Category Archives: Interviews

‘The strange allure of the Progressive Insurance girl’

Oct. 20, 2008, Austin American-Statesman

She’s bubbly and beaming, high-volume, with a flip of dark hair and a face like a lollipop. She irks as she endears, bemuses as she bewitches. She’s a bundle of energetic contradictions, bursting here, retracting there. Her expressions blink and change like a neon sign. Her eyes are popping globes. And she just sold you a bunch of car insurance.

Flo is her name. She’s the spokeswoman for Progressive Auto Insurance, lighting up televisions in a series of commercials in which her perky cashier pitches the money-saving merits of Progressive to customers. She works in a sterile, all-white big-box store, and her florid makeup stands out like paint spilled in snow.

First she caught our eye; now she’s snatched our heart. Viewers are smitten. They’re crushin’. They want to know: Who’s that girl?

From a recent blog at HoustonPress.com, with the headline “The Cult of the Progressive Car Insurance Chick”:

“Am I the only one completely and totally enamored of the woman in the television ads for Progressive car insurance? You know, the ones starring that babelicious brunette named Flo with her ‘tricked-out name tag’ and her ’60s style eye makeup and her kissable red, red lips?”

No, sir, you are not. There’s more where that mash-note came from, out there in the blogosphere’s infinite confessional space: “She’s hot.” “She’s weird but, God, she’s fine!”

Others have naughtier ideas that they’re perfectly comfortable sharing with the world, even if we can’t do so here.

“It’s so weird,” says Stephanie Courtney, the actress who plays Flo. Continue reading

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Werner Herzog goes 3-D

April 8, 2011, The Wall Street Journal

Werner Herzog admits he’s a “skeptic” of 3-D movies, but he made a concession with his new film, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” a 3-D documentary that takes a wide-eyed tour inside the Chauvet Cave in France, whose vast limestone walls are emblazoned with animal paintings more than 30,000 years old—the oldest ever discovered.

Because the cave is accessible only to scientists, Mr. Herzog had to acquire special permission from the French government to film inside and had to adjust to extreme time and technical limitations, using a crew of only four.

What the veteran filmmaker, 70, discovered inside was a world of subterranean splendor, namely cave paintings in pristine condition—Ice Age menageries of rhinos, lions, mammoths, bison and cave bears, amid glistening lunar-like surfaces.

Mr. Herzog, whose career straddles both features and documentaries, narrates “Forgotten Dreams” with his signature blend of philosophical, humorous and grandiloquent commentary, adding a layer of curious depth to the images.

The film, opening April 29 in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, then other cities, isn’t just for art house audiences. Children can appreciate its riches, said Mr. Herzog from his Los Angeles home: “You do not need to be an intellectual to be in complete awe at what you are seeing.”

The Wall Street Journal: What was so special about this subject that you decided to shoot in 3-D?

Mr. Herzog: As normal, thinking people we assume that paintings on the wall are fairly flat. But when I was checking out the cave for the first time without any cameras it was immediately clear that it would be imperative to shoot in 3-D, because it’s all limestone in the cave, a drama of formations, bulges and niches and protrusions and pendants. And all of this was utilized by the artists 32,000 years ago. A bulge would be the neck of a bison charging at you. A niche would serve as a place where a shy horse would look out. So it was really, really clear that it had to be 3-D.

What drew you to the cave in the first place?

In a way, cave paintings are where my own intellect and fascinations began. When I was 12 or 13 I saw a book about cave paintings in the display window of a bookstore. And it was just staggering, so striking to see this. There was a horse and it said “Paleolithic paintings,” and I really wanted to have this book, but I couldn’t buy it. I worked for months as a ball boy on tennis courts. Each week I would sneak by the store and see if the book was still there. I was afraid somebody else would buy it. Finally I bought it in this kind of awe. Looking at these paintings in that book is still in me. I actually explained this to the French minister of culture. That was one of my arguments why I had to make the movie and not a French director.

Was there any contest of what was most beautiful to you in the cave? There’s so much there—the crystal formations, the stalagmites, the ancient animal bones on the floor and the paintings themselves.

