To Olive, Ukrainian immigrant/single mother, classic films like Bonnie & Clyde and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid aren’t just entertainment, they’re her ticket to the American Dream. So influenced by these larger than life characters Olive sets out to live the way she believes things are normally lived in America. In Bringing Up Bobby, she finds out the hard way that she’s not the only one paying for her delusions. Likened to anti-heroes like Thelma & Louise, with her son in the passenger seat, she quickly learns that she too is fast approaching a dead end.
Go,See,Talk sat with writer/director Famke Janssen to talk about her first feature film. For those not familiar with it, check out the trailer below and read some of the highlights from our uber insightful 45 minute phone interview (and our on-camera follow up interview) with this former Bond girl turned director…
– Famke, you’re known for some iconic acting roles yet before any of that you majored in writing and literature. Why now make the jump from acting?
In the grand scheme of things and in the way that my life has been going it makes absolute sense to me, but I guess to an outsider, when you’re looking at my life, this might seem like a departure but I have always tried to do things in my life to challenge myself. I did study writing and literature but writing being a thing I have always had a very big interest in and always wanted to pursue in my future.
The following thing I’m going to tell you nobody really knows about me but I applied to a film school in Los Angeles, right about 1995 when I had trouble getting my acting career off the ground, and I applied to the writing program. I wrote a script and at that point I had already written and directed a short film and I sort of explored leaving the business as an actor. I didn’t think anybody was going to cry over because I wasn’t getting any jobs. It wasn’t right until I got accepted into the AFI writing program that I learned I was going to be cast in the Bond movie [Goldeneye] and at that point I decided I was going to pursue the acting career that I pursued for years which hadn’t gone very well until that point. The rest of the story is history.
But in the back of my mind directing what I really wanted to explore. I was just too busy and wanted to find the right project. Then a couple of opportunities came about and a couple of times it looked like I was going to direct my first movie or write it. I had written a couple of things in between that at times it looked like they were going to be made into something.
For whatever reason none of them really came into fruition and then finally Bringing Up Bobby fell into place and I had a chance to make my first movie. So to me its not strange, its part of my trajectory of something I always wanted to explore and do for a long time. But I can understand for people who look at my life see this “model”, who was a Bond girl and in X-men movies, this movie doesn’t make sense. I made all these independent movies as an actor…but again I had always wanted to do writing and directing.
– So you wrote, directed and produced your own film which has got to be a lot of responsibility/pressure. Where did this story come from and what made you want to tell it? Also how long had you been thinking about making this?
This is the strange thing about when you give birth to a movie, it’s such a long process from when you first come up with the movie. The idea came about from my own experience (my boyfriend is from Oklahoma and I am Dutch by birth; I was born and raised in Amsterdam, Holland). When I first went to visit his family in Oklahoma I thought “this was the strangest place I’d ever seen” but it was interesting because it was so reminiscent of movies like Bonnie & Clyde Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid which were movies I had grown up watching and had admired.
So it got us talking about being a foreigner in another place and me sort of feeling like I thought I understood America and as I don’t have an Ameican passport, I still am an alien and I have a green card, but I thought because I had lived in New York for 25 years I was American and thought I understood it until I came to real America and found I was really truly an outsider. Out of that came the idea for Bobby but that was 5 years ago.
I sat down to write the screenplay and for years after that tried to get it off the ground and this is during the hardest economic time, not just in the US, but in the world and we’re in a period where independent films are struggling to find a place in theaters. This was also at the time when VOD streaming was coming around people really didn’t know what to do with independent film anymore. The last thing anyone wanted to do was invest in an independent film because they didn’t t know that the future would hold.
It was just an extremely difficult time go raise money for the film so we ended up going all over the place, from France to England to Holland, just looking for money. That’s how it got scrapped together. We got money from Holland from the Dutch Film Fund, from a foreign sales agent in England, we got money from Oklahoma and New York. It just got scrapped together that way and then during that time, we were in a catch 22, where you have to say you have the money to get the cast and the say you have the cast to get the money. So little by little it was coming together but the moment we we were ready to go something would happen; an actor would drop out, someone would get pregnant, some other thing would happen and ultimately it would fall apart again.
