James Cromwell and Penelope Ann Miller are part of the stellar cast in the upcoming French silent film, The Artist. Cromwell and Miller both have a slew of diverse projects hot on the tails of the Oscar-buzzy Artist. They recently sat down with Buzzine and discussed the challenges of doing a silent film, the differences between Hollywood of the '20s and today, and how we will all be joyful at the end.
Izumi Hasegawa: What were the challenges of doing a silent film?
Penelope Ann Miller: I think nowadays we are so used to hearing our voices and relying on the inflections and conveying our emotions through the timber of our voice. I think the daunting task here is that we have to rely on our faces and our feelings and our expressions, then again, not being over the top and trying to be authentic to the period. It's slightly more exaggerated because of how it's filmed, and the mannerisms were different in that era. So it was a fine line and you didn't want to cross it. We had to rely on our director as well.
IH: Have you ever dreamed you would get a chance to do a silent film in this modern age of movies?
James Cromwell: No.
PAM: I had the experience doing Chaplin. I did the Richard Attenborough film with Robert Downey, Jr., and I played Edna Purviance. We got to do a couple movies-within-a-movie scenes. I had done a silent film so I did have a bit of experience, so I was the go-to girl if you're going to do a silent film.
IH: So you've done two. You need to share with others...
PAM: No, I'm going to take over the market.
JC: Actually, I just realized this. I only had 16 lines in Babe, and I was on screen a lot. So I've done silent acting as well.
PAM: So he's had some experience as well. We're the veterans of silent film acting.
IH: Were there any silent films that you watched?
PAM: I watched a lot of Chaplin films because I did the film and I was an actress who lived at the time. So yeah, I definitely watched a lot of silent films, but I think this movie goes beyond the silent films. It's an homage to so many of the classics and so many of the classic actors from the '20s, '30s, '40s, and '50s. I think he takes something for everybody. In fact, when you see Jean Dujardin's performance, you really see a Douglas Fairbanks meets a Clark Gable meets an Errol Flynn – he's sort of a combination of all these incredible actors -- some silent, some not.
JC: It truly isn't a silent film. It's silent for Jean and Bérénice (Bejo) because they play actors who are in films, which there is no recorded dialogue. But for us, we still speak, you still hear things. It's just not recorded. So in that sense, it's not a silent film. So watching a silent film actor in a silent film, that's not how I'm going to play. I made a joke. I went back and watched Murder by Death because I played a chauffeur in that.
PAM: That's all you have to do. [Laughs] Study yourself – I love that!
IH: James kind of reminded me of that chauffeur from Sunset Blvd. (Missi Pyle's character) reminded me of that woman from Singin' in the Rain. All these characters tap into this language of film that accumulated over the years. Did you look at a lot of things to catch that feel?
PAM: -You don't want to mimic.
JC: No, you don't want to mimic and you don't want to get it set in so you're repeating something else. You want to let it happen in the moment the way you do in any other film. I don't think it really helps. I don't study films particularly. I plan to direct, so I'm not watching film – I watch the entire film to see the story, but I don't go, "Oh, so he does a slow pan here, and he pulls, watch the crane shot. Look at the composition." Because it's got to be my eye.
PAM: I think you can be inspired by other filmmakers and other performers, and I think obviously Michel (Hazanavicius), the director and writer, was inspired by many classic films and directors. For me, though, I always had a love for old films and the actresses of other periods. I may have had a sensibility or an essence of what they had. And, like I said, the mannerisms – people dressed differently, they carried themselves differently, they spoke differently. I was a woman of wealth, so I'm going to have a different manner which I speak and hold myself. The costumes play a huge part of it, the makeup and hair, the setting, the china. All of that plays a part. And it's a tribute to Michel's vision because he creates an environment that helps you feel a moment. He plays music in the background; everybody he hired above and below the line was so artistically excellent that you just felt well taken care of.
IH: What's the difference in mannerisms between this period and that time?
JC: I have a little different take on it. We don't celebrate the difference so much as the relation -- the sameness of the way people... This is a story that could be a contemporary story as well. There are some differences, and I think differences is the attitude that they had toward each other. I don't know if a cop today would run after a dog or if a cop today would have a long conversation about formal wear without some, "Move along, move along." So I think there's a lack of cynicism and suspicion and aggression. I think people were more forgiving.
PAM: More Loyal.
JC: Well, there's forgiveness today and there's loyal today, but as a whole, it seems to have been a simpler time.
PAM: I also think that when you think of a chauffeur, first of all, not many people have them these days. I mean, often movie stars don't constantly have the same person driving them. And I think there was a pride in your profession. I think so many people now are just trying to get ahead. They're a driver, but they're really an actor, or they want to be a singer or writer or whatever. But he was a chauffeur, and that was his job, and he took great pride in being a chauffeur. Without sounding condescending, he kind of knew his place. Instead of striving to be something else, he was devoted to his employer. That, to me, seems different.
IH: In what ways is Hollywood the same now as it was back then?
JC: My senses, for all intents and purposes, it's the same. There are feds, there are changes in technology, and there are changes of technology right now.
PAM: There are always newcomers...stealing everyone's roles. [Laughs] And husbands!
