person’s life and experience.  One extra beat in the film but it adds a great deal of authenticity.

One thing that surprised me about the film is how expensive it looks because I know you made it for very little money.  If you had another million dollars in the budget, what would you have spent it on?

Better craft services!  I think the budgetary constraints are a gift to the artist.  Your mind has to be creative in different ways and it opens up different channels and makes you think of interesting solutions.   I wouldn’t change it.  I’d pay everyone more if I had more money but that’s it.

One of my favorite scenes is when the earth scientist communicates with her counterpart on the other planet.  It was really well done.

That was inspired by the moon landing.  The everyman and everywoman experience of watching it on television, and all these people walking out of their houses and looking up at the moon.  I took those stories and said, we’re not the hundred million dollar Hollywood movie, where you can show the spacecraft landing.  We’re telling the story of the people who watch what is happening on television.  And somehow there is a power and connection because it affects everyone.  And that moment when she realizes she is talking to herself in a way worked on the page, in rehearsals, right from the beginning.  The performance by Diane Cielsa was wonderful, so specific.

Tell me about your ideas on the look of the film.

There were certain colors that were very important.  In the first ten minutes of the film, Rhoda has this red dress and it’s the only time we see red.  It was symbolic of her energy and vitality.  Later we only see it with the two things that remind us of John’s past, his child’s robot and his wife’s sweater.  Other than that, it’s all blue, gray, very drab.  All of it reflects the story.  As their relationship begins to blossom, the colors warm up.  As he gets his life back, he begins to dress like the man he was.  We wanted it to be subtle but enough to inform the story.

You mentioned Mike Leigh.  What other film-makers have inspired you?

Julian Schnabel’s film, “Basquiat” made me want to make films.  I’d always been interested in film but it was my hobby.  There was something about the way he made the film, so freeing, breaking convention in an artful way, it is poetry.  Then I became obsessed!  And I love Krzysztof Kieslowski, the way his films are based in realism but with something magical underneath.

You didn’t study film at Georgetown.  You studied economics.

With economics, you understand incentives, opportunity costs, efficiency, all vital elements to making a film and living life!

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Brit Marling

Mike told me about how closely you worked with William Mapother on your characters and their relationship.  What was that like for you?

The moment he signed on was the moment we had a movie.  Mike and I had both seen his work in “Lost,” and when the casting director recommended him, and we were like, “He’s perfect!  The part seemed so right for him.”  He has such a gravitas on screen.  No one else could have filled out the part the way he did.  He has this intense energy and this very deep romantic side.  He is really thorough at how he approaches the character, which is really inspiring.  He thinks of every date, the times, the season, what it has been like to be on these medicines, what he is still taking, how that is affecting him.  It feels very real because he’s done his homework.  He also showed us that Rhoda and John needed a bit more time to come together.  He said, “I wouldn’t open up that quickly.  It’s going to take a few goes.”  We added more time, more breath into that and it felt more natural.

How do you as a screenwriter learn from your experience as an actress or the other way around?

When you begin the acting part of it, you’ve done a lot of the homework for the part through the writing.  You have spent so much time daydreaming and imagining Rhoda from a writing perspective that when you put on the actor hat you have already thought through quite a bit of the story.  You’re always trying to say the most through the fewest number of scenes and the least dialog.  The power of cinema is not auditory — someone once told me a play is 80 percent auditory and 20 percent visual and a film is the reverse.  You’re really thinking of everything as part of the whole.  How do you get to the heart of the relationship between two people in three scenes as opposed to five?  How can you keep whittling it away to get to the center of emotion?

You set a challenge for yourself as an actress in creating a character who does so much internally, very subdued.  You had to convey a lot through expression rather than dialog.

I didn’t really notice because when you’re in it, you feel like it is deafeningly loud.  The emotions are like nuclear bombs and fireworks are going on inside you, the sight of his house — you don’t say anything because you don’t need to.  What could you possibly say?

Rhoda is befriended by a janitor who takes a shocking and tragic step.  Tell me about his contribution to the story.

We felt that both John and Rhoda really needed to be disconnected from other people.  That’s why the connection they find in each other is so important.  But we also liked the idea of someone who has a foil or a mirror to Rhoda who is also suffering tremendous grief.  You don’t find out why but you don’t need to.  They recognize in each other the symptoms of grief.  And in the way he hurts himself, you feel that potential danger for her, too.  You see what that intensity of internal suffering can cause.

What does the element of science fiction, which is underplayed but important, add to this film?

I love “Twelve Monkeys,” the power of that final scene.  There is something about science fiction that can get to the ineffable things that we feel but cannot explain, the way we feel connected to each other and to alternate versions of ourselves.  We can’t articulate that yet through science.  Are there an infinite number of mes talking to an infinite number of yous?  Science fiction, like spirituality, gives us a vocabulary, a poetry, a breath, to get to the unsayable things.

“Shut up, Katherine Heigl,” says our heroine, as she passes by a wall of posters for another fungible romantic comedy that should be sued for deceptive advertising.  Jamie (Mila Kunis) is an executive recruiter who wants to believe in love but has had a series of relationships with guys who took her heart and stomped that sucker flat. Dylan (Justin Timberlake) is the hotshot design guy she recruited to move from a web job in California to GQ in New York.  While Jamie wants intimacy too much, Dylan wants to avoid it.

