INTERVIEW: JOE WRIGHT, FILM
DIRECTOR - THE SOLOIST - A TRUE LIFE, A TRUE FILM
Filmmaker Joe Wright on the set of "The Soloist" with the film's star, Jamie Foxx, who plays Nathaniel Ayers, a genius musician now homeless
and afflicted with schizophrenia. Mr. Ayers is a real-life musician with mental illness who tries to recapture past glories as depicted by the
Oscar-winning actor. Robert Downey Jr. stars as Los Angeles Times journalist Steve Lopez, who wrote the book on which Susannah Grant's script
is based. (Francois Duhamel/Paramount Pictures)
Joe Wright's Downtown L.A., With Ayers Of Glory And Greatness
By Omar P.L. Moore/PopcornReel.com SHARE
Thursday, April 9, 2009
SAN FRANCISCO, California --
Filmmaker Joe Wright has just strolled into a suite at the Four Seasons Hotel here. He's been strolling these plush confines all day long and before much longer he is sitting curled up in a single seat comfy chair, barefoot, ready to talk to a trio of assembled journalists about his new film "The Soloist", which opens in the U.S. and Canada on April 24. The Paramount Pictures release stars Academy Award winner Jamie Foxx as Nathaniel Ayers, a brilliant musician and Julliard School scholarship winner blighted by schizophrenia and homeless for several years on Skid Row in Downtown Los Angeles, and Robert Downey Jr. as Steve Lopez, a columnist at the Los Angeles Times.
"The Soloist", set in Los Angeles in 2005 in the times of Hurricane Katrina and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigrosa's controversial clean sweep/safe streets program, is based on Mr. Lopez's book The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music. (The film's script was written by Susannah Grant.) The L.A. Times journalist wrote about Mr. Ayers (and still does) extensively in a series of columns beginning in 2005, when the two first encountered each other in the City Of Angels. They befriended each other and still meet at the Lamp community where Mr. Ayers continues to live, a housing complex for L.A.'s homeless, who number about 93,000 in the Greater Los Angeles area according to the film's statistics.
Mr. Wright, who last directed the Oscar-nominated film "Atonement" (2007), turned out to be the right director for "The Soloist", a compelling film that weaves the distinct worlds of two isolated souls into a tapestry of Los Angeles that is richly imagined and layered with a stark realism not seen in many Hollywood films. As the director talked about his new film, his first made in the United States, he revealed his initial anger last year at Paramount/Dreamworks for delaying the release from last November during the heat of awards mania, to the tepid, but active Spring month of April, a week before films like "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" and two weeks before "Star Trek".
More importantly Mr. Wright had insisted that he would only direct "The Soloist" if he were allowed to work with the real-life Lamp community members and make them the heartbeat of the film's story, not a backdrop. Mr. Wright, who said he was interested in "outsiders and strugglers", got his wish. He was asked about his experience on "The Soloist" with the homeless people that Angelenos and many other Americans all too often choose to ignore or conveniently walk or drive by on the street. "I learned the same thing from the members of Lamp community that I keep on learning over and over -- maybe it's a lesson that's someone's trying to drum into my head -- never underestimate anyone. The Lamp community were extraordinarily welcoming and warm . . . they're a very intelligent group of people," Mr. Wright commented. "And it's easy to confuse mental illness with mental incapacity or out-and-out stupidness. And these people are not stupid. They are some of the cleverest people I've met in America, especially spending so much time in Hollywood as one has to," Mr. Wright quipped with a wry smile, perhaps a not-so subtle jab at Tinseltown film executives.
Joe Wright invested in the people at Lamp and they in turn enriched him, defining the impact on him as "life-changing". Mr. Wright boiled down the Lamp society's edification of him: "I think taking responsibility for your fellow human being is something they taught me a bit." The London-born filmmaker circa 1972, speaks these words with the same sincerity that pours through the screen in his new film, the first to be shot in the Los Angeles Times building and extensively in Disney Hall (the only other film shot at the Hall was last year's "Get Smart".)
Five hundred members of Lamp's homeless worked on "The Soloist" with extras, actors, crew and consultants. As Mr. Wright comments on this, a telephone at a nearby desk rings loudly. After Mr. Wright dismisses the first ring, the next proves to be too loud to ignore. The director springs from his tucked-in seated position to his feet, rushes toward the phone and does a pseudo Judo-chop at the phone all in one motion, drawing laughs from his questioners. (Mr. Wright is no Hong Kong Phooey, but in this instant he plays the cartoon character in the confines of the hotel suite.)