JC: It's just interesting that the focus on this is an artistic dilemma and not just some of the smarminess that we're used to. At this particular moment, I just saw an outrageously awful film which seemingly every line of it was salacious and horrible to an extent that I couldn't watch it. And everybody in the audience...well, not everybody, but they seemed to go along with it.
IH: Do you mind saying what it was?
JC: I probably should not say what it is. [Laughs] It's just about to come out.
PAM: Oh! Is that a hint? I had a experience like that, but it was a different movie.
JC: It's a joy. They made wonderful films then and some of them were awful, but they made wonderful films then, and they make wonderful films now. I think they're very similar. The emphasis has always been about the story, story, story. It's not the camera moves; it's not the technology. I always thought that was the real mistake of Titanic, I must say. There was so much emphasis on the china and the little black dots on the ship that there was a lack of story. It was blown way, way out of proportion, to my mind. When you get the head of Universal apologizing to an audience about the pictures that Universal makes, they're making really bad pictures. These are $180 million pictures with big stars and all that attention, and you think, why? Why is it a good picture? They throw all the technology at it, but what they don't have is a story; they don't have a script. Men in Black doesn't have a script. They greenlit it, it went, they paid for it, and now it's stalled because they can't figure out the next step. That was the genius of Michel -- that he had such a clear idea about what he wanted to do with this.
PAM: He takes every cliché in the book and makes it so unique and beautiful to watch. The dog, the love story, the dance at the end -- we're all going to feel joyful at the end. He takes all those cliché experiences and makes them unique and original, and reinvents them and makes them exciting to watch.
IH: One thing has changed since the studio system is gone...
JC: We have another system just as bad as the studio system now, called Package, which is just as detrimental because now, instead of one guy like Sam Goldman or the Warners collecting a staple of wonderful actors who had writers write particularly for, it's all done through one or two or three agencies who now, once they cast the lead role because they're bankable, attach all these people to it, and no one else gets to do it, and you see the same people over and over again, blah blah blah.
IH: So the studios have $180 million to spend, but they don't have as much control over the product?
JC: Because they don't have the vision about how the product is made.
PAM: They're not artists, and that's the difference.
IH: Penelope, I've noticed on IMDB that you're going to be playing Mary Todd Lincoln in Saving Lincoln.
PAM: Yeah, I just did that.
IH: How was that?
PAM: Oh my gosh, she is a trip, that woman. It was really fun and really challenging and really exciting. You look at me now and you say, "How is it possible that she played Mary Todd Lincoln?" But that was the joy; that was the fun of it. And reading about her was infinity fascinating.
IH: And James, you have several films as well.
JC: Yeah, I have three.
IH: Briefly, what are the characters?
JC: I play an 89-year-old man whose wife has Alzheimer's in a movie called Still. I play a World War II veteran -- I acted with my son -- and it's called Memorial Day. And I have a film called A Lonely Place For Dying, which is the most watched film over the Internet -- over three million hits.
IH: So it's playing online?
JC: They put it on BitTorrent because they couldn't get a distribution deal.
PAM: Other than Saving Lincoln, I just wanted to say one thing about that film, as we're talking about taking the old and bringing it to modern day. We've filmed the movie in color, but the background is going to be in 3D original vintage photographs from that period. So it's actually mixing the color in the black and white and blending the two. It's a format called "cynical lodge," and it's never been done before. We filmed it all on a sound stage, and the two other films I have coming out are: Robosapien, which is a family adventure film about a robot, which is very popular. I go from silent films to robot films. And then a tragedy based on a true story called Saving Grace B. Jones, which is coming out soon.
IH: What did you take away from the film and experience?
JC: A lot of pride, a lot of joy.
PAM: To me, this film is a love letter to not only just filmmaking, but art and art forms. Movies can be an art form and a beautiful one, and just a tremendous amount of pride. I just love that we can go back to the simplicity and basics of it and just realize how beautiful and moving and uplifting it can be. So just to be a part of that experience that we can share with everyone is pretty exciting.
IH: James, are you still involved with PETA?
IH: Anything new on the animal front for you?
JC: For me particularly, no. But it gets better every day. I think they're going to put up a concerted campaign against McDonalds because McDonalds is one of the few fast food chains that still use the gestation crates since they have a lot of pig product.
IH: Do you still remember working for 24?
JC: I remember it vividly.
IH: Was is exciting?
JC: No, it was not exciting. It was very disappointing.
JC: I think the show was irresponsible in its presentation of torture, so much so that the commandant of West Point came to the set to ask the producers to change their attitude toward torture because his graduates, which were going as first lieutenants to Afghanistan and Iraq, were using Jack Bauer's techniques to get information out of suspects – sticking knives in their thighs and turning them, and he asked them to change it and they said, "Listen, if you have a problem with American foreign policy, talk to the President. We're just making television." I thought that was highly irresponsible.
IH: That happened while you were on set?
JC: Yeah, he was their two-star commandant. I went up to talk to him because I didn't know what he was doing there. I just thought it got out of hand. Another way to do it. They could have changed it and it would have been a very, very important thing, but they have no politics, and if you don't have any politics when you're dealing with something like that, then you wind up in the White Paper that was presented to the president of the United States by John Woo, as a justification for the war in Iraq mentioned Jack Bauer, and you think, "Wow, man, that's really incredible."
The Weinstein Company's 'The Artist' is released on November 23, 2011.