Austin Film Festival 2014

Austin Film Festival 2014: Rosewater (Jon Stewart, Maziar Bahari), Taking It Back (Andreas Schmied), and 3 Still Standing (Donna Locicero, Robert Campos).

by Texas Travesty Interview Director, Nathan Simmons

Jon Stewart is Jon Stewart. We interviewed him on the red carpet right before the screening of his film Rosewater as the Austin Film Festival came to a close. Also, on Thursday, November 13 Jon Stewart joins Maziar Bahari and Stephen Colbert for a live conversation about #RosewaterMovie. Get more info and tickets here.

Hi, I'm with the Texas travesty, UT's official humor publication.
Oh, very nice! See, I can tell you are the humor publication, because he [points to the TSTV Station Manager, who is very tall] works for UT's TV station, and you can tell by the height differential. You're like me.

Yeah, that's why I'm trying to make it in writing.
I think that's wise.

Does humor help resist oppression?
I think that whatever it is- I think there are elemental human emotions, of humor, of dance, of song, of art, of culture, or of family, that sustain you when all else has been removed. I think it was his ability to maintain those elemental moments of humanity, while also being suicidal and going crazy. It was about how to fight back, and the only way he knew how was to take control over his interrogations.

And one more question--
5' 7"...Wait, sorry. I jumped the gun on that, didn't I? Sonofabitch! Come on Stewart, pull it together!

How do you balance being socially conscious with being funny in your comedy writing?
I don't think they are mutually exclusive. Whatever your sense of morality or ethics should inform what your comedy is. They are not separate. So I think that you maintain it the same way you maintain it in your individual dealings, whether it be your comedy or something more explicit. I think that they are of the same piece.

Thank you so much!
Thank you.

Maziar Bahari really should need no introduction, but as he is not a household name, I must oblige. Bahari was the Newsweek journalist imprisoned in Iran in 2009 for reasons still murky outside of the fact that he was an international journalist. Since his release, he has written extensively about his experiences and trials and tribulations he had to go through while there. He finally wrote a book about it, Then They Came For Me, which has served as the basis for the upcoming film Rosewater, directed by Jon Stewart. He sat down with us at the Intercontinental Hotel for a roundtable interview about the film, which would screen as the closer for the 2014 Austin Film Festival.

In past interviews, you’ve mentioned, and this is sort of alluded to in the film, even during your incarceration, you’d find yourself having to laugh at the absurdity of the situation, no matter how dire, no matter how extreme. And Gael Garcia Bernal, who portrayed you in the film, has been quoted as saying, “Maziar has this caustic humor, and in a very beautiful way, that humor is what made him survive.” Would you say that –
I am beautiful? Yes, I am very beautiful. [Laughter]

Would you say that having a sense of humor helped you through that time in your life?
The whole experience was as if someone had read Kafka and thought, “It’s not absurd enough. It’s not surreal enough. Ok, let’s mix it with Monty Python a little bit and [chuckles] make it a little bit more exciting.” So it was a little bit like that. And I think the humor really comes from observing people and knowing other things. Because whenever someone thinks that they have a monopoly on truth. Whenever people think that what they think is right, it’s just funny. Especially when people are so misguided and ignorant, and they spend all their time in dark interrogation rooms hitting people, insulting people. And then they think this is the world, and that the world outside of here is corrupt. That’s just funny. Even when I was brutally beaten and insulted by the interrogator, and he was saying these idiotic things, I was thinking to myself that this guy is a moron, and I’m going to write about it as soon as I get out of here. I think the humor really comes from observation and culture, when you have points of reference. For example, when we were going through all those sexual interrogations, and there was much more of it in reality than that’s in the book or in the movie, I kept think of that Monty Python sketch about a guy who goes to the pub, the “Wink wink, say no more” sketch, it was like that. Everything that that poor innocent guy says becomes some sort of sexual innuendo. “Is your wife a goer?” “Yeah, she likes to travel.” “I’m sure she does, wink wink, nudge nudge, say no more.” It was like that. “Did you have sex with this woman?” “No.” “Then why do you have three numbers for her?” “Because I interviewed her.” “Then why don’t you have three numbers for my aunt?” “Who is your aunt?” It was stuff like that.