So independent fillmaking is a lot like guerilla filmaking and it wasn’t until about 2 years ago that we got Milla and had one window to shoot with her which happened to be the warmest time in Oklahoma. You live in Dallas so you have some sense of what that means.
A little bit, yeah …*laughs*
So we shot in 20 days in 105 degree weather and somehow pulled it all together but not without major headaches. There were last minute things that looked like the movie would fall apart again but we managed to make it work. We did the editing in Amsterdam and the post production in New York. Over the last year we’ve been taking it to film festivals after its premier in France. Ultimately we will have the film released on October 12th in the US which we will piggyback with the publicity from Taken 2 (on October 5th) so anything we can do to help it a little bit.
– So much of the film was framed and shot beautifully to the point that even when nothing was going on it was just gorgeous to look at. How do you as a first time director assemble a film crew? For instance how do you decide on a DP, an editor, etc?
In this case specifically the DP and editor are different from the rest of the crew because we had made a deal with Holland (because of the money that was coming from the film fund over there). The studio said we were to use a Dutch Cinematographer and a Dutch editor and that’s how they came about. I got lucky because I got the best of the best in Holland. We did an extensive shot list over Skype and discussed lots and lots of movies since Bobby is based on film in general. I saw Olive as someone who was enormously influenced by movies, her view of the US came about solely from watching movies.
It’s not in dialog as much as in many shots we did things here that I wanted to reference or emulate costumes or staging or blocking. Like in the scene where I call “Bowling for the Lord” scene where Milla is standing around with a bunch of guys prepping for her scam, she is in the same type of scene frome Gone With the Wind where Scarlet O’Hara is surrounded by men, or the train caboose that Walt lives in is similar to Harold and Maude etc. Everything is inspired by films either literally or symbolically.
Also I had made a book of photographs from different artist, like Robert Frank, who influenced me. What I found to be the most fun part of making the film, among many many others, was being on location in OK and finding places that looked like the photographs and artwork that was in my book, including some we found that were almost by a miracle.
– Milla was a fantastic choice to play Olive and she just commanded every scene. But Bill Pullman and Marcia Cross were also just solid in their roles. How did you attract such great talent to Bringing Up Bobby?
Oh there all different reasons for all the different actors. I sent Milla the script and she really responded to it so we were lucky in that area. Bill Pullman is the neighbor of my producing partner and I had met him many times so I had a good in with him. Marcia Cross and I had acting classes a long, long time ago. Rory Cochran has been one of my best friends for the 17-18 years since we did our first movie together so I wrote the part for him. That was entirely his part and easy for him to play. Then there was Spencer List. Sophia, my producing partner and I didn’t know any child actor agencies so so were were literally on IMDb looking to see what child actors were coming out in movies.
We did a little research, found some of those agencies who started sending us some pictures of kids and resumes and then Spencer showed up. Then I thought “oh my God, if he can act. If he’s halfway decent then he’s going to get the job because he looks so much like I imagined Bobby”. Then I had a bunch of auditions set up in my apartment which he attended with his dad. Between the little lisp that he had and the whole persona and everything he was it. Then I sat across from him and read the part of Olive and just knew he was the one.
– The film seems to be equal parts of a lot of different themes/emotions. Sometimes it’s quirky, later it’s heartfelt, then it’s dramatic? What do you feel drives the film and what were you trying to accomplish?
Of all the movies that inspired it, Harold and Maude is the most similar, tonally speaking. It goes from being really funny to dark and that doesn’t happen that much anymore. People really want to know what genre they’re in “if it’s drama or comedy, tell me because I want to know what I’m in for”. That I don’t really subscribe to and I think that will be the criticism that most people will have because they don’t understand how you could have two types of genres in one movie. It’s one of the things that I would hope, in the future, I can explore further to find a way to melt the two together but it is something that I find interesting that we all become so narrow minded that everything has to be one particular genre.
– The film, for the most part, had a very underplayed and almost non-existent score. Save for some songs (that courtroom scene was just brilliant by the way) it was the acting and script the brought the real emotions in Bringing Up Bobby. Can you comment on the minimal score and your choices in songs?