It’s interesting that you’re mentioning it, because when you enter the cave the first thing that’s most unexpected is the beauty of the cave: the crystal cathedrals, the stalactites and stalagmites, the bones—exactly the sequence in which you describe it. It’s stunning. Four thousand skulls of extinct cave bears, rib cages, vertebrae. And then you have the almost fresh footprints of the cave bears, though you know they went extinct 20,000 years ago. The freshness is so stunning, so fresh that you think that somebody is looking at you from the dark. But for me, it would be the lions that are most beautiful. A whole group of lions is stalking something. We do not know what exactly. Their eyes are exactly aligned. Every single lion is crouching and sneaking and stalking something. The intensity of this panel is incredible.

How does this movie fit into your body of work thematically?

I thought about this because right now I am finishing this film “Death Row” with death-row inmates, which will be a 90-minute or two-hour film. But I have material of such intensity that I will also make what I call in quotes a “mini-series” of films based on singular cases. And I thought about what the title might be of the mini-series. It dawned on me that it would be something that would also fit the cave film: “Gazing Into the Abyss.” The cave film is really looking deep into the origins of the modern human soul, looking into the dark recesses of time, where time becomes unfathomable. There is an abyss of time, an abyss of the human soul. And in “Death Row,” wherever you look, you look into an abyss, an abyss of the human condition. It’s a theme you can see in many of my films, such as “Aguirre.” It doesn’t mean it has to be a dark gaze into it. Sometimes you look into the wonderful, joyful side like in “Bad Lieutenant,” where you have the bliss of evil.

You’re an extremely fast filmmaker, a lot like Woody Allen.

Woody Allen is like a snail. He makes a film a year. I make two to three films a year.

How do you do it?

I make fast decisions. I know what I want to do. Projects are pushing me so hard that you can’t even believe it. I have to wrangle them, like home invasion. How do you get the burglars out of your home, how do you get them on the screen? I edit digitally and you can edit almost as fast as you are thinking. Many of my colleagues lose themselves in the possibilities. They create 22 parallel versions and can’t decide which one is the best. I just do one and do it straightaway with all the urgency of the material.

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Interview: David Carradine

Enter the caveman, David Carradine: He’s been a cowboy, a kung fu artist, a folk artist. Now he takes on Austin-shot ‘Homo Erectus’

Dec. 2, 2005, Austin American-Statesman

David Carradine has long skinny legs that are stretched out like bamboo poles, naked, knobby, porpoise-smooth. They are exposed from the ankle to way up the thigh, several unsettling inches past the tan line to scary areas that make one’s eyes avert in a violent spasm. He looks supremely relaxed and casual, sunk deep in a chair with those bare legs leveled at the floor, elbow propped on an arm rest to keep the cigarette in his fingers close to his faintly duckish lips.

Carradine is dressed as a caveman. Cave-people, according to the Discovery Channel, didn’t wear much apparel. Innocent of vanity, they sported spots and dashes of clothing — loin cloths, tattered shorts, shredded bikini tops, sometimes nothing at all. And so Carradine, former star of the indelible television series “Kung Fu,” in which he sometimes wore little more than a monk robe, is sparsely draped in the rags of primitive man. His shoes are ratty moccasins, his shirt random scraps of earth-tone felt. His pants: nonexistent.

“This is only half of it,” Carradine says with a swell of pride. “I throw fur on top of it all.”

He points to a heap of fake black fur on the floor of his actor’s trailer, which rests on the magnificently dusty moonscape of a limestone quarry in North Austin. Scenes from the movie “Homo Erectus” are being shot here, one of the film’s many locations, including Hamilton Pool and Enchanted Rock, that suggests prehistoric landscapes. (A limestone quarry? How very “Flintstones.”)

“And in the movie my hair is sticking straight up like this,” says Carradine, teasing out long, wild gray-blond strands to make a static-electric blast. “Out to here.”