As a follow up to that question, would you say that humor would possibly be an effective method when facing totalitarian regimes or maybe as a way to get information out to people?
I think humor is one of the most effective ways of fighting against totalitarian regimes. The best example of this, of course, was in Serbia when people rose against Milosevic. And that campaign that students had and the people had in Serbia against Milosevic was really a funny campaign. They were painting dogs, and they were writing names of different cabinet ministers of Milosevic on it. You had cartoons of Milosevic all over the city. And they were not beating anyone. There was no violence, nothing. It was peaceful, non-violent resistance through humor. And that happens in Iran as well. Some of the most effective campaigns that the Iranians have had have been through jokes and, again, showing hypocrisy of the government. I run a website called Iranwire.com, and the head of the parliament of Iran has criticized us several times, mainly because the humorous things we put on the site. We show different sessions of the Iranian parliament and the ridiculous ways that they behave. And he says that these films of the general sessions are an insult to the parliament and that they shouldn’t do that and that they should respect the general sanctity of the parliament. But it’s like in this country; they don’t respect it themselves, why should the people?

Andreas Schmied, a first-time director from Austria, has a background many would claim as truly American: raised in a blue-collar family and self-taught without any formal training at any film school, Schmied worked his way up in the film industry from technician to screenwriter to finally director. Taking It Back (Die Werkstürmer) is a testament to his self-assured filmmaking, which is impressive considering he is a first time director. While Schmied openly admits the story itself may be simple, he takes enough creative risks visually to create a fresh retelling of a classic tale and to also suggest there are more good things in store from this blue-collar, Austrian director. Here is a snippet of the conversation we had right before his film played at the Village Alamo Drafthouse as part of the 2014 Austin Film Festival.

How did the idea first come to you for this movie?
Well, I saw a documentary by Naomi Klein called No Logo with her husband, I believe. They shot a documentary in Buenos Aires about factory workers take their work back. It’s not exactly this story because in the movie everybody kind of gets laid off. Then they slowly develop a sense of “I think we can open the factory. I think we can work again.” And then they have to go to the courts where they have to change laws to go do their work and stuff like that. But I saw the documentary, and as a screenwriter, I thought, “This is a good idea. This is something I can relate to. This is a blue-collar film, but it doesn’t apply to Austria.” So I had to develop a story which I could shoot in Austria which has to do with the living situation in Austria, and which very much has to do with the stories my father and his colleagues told me. I grew up with these stories. These are not actually based on true stories, but on an amalgam of stories I was told since I was a little boy. It’s a fairy tale basically. The movie is a simple movie about good, about bad, about empowering of the people, of the workers, about not giving up. It’s quite an American film, when you think about it. I’ve been told this when I travel around with the film. I’ve been told it has an American spirit to it. Because, where I come from, everybody thinks this way. Nobody is like a victim. Everybody is pulling himself by the bootstraps. This is basically the job description of the worker. You never give up. You have to work for your dreams. You want to accomplish something. You want to have a house, kids that college, stuff like that. So this was a lot of concepts that were familiar to me. Other people didn’t think so. I don’t know many filmmakers out there with a blue collar background.

You talk a lot about empowering your characters. Is that what drew you to comedy? Does comedy have that power?
This actually is very great what you just said. I think comedy has the power to empower people, but it’s just my nature. This is how I grew up, as you said, with my family. Every time I see the film come out, I am reminded of my family. It’s a little bit like that: people being honest with each other. We gave each other shit all the time. We were honest, and we loved each other. My background is very, very loving, if you will. And another thing: everything that I write is basically comedic in tone. I’m a screenwriter since 2005, and I’m for hire so I write everything. And, in this movie, there were some times problems with this kind of tone that I had, that I have naturally, which is my style basically. I’m working on a second feature that’s a supernatural thriller, but it has comedy in it. It’s a totally different genre, a totally different movie. I chose to do this because my movie was very successful in Austria. We’re the second highest grossing movie in Austria and fourth place on iTunes, which is totally out of the blue because this is my first film, and now everybody suddenly took notice with me. I knew that I could follow this success. I got projects from other companies, but they were all in the same vein. So I thought, “Hey, wait a minute. I had this success with this movie. Now I can do everything.” And I’m basically a huge movie geek. I’m like the biggest movie geek you will ever meet. I have so many screenplays at home which I would have never had gotten made because this was one of the key selling points of this film. It’s a personal film. As you know, many producers, many people like for your first film to be a very personal film. They don’t understand that Back to the Future is a personal film, to me. Or, I love Point Break, I don’t know if you have seen it [Texas Travesty correspondent confirms enthusiastically that he has seen the film]. This is a great movie; I watch it all the time. When it’s on television, I sit there and watch it. And so the next movie is a supernatural thriller, hopefully. We’re in pre-production right now. But it’s a totally different genre, but it has my sense of tone and style. It’s about people, and it’s funny, and it’s strange. It’s everything at the same time.