Music is extremely powerful but it can also be corny and one thing I never wanted was this movie to be is sentimental. We had a Dutch composer who write a small but specific score but still there wasn’t very much. I had not written music into any part of the script except for the courtroom scene. That scene was meant to have Cat Steven’s song “Trouble” which was in Harold and Maude which hugely influenced me. When we got to the editing process and looked at what song would fit, it turned out we couldn’t afford that song. It was so extremely expensive that during the editing process we kept trying to lay different music over it and nothing would work.
Then we’d go back to “trouble” like it was meant to be there. We were nearing the end and I was really going broke. Finally my producing partner Sophia and our music supervisor knew someone who knew someone and we eventually got Cat Steven’s contact’s email. We wrote him and showed him the sequence with his music and we were able to get it for much cheaper.
Aside from that we tried for a very specific sound. We wanted to get a kind of Western Oklahoma type of music and a Ukrainian type of music then melt them into one which you’ll hear in our opening and closing songs. The opening is Milla singing “Proud Mary” in Ukrainian and closing song is “Amazing Grace” performed by the Oklahoma band the Flaming Lips (who sang it phonetically).
– Bringing Up Bobby is about a charming con-artist/single mother. But as a con-artist,on paper, she’s still a tough character to get the audience behind. What difficulties did you have trying to flesh her out to become the semi-sympathetic Olive we see on screen?
This is really the challenge of the film. In essence she’s kind of the anti-hero like all the movies that inspired this; they’re about people who are doing things against the law. We love them but at the same time they’re doing things and they’ll end up paying for their sins. All these movies have this same feeling of sitting on a time bomb. You like going along with these people on a ride but you know it’s either unethical or is going to end up badly. So I think the challenge in that is how do you make them likable? The challenge with Olive, who has one additional thing which the other movies don’t have is that Olive is a manufactured person. She’s not real because she fancies herself living in an American movie, playing Bonnie, Maude, Thelma or Louise. Her own reality that she grew up with in the Ukraine is one she wants to get away from so she has an extremely skewed
perspective of what American life is like.
My own personal experience was that after living in NY for 25 years I came to a place [Oklahoma] that I didn’t understand at all and I wasn’t an American. I hadn’t integrated into life here the way I thought I did. So it helped me develop Olive as someone who thought the American dream was easy; you come to America, you rob things and do whatever like they do in movies and you’re smart enough to get away with anything.
But the media can be so powerful and influence you in a way explain Olive’s her journey and how she’s manufactured. Even her name Olive, that’s not a name a Ukrainian woman would ever have. She lives this whole make believe life with her son until reality hits. It’s not until Olive is in jail that you see her stripped of make up and pretense. She is what she is and that’s the only true honest moment that she has in the movie.
– Milla Jovovich plays Olive who is a foreigner in the film. As you were born in Amstredam and this is your movie, did you ever consider yourself for the lead?
Many people ask me that but I always knew there was no way I could have done that, wearing so many hats, then of course we only had 20 days to shoot the film and the weather and everything. I understand men do it all the time and now I know why, it’s because they don’t have to go to the make up trailer for an hour and a half and so I would have wasted too much time on kur short shoot rather than be on set.
– As this seems like a huge undertaking for your first feature film, what did you take away from it all? Also are there any other films on the horizon for you?
I’ve already written the next one. I actually wrote a couple of scripts while I was trying to get Bobby off the ground. I was really naive that when it looked like this movie was coming together that it really was that I said no to all acting jobs. So for 3 years I didn’t have any income as an actor or any work but it was a full time job trying to get Bobby made. Every time something came up that looked like Bobby was going to fall apart I would sit and write a script. They were mostly silly comedies because I had to keep it light. But it wasn’t until after Bobby was finally finished and I was between 2 acting jobs that I wrote another script that I’m actually really happy with. I’m going to do it during next in my next hiatus.
Go,See,Talk would like to thank the Dallas Film Society and Famke Janssen for her help and time in setting up this interview. You can click the following link to read the featured story of “Bringing Up Bobby” for the 2012 DIFF.