After disengaging the phone Mr. Wright calmly returns to his seat as if nothing has happened. It is interesting that the steady hand Joe Wright possesses in this moment is belied by the frantic, vibrant imagery of his new film, a film that the real-life Mr. Ayers has not seen, as the director explains. "Nathaniel doesn't like films. A moving two-dimensional image projected in light is something that he has difficulty deciphering and he finds quite confusing. But he listened to the film. He came and he kept his eyes closed and listened, and he said that he thought it was a pretty good film and that Jamie Foxx was a pretty good Nathaniel, which from Mr. Ayers is high praise indeed. He's not one for hyperbole."
Though the film is vivid and kinetic at times, the director explains the healing power of music that the epicenter of "The Soloist" also possesses. "I think there's a lot of chaos in the world and I think what music does is create order out of the chaos . . . quite literally, in measuring time into beats, and to measuring sound into harmony."
Music "brings a focus to our emotions, which I think is just as important as well," Mr. Wright added.
Bringing a focus to the music in "The Soloist" is Jamie Foxx, an accomplished musician in his own right. But to play the one-time musical genius Nathaniel Ayers Mr. Foxx underwent six months of rigorous training on how to play the cello and violin, complete with the appropriate finger stroke moves. "Jamie prepared extremely extensively. He even had his teeth ground down. He had these big ole pearlies before and I was really worried about them, 'cause . . . they look very Hollywood. So he agreed to have gaps put in them and his teeth changed," revealed the director.
"So learning the cello was kind of fairly easy compared to that. Yeah, he practiced really hard and it was hard work. And frustrating at times. I think when he discovered that women thought that men playing the cello was rather attractive he became a little more focused," laughed the director. "But Ben Hong taught him and Ben is an incredible cellist and great teacher. I think Jamie would agree, and Ben was a lovely influence on the movie. He was around a lot and did a great job." Mr. Hong had to play the actual cello sounds the audience will hear when it sees "The Soloist", and play the cello the way Nathaniel plays it at three different junctures of his life, which made the process all the more challenging and interesting.
While the L.A. district of Westwood is known for its architecture, "The Soloist" is arguably an architectural triumph. The film's three principal Los Angeles headquarters are the Times Building, Disney Hall, and Skid Row -- which was not quite the real Skid Row -- it was reconstructed in another nearby area to give more space to the filmmakers and not be a disruption to the homeless community. Mr. Wright kept a very low-key atmosphere on the set, reducing the amount of lighting and equipment among the Lamp community's participants in the film so as not to overwhelm them from their everyday activities. Of the tripartite architectural boundaries anchoring "The Soloist", the British director defined what they symbolized. "They're all kind of mad environments. I mean, journalists are as mad as crackheads as crackheads are as mad as musicians. I mean, have you ever spent any time with an orchestra? They're totally fucking crazy," Mr. Wright breezily observed. "So they're all mad. And then put a film crew in the middle of it and it's bedlam. They're all very different and exciting environments to work in and were all very real environments."
There's a stream-of-consciousness feel to Mr. Wright -- he is constantly engaged. You can almost see his mind working feverishly as he encapsulates the experiences of "The Soloist" as question after question comes his way. Of medium height and build, the director dons a grayish light overall or jacket with a gray shirt to match -- a few of its buttons are undone, exposing a patch of chest hair. His blue or dark-colored jeans contrast his gray shirt as a mood color, it seems. Blue -- the color of melancholy. "They" say that every artist is either unruly, manic, miserable, temperamental, sensitive or all of them, but to produce the quality of film work Mr. Wright has, like all directors there are many things that presumably drive him, good, bad or otherwise.
Many things drove the film and the director enjoyed the overall experience of making his maiden American movie. "It was a lovely film to make because it felt like everyone was very proud of the story -- it celebrated elements of Los Angeles and it celebrated people's humanity, really. And the humanity with such monolithic institutions as the L.A. Times or the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, and so everyone was very supportive and wanted to really engage and help."
For all the time Mr. Wright spent in Los Angeles making "The Soloist", he doesn't live there, and it appeared that he gave at least one possible reason why. "They say that everyone in America -- I mean everyone in L.A. rather -- talks about film all the time. To me they don't talk about film. They talk about business. And actually you're far more likely to have a proper conversation about film and what it means in a cafe somewhere in London or San Francisco or Paris or wherever you may be." He also citied studios' obsessions with box-office figures and awards hoopla as things that were "unhealthy for the filmmaker".
In his next film Joe Wright tackles more real-life figures. He is working on a project about the partition of India and Pakistan and the relationship in 1947 and 1948 between Edwina Mountbatten, Countess of Burma, and Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister.
"The Soloist" opens everywhere in theaters in the U.S. and Canada on April 24. The film also stars Catherine Keener, Tom Hollander, Nelsan Evans and LisaGay Hamilton.
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