The Cannes Film Festival — which wound down Sunday with its handing out of the prestigous Palme d'Or — is notable for the stars who gather to talk about a wide range of films. Sometimes those conversations unfold as you expect. And sometimes they go a little...unexpectedly.
At the festival last week, I interviewed director Paolo Sorrentino and the cast of "Youth." The film is a gem, combining a wry buddy comedy with the wise reflections of a more serious picture, all conveyed with Sorrentino's visual flair.
Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel (the buddies in question, a composer and a film director who spend chunks of the movie reflecting on regret and their younger selves) star in the film. So do Jane Fonda, Paul Dano and Rachel Weisz — the first two playing complicated actors staying at the same retreat as Caine and Keitel's characters. (Weisz plays Caine's very attached daughter.)
Distributor Fox Searchlight graciously made all five available for a joint interview to The Times, as they did the Italian auteur Sorrentino, via a translator. But time was short (an American company like Searchlight at Cannes must compete for time with many foreign distributors) and the personalities were many. The resultant conversation wound up a bit … scattered, if illuminating in its own way.
Here is a transcript of said conversation. All of the subject's words are as they said them; there are no edits or compressions.
Movies Now: Paolo, let me start with you. it's very interesting to see you make a movie about older age and regret, especially when you're relatively young [mid-40s] yourself. What made you decide to take on this subject?
Sorrentino: My mother used to tell me that I had to do my homework first and then play, so that's what i did.
MN [after a pause]: Can you elaborate on that a little?
Sorrentino: It's better to face some problems as soon as you can. And since the problems of getting old was exciting for me, now I feel better, now that i did the film.
MN: Michael, the genre of older people looking back is one we've seen before, and I feel like one that's hard to get right — a character can be too flippant on one hand or too cranky on the other. How did you go about finding the right line in playing someone who has both a lot of pride and a lot of regret?
Caine: You have a lot of experience at my age at what to be proud of and what to regret, and I just used them in this performance. And if you have a script — this is my best friend Harvey. [Keitel has joined the interview]. For me I test myself on playing things as far away from me as possible. And a classical music composer is as far away as you can get. I make a study of the people I'm playing. But you have to remember emotion is the same with everyone. It's just the circumstances that are different. So when i saw this I said I had to play this.
MN: Do you feel you have any regrets you could draw from for the role?
Caine: No regrets. None at all. Wouldn't change anything. There was a suit I had when I was 15 I would change. But nothing else.
MN: Harvey, you and Michael have this close and very particular dynamic in the film — can you talk about how the two of you developed that?
Keitel: I had a similar suit to the one he's talking about. I bought the suit at Macy's. I had to take a credit. It was for Scorsese's wedding. A powder blue suit. I brought it to Marty Scorsese's wedding. His first wedding. I was paying the suit off. And guess what? I'm still paying the suit off. To this day.
Caine: We have a great friendship in the film and we've been asked how did you develop the friendship. One thing is accidental — Harvey and I both were infantrymen, in the army.
Keitel: I was in the Marines.
Caine: He was in the Marines. I was in the British army, in Korea. And when you've been soldiers in that situation you have one step further of experience more than anybody else. And then when you meet someone you can share it. You don't talk about it. But you meet someone and they can understand. You can cut corners.
MN: The chemistry was really great. Would you —
Keitel: Can I tell one more story about Michael? When he was first in the army, he was in the army two weeks, and the sergeant comes out and looks at the platoon and the sergeant notices Michael standing in the back of the platoon and he walks over to Michael and he says, "Who are you?," he says, "Who are you, Private ..."
Caine: Micklewhite, that's my name.
Keitel: Private Micklewhite. "How long have you been in the platoon, Private Micklewhite?" The sergeant didn't know who he was. Michael said. "Two weeks, since the beginning." He said, "You, get up front." [Laughs]
Caine: They don't like it when they don't know who you are.
Keitel : Michael never returned from the front.
Caine: I stayed there the whole time.
Keitel: He's been up front his whole career. His whole career.
MN: Paul and Jane, you're playing actors very much in the public eye, which can offer some interesting challenges. Did you draw on things from your own life? These are such larger than life personalities — your character has a real edge, Paul, insulting people for things like watching too much reality TV.
Dano: Clearly he's got a chip on his shoulder from his experience and from being so defined by something. I was as so curious thinking about how someone can feel that trapped by something they're passionate for that they have to play an extreme character. I think it's sort of amazing that someone would have to be that extreme to prove something or to invigorate themselves. So a lot of it went with that part of it. Why the reality TV? We all feel that way at one point or another.
Fonda: My character became a star in the days of the studio system when movie stars were under contract. I came in right after that, but I was close to Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck because my father had worked with them.
Weisz: Close to them as in?
Fonda: As in friends. I think he had an affair with Stanwyck, actually. I hope so. Anyway, so I just remembered them and they were both ornery and fought against the studio system so I went from there.
MN: One of the themes of the movie is how youth is so often glorified. And yet as Harvey and Michael's characters suggest, there's also something to be said for experience, even if it means letting go of youth. Rachel, what did you make of that tension?
Weisz: When I was acting I didn't think about themes, because I can't act a theme. I was acting — she has daddy issues, she works for her dad, her life is the celebrity of her daddy and she needs to find her freedom outside of her daddy's world. But upon seeing the film I did think about the themes. Ya, I think writers and artists for centuries have been meditating on this. Proust wrote volumes about this. How do we remember childhood? How do we hold on to a memory? It's the human condition that we get to live. [Pauses.] Am I boring you? Am I boring myself? [Resumes] It is what it is to be human. An animal doesn't have the luxury or the burden. It's an existential conundrum. How do we stay in contact with our childhood when we're old? My character is midway. We can look at back at what we've done, God willing, when we're old. It's a very profound existential idea. Paolo has made a film about levity, joy and humanity to ask big questions. [Pauses again] I just gave a very boring answer and he made a very beautiful film.
MN: Paolo, A lot of directors here at Cannes —
Weisz [being called away, as is Fonda]: I have to go. The ladies have spoken. [Gives a small laugh as she and Fonda depart.]
MN: Paolo, a lot of foreign-born directors at Cannes this year have English-language films. What do you think is driving that?
Sorrentino: There's no calculation behind it. It's because he's an American director and he's an English composer, so it had to be in English.