And while we all want a good, old-fashioned (but not too old-fashioned) date movie romantic comedy, we don’t want the same old Jennifers and Jessicas getting into the same old situations.  The problem is that it is harder and harder to find reasons for keeping the couple that the audience knows is destined to be together from having sex for a whole 100 minutes.  And so we get the second movie in seven months that tries to turn the usual story upside down.  Let’s let them have sex right away but then learn how much they love each other.  It works better here than in No Strings Attached because it has a cleverer script and better chemistry.  There’s a terrific beginning as we see Jamie and Dylan on the phone with her waiting in front of a theater and him explaining that he isn’t really late.  We think they’re talking to each other when it turns out they’re on opposite sides of the country and both about to be dumped (great cameos by Andy Samberg and Emma Stone).  So Dylan is recruited by Jamie for the GQ job and as she sells him on New York, complete with a flash mob in Times Square, they have the rhythms of a couple who are destined to be together.  But in the immutable laws of movie romance, both must learn important lessons (and look gorgeous while doing so) before they figure that out.  So they decide to have sex as friends without becoming boyfriend and girlfriend.

It’s a movie with a couple of references to “Seinfeld,” but apparently everyone missed the 1991 episode called “The Deal,” in which long-time exes-turned friends Elaine and Jerry decide they can have sex without an emotional attachment or romance.   It doesn’t work, and there is something a bit off-putting about characters who think it can.  Elaine and Jerry were famously “no learning, no hugging” people who were hilariously superficial and self-involved.  But Jamie and Dylan are supposed to get us on their side and talking and behaving like people for whom sex does not mean anything creates a hurdle we have difficulty getting over.  While the film avoids some of the pitfalls of the romantic comedy formula, it falls into others, with sketchily-drawn back-stories and distracting detours like an un-funny part for Shaun White and a silly repeated joke about whether pilots are important in landing a plane.  Kunis and Timberlake are as great on screen as individuals and as a team and there are some funny and entertaining moments, especially when Dylan explains his childhood affection for Kris Kross.  Ultimately, though, it is as formulaic as the movie-within-a-movie they watch together.  That one stars Jason Segal and Rashida Jones and has a sly dig to the fake NY locations filmed in LA and some outtakes over the end credits.  It — or something just like it — should be in theaters soon.

Any day I get to talk to Guy Pearce, Carey Mulligan, Ron Perlman, get to hear the latest on “Twilight: Breaking Dawn, Part 1,” and get to hang out with Power Rangers and the Madagascar Penguins is a very fine day indeed.

In case I haven’t mentioned it lately, I love Comic-Con.  Last night, we got to preview the Exhibition Hall and watch episodes of some upcoming television shows, including a story of a community of witches from Kevin Williamson (the “Scream” movies)  called “The Secret Circle” and a thriller with echoes of “Quantum Leap” and “The Bourne Identity” called “Person of Interest,” starring Michael Emerson, Taraji P. Hensen, and James Caviezel.  Today I attended a press conference for the cast of “Twilight: Breaking Dawn, Part 1.”  Fans who had lined up for days to get into the panel discussion in Comic-Con’s largest room, the 6000-person capacity Hall H, hit the jackpot when some of the cast stopped by to say hello.

Elizabeth Reaser (Esme) spoke about the satisfaction of exploring a character over a series of films, and Ashley Greene (Alice) mentioned she had grown up playing her character.  They all said that they enjoyed filming the wedding scene, though it was a challenge due to the level of security necessary to keep the details a secret from the fans.  Kristen Stewart (Bella) said they had “Secret Service-style” protection and that she ended up wearing a Volturi cloak to cover her wedding dress.  They joked about finding an extra in Brazil who looked so much like Lautner they had to move him to the back so that the audience would not get confused and think that Jacob had somehow shown up to spy on Bella and Edward (Robert Pattinson).

When asked about their biggest challenges in this film, Stewart said it was mothering an animatronic baby and Lautner said it was the scene where he had to “walk into the room intent on killing this baby, stop, twist, and imprint, whatever that means.” He said he spent a lot of time talking to author Stephanie Meyer about what she had in mind.  And Pattinson said his biggest challenge was having to take his shirt off.  “In the book, Edward’s body is there every three pages, but I’ve managed to avoid it until this one.”

Ron Perlman and Carey Mulligan spoke to a small group of reporters about their stylish upcoming thriller “Drive,” along with director Nicolas Winding Refn.  Ryan Gosling plays a stunt driver who gets pulled into intrigue and violence to protect a young mother.  Perlman told us that like his character, he is a Jew who always wanted to be an Italian.  Perlman is drawn to the culture and food of Italy, but his character wants to be a powerful criminal.  The character in the original script was not fully described.  Perlman liked the way Refn worked with the actors on “unearthing the world and what our value and function was in the story.”  Mulligan described her relationship with Gosling in the film as the “calm center with chaos all around.”  They are surrounded by “witty, intelligent, terrifying characters” while they are almost silent.  Refn told us that “It came out of my not liking talking.  Silence is the greatest word.”  He also said, “Music gets me going.”  In the film he used 70’s electronic music to match the main character’s vintage car.

More coming soon — stay tuned.