Robert Campos and Donna Locicero have carved out a career the past 18 years as documentary filmmakers. Their work has mostly dealt with the awesome power of the natural world, whether it be the mysterious world of sharks or the lethal awe of scaling Earth’s tallest mountains. Arguably, they are now tackling their most daunting assignment yet: the world, and the art, of stand-up comedy. Their film, 3 Still Standing, follows three stand-up comedians from San Francisco (Will Durst, Johnny Steele, and Larry ‘Bubbles’ Brown) as they experience the heyday of their art in the 1980’s, the gradual decline from that time, and the possible resurgence in the present day. Through the lens of the San Francisco comedy scene, Campos and Locicero are able to explore the history of a medium that is still figuring out how to be viable and vital without sacrificing its voice. Here is a snippet of the conversation we had right before their film played at the Village Alamo Drafthouse as part of the 2014 Austin Film Festival.

How did you end up choosing these three stand-ups to be the subjects of your documentary?
We started doing this project when we moved back to San Francisco. We were away for a long time. But we were in San Francisco in the ‘80’s in the heyday of the stand-up comedy. We would go to the comedy clubs all the time. And I remember Will Durst from back then. Everybody said, “Oh, you gotta interview Will Durst.” Because he’s like the class president of all the comedians there. They all kind of look up to him. He’s a poet-philosopher. And so he put this perspective on things that nobody else could. So we talked to him right away, and we knew we had to include Will. And he’s funny as hell. He’s brilliant. Really smart comedian. And Johnny Steele is another of the three. There’s an annual Comedy in the Park event where 10,000 people will gather in the park to here comedy all day long. You have 50 comics, five minutes each, one after the other. And on kinda a rainy Sunday afternoon, Johnny got up there, and he just blew the roof off of an outdoor facility. He really had this energy. He had the crowd rolling. And we thought, “That guy is a powerhouse.” He has that kind of energy that – who do you see with that kind of energy – Robin Williams had. Turned out, they were best buddies. In fact, all these guys were. These three guys were close friends of Robin’s since the beginning. They started comedy together. And when we met up with him [Robin], he said, “I love these guys. Let’s do an interview.” And that’s how he got involved with the film. So we’ve been screening him cuts ever since, and he had been approving of it. It’s been a bizarre ride, obviously. The news was devastating to everybody. Especially these three guys who have been doing it forever. Robin had inspired them to come to San Francisco to do comedy. Although, San Francisco has always been a great place for comedy. It’s not New York or LA where it’s always about the cameras plugged in and is very commercial in a way. In San Francisco, it was all about the art. Lenny Bruce was there all the time. The Smother Brothers, Phyllis Diller, and Steve Martin started there. And to finish the answer to your question: Larry ‘Bubbles’ Brown is strange. Too strange and lovely. Too strange for anywhere. He’s really odd. When the movie is over, he is always surrounded by a crowd of women. If you hear his comedy, you kinda go, “Wha?” He does the kind of comedy where he could never do corporate events. And he kind of does this loser kind of comedy. Larry squeezes in five jokes in about thirteen seconds. They’re all based on the initial premise, and then boom, boom, boom, he changes it up and adds more. It doesn’t sound like he’s moving quickly, but he’s got a certain delivery that has a punch. It sounds like he’s talking slowly, but when you break it down a lot of it is timing. He’s got great timing. He can just pick that moment, that one tiny moment where you can just throw that zinger in there

What was their reaction to you guys as you followed them around?
Initially, they were all mystified. We were focusing on three stand-ups. Not Robin [Williams], not Dana Carvey. They were three relative unknowns, at least nationwide. So they nicknamed us ‘The Crew from the Future’. And so they make up that one of them had committed some heinous crime in the future, and we were the crew sent back to document. To them, it was the only explanation as to why we were following them around.

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