What are you going to do when playing a caveman but go with it? Carradine seems to be having fun with the role of Mookoo, the blustering chief of his cave tribe. His son Ishbo, who is goading his species to evolve, is played by a Woody Allenish Adam Rifkin, the film’s writer and director. Talia Shire plays Carradine’s cave-wife and Ali Larter (“Legally Blonde”) plays Rifkin’s elusive dream girl. “Homo Erectus” is the third low-budget feature produced by the University of Texas Film Institute and its for-profit arm, Burnt Orange Productions.

Carradine’s last major role was the title villain in Quentin Tarantino’s martial-arts revenge opus “Kill Bill,” the success of which hurled the actor back into public view after a disappearance that seemed to have lasted decades. Actually, it did last decades. His most recent watchable film before “Kill Bill” was the Jesse James western “The Long Riders,” co-starring his brothers Keith and Robert. That was 1980.

“Playing in ‘Kill Bill’ helped,” Carradine says. “Up until then everyone was saying ‘Grasshopper.’ Now everyone says ‘Bill.'”

Climbing into Carradine’s trailer, one is swallowed in a rich fog from his English Ovals, fancy, filterless cigarettes he lights the way some people pop peanuts. He has the grainy rasp and paper-bag flesh of a smoker and the gruff pluck of someone turning 69 on Thursday.

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Coffee with Luke and Andrew Wilson

A Coffee With … Luke Wilson and Andrew Wilson: Brothers at home in laid-back Austin

May 17, 2007, Austin American-Statesman

Coffee, now.

The two men, more like really hairy boys, arrive pouchy-faced, rumpled, enveloped in the whiskers of Alaskan moose hunters. The fussy publicist says no photos will be allowed, that Luke and Andrew are in a “just out of bed” mode. It’s 30 minutes past noon in a sunny suite at the Four Seasons Hotel.

Coffee — a fine idea.

Luke, Andrew and Owen — the adorable, scampish Wilson brothers — are in Austin again, this time for duty. But fun, always, is also on the itinerary. Austin is a second hometown for the Dallas natives.

The Wilsons’ new comedy, “The Wendell Baker Story,” enjoyed a red-carpet preview the night before at the Alamo South. Luke wrote it, he and older brother Andrew directed, and Luke and Owen co-star with film warhorses Kris Kristofferson, Harry Dean Stanton and Seymour Cassel. Made in Austin in 2003, the movie received its world premiere during South by Southwest in 2005. It’s taken a while to secure distribution, but the movie finally opens Friday.

Owen, Hollywood bigshot, ducks today’s press obligations. He’s probably still in bed.

Luke wears the same charcoal cords and button-up black shirt he wore to the previous night’s screening and after-party, which took place at the Wilson brothers’ favorite Austin bar, Club DeVille, where they are routinely spotted.

Andrew, in T-shirt and New Balance sneakers, is the gregarious, big-smile, firm-handshake Wilson brother. Luke, sporting designer sunglasses indoors, is the mumbly, taciturn, reluctant Wilson brother. (Owen is the invisible, bent-nose Wilson brother. “Does Owen even exist?” Andrew wonders aloud.)

Pressed on whether they just fell out of bed, the brothers deny it, but their laughter betrays them.

“Luke ran the lake a couple of times,” Andrew says.

“We did a kick-boxing class,” says Luke.

“We did an urban Pilates class,” Andrew adds.

The sunglasses do not promote their case.

“My eyeballs hurt,” Luke mutters. Andrew laughs.

Still no coffee.

Andrew’s effortless nice-guyness prompts him to snatch the reporter’s tape recorder off the table and hold it up between him and Luke for maximum voice absorption. It’s a heroic gesture. Luke grips a hardback of the new Warren Zevon biography and, for some reason, a pen. The brothers sound alike. It’s a laid-back, adenoidal voice, laced with a curl of Texas drawl.

Dump the bats. The Wilsons should be Austin’s mascot, its scruffy, heart-robbing poster boys. They embody the slightly dazed, out-late, up-late energy of South Austin, the unpressed stylishness of a hip city utterly comfortable with itself.

“When you come down here from Dallas, it’s pretty apparent Austin’s more our speed,” Andrew says. “It’s by far the best town in Texas, and maybe the best town in the country.”

“Our favorite town is El Paso,” Luke deadpans.

Hotel San Jose, Jo’s Coffee, Güero’s, Hula Hut (Andrew’s favorite Austin spot), the Austin Golf Club — these are the brothers’ hangouts.

“I just like driving around in Austin,” Luke says. “I always feel like a cop” — he mimes one hand on the steering wheel, nodding coolly — “just cruisin’ around.”

Funny, they don’t mention any local music venues.

“The thing about Andrew is he hates live music,” Luke says. “I actually do, too.”

“How can you say that in Austin?” says Andrew.

“It’s (expletive),” Luke says. “They play too loud.”

“That’s blasphemy in Austin! Don’t you understand that? Saying I hate live music is like saying I don’t like being from Texas,” says Andrew before he confesses, “I’m kind of an old fuddy-duddy. Sometimes it’s just too dang loud for me.”

The coffee remains undelivered.

To galvanize a caffeine-deprived conversation, Andrew suddenly looks at Luke and asks, “Do you have a place here? That’s what people want to know.”

“Are you actually asking me that?”

“There’s a rumor that you have a place here.”

“No, I don’t.”

“You don’t have a place here. Huh.”

“I’m looking for a place.”

“Where are you looking?” Andrew persists.

“East side,” Luke says. “My friend, Liz Lambert, who runs the Hotel San Jose, just bought some land on the east side.”

We ask whether he’s going to build his own home.

“I think I’d just do one of those — what do you call those things?” Luke says.

“A yurt?” offers Andrew.

“A what?”

“It’s like a teepee.”

“No.”

“A geodesic dome?”

Luke laughs.

“Igloo? Come on, man.” Andrew says.

“No, what are those things called? They’re little modern places that you just buy and set up.”

“Pre-fab.”

“Yes!”

Ta-da. Two big green mugs of coffee are carried in for Luke and Andrew.

Luke takes a sip. “It tastes like Starbucks.”

“Hold on, I’ll be able to tell you,” Andrew says. “I’m like a connoisseur.”

He sips, then coughs loudly, wearing a grimace. “That’s Starbucks.” He picks up six packets of real and artificial sugar and shakes them as if he’s going to use them all in one cup.

Luke protests. “I’m all for Starbucks. Just because it’s successful I’m not supposed to go there?”

“God, man!” says Andrew. “Remember to keep Austin weird.”

“Pardon?” says Luke, as if he can’t believe his brother just said that.

“You heard me.”

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The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane

Thumbs-up, thumbs-down? Hardly. Writing about movies is an art, and no one’s better than the New Yorker’s Anthony Lane.
A critic’s command performance

Nov. 3, 2002, Austin American-Statesman

For the poor newspaper critic, sandwiched between the twin tyrannies of limited space and lightning turn-around, there is no soul luckier than a critic at the New Yorker.

Each week, we flip to the back of the magazine to consume the latest feast of erudition, savoring the gourmet prose, swishing succulent epiphanies and cracking teeth on bones of contention. We envy the elegant typeface, marvel at the breadth of brain-power lent to the task.

Most of all, we swoon over the space. Newspaper folk write in inches. New Yorker scribes write in acres. Their minds are granted fenceless fields in which to gambol and cartwheel, run far and wide and swing from tree branches. They can digress and allude and seemingly take all day.

The extravagant space is one reason why the magazine’s second-string film critic Anthony Lane (David Denby is its chief film critic) has become a New Yorker star. On the page and in person (or at least during a recent phone interview), Lane is irrepressibly verbose. Words disgorge in precise eruptions, flittery but finely thought-out, crisp, lyrical and witty. But, still, copious.

Lane needs the magazine’s roominess to do what he does: write possibly the funniest, smartest and most urbane film musings in the nation. His expansive, riffing prose is allowed to roam and breathe. Filmmakers adore his words as much as readers. Richard Linklater, Wes Anderson and Steven Spielberg are a few directors who have called or written Lane with praise.

Lane recently turned 40 and has just released his first collection of journalism, “Nobody’s Perfect: Writings from the New Yorker,” a 753-page tree stump engorged with roughly 100 movie reviews, a dozen excellent literary critiques and 20 or so profiles on everyone from astronauts to Julia Roberts.

Both exhilarating and exhausting — its sheer volume of distilled dazzle winds you — the anthology indeed goes to show that nobody’s perfect, not even Lane. This is not a swipe; no writer or performer (Lane is both) is flawless. Often you can sense Lane sweating for laughs, winding up for the big guffaw that turns out a groan. His clamoring need to entertain distracts from his spotty film knowledge, which he convincingly caulks with learned intuition and cultural acumen.

Lane is naturally being looked upon as heir to the late Pauline Kael, who perked up and aerated the dowdy vocabulary of criticism for three decades in The New Yorker. But the two are very different critics. Where Kael was harsh and decisive and rarely gallant, Lane is dapper and polite, with a gossamer touch and jolly countenance. Lane critiques with skipping insights, not spike-shoed stomps.

Irony is a way of being mean without looking your subject in the eye, and it is Lane’s handiest weapon. But occasionally the Briton peels off his white gloves: ” ‘Meet Joe Black’ is endless, bewildering, starved of logic, and, if you stand back from it, something of a joke. In short, it feels like death.” He chops down “The Phantom Menace” to a single epithet: “crap.” Continue reading

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‘The unsinkable exuberance of Ernest Borgnine’

Sept. 14, 2007, Austin American-Statesman

You know what Ernest Borgnine is looking forward to? He is looking forward to hawking DVDs on the QVC shopping channel. He is looking forward to taking calls from viewers who want to say nice things to the movie star, now 90, while they provide their MasterCard digits to buy DVDs of “McHale’s Navy,” his popular 1960s sitcom.

The attention electrifies him. He loves it. And he loves to share the love. It’s a generous, outsized love, one that tumbles and laughs and belly-shakes from his end of the phone during a recent conversation.

How he laughs. His are hearty, throaty, avuncular guffaws, rollicking animal sounds punctuating prosaic statements that don’t seem to warrant joyous noise. What the heck! Ha ha ha ha ha!

Ernest Borgnine. Instant name recognition. Instant face recognition. Like that, you could point him out in a lineup of gruff, balloon-bellied guys with a gap between their front teeth wide enough to sail the S.S. Poseidon through. Those teeth make a heck of a smile, unmistakable, downright iconic. Huge, enveloping, really goofy.

Excited, I tell co-workers I’m interviewing Borgnine, and instead of fond memories of “The Poseidon Adventure,” “The Wild Bunch” or “The Dirty Dozen,” I get reflexive chuckles and the callous but pardonable question “He’s still alive?”

This isn’t surprising. I admit, much of why I accepted the invitation to talk to the jolly actor, who’s plumping the “McHale’s Navy” DVDs, is because of his undimmed camp appeal.

A granddaddy of Hollywood character actors, Borgnine’s living ghost has never left the building. It’s hung around long enough to become legend, and legend too easily in these sniggeringly ironic times becomes a target of fun and fodder for parody.

He wasn’t asked to play himself on “The Simpsons” for his brilliant acting, but for the fumes of notoriety, the knowing wink of familiarity, for both the good films (“From Here to Eternity,” “Johnny Guitar”) and the dreadful (“Real Men Don’t Eat Gummi Bears”).

To be blunt: He was on the cartoon because the very idea of Ernest Borgnine  is funny.

How did this happen? How does a distinguished, Oscar-winning artist (for his touching performance in 1955’s “Marty”) go from movie star to free-floating punch line? What makes Ernie funny?

Derision isn’t at issue. Pop culture is not making fun of or diminishing Borgnine’s career and persona. He and I talk about this. I remind him that his unconventional looks – the pudge, the buggy eyes, that insouciant gap – and his steadfast refusal to stop working make him ripe for burlesque.

“Let ’em have fun,” says the happy, hale actor. “Keeps you in mind, doesn’t it?”

He roars. The oncoming earthquake is equal parts Santa Claus and Walter Huston in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.”

We adore our camp figures even more, it appears, than the sparkling immortals whose careers never seem to dip or dive, holding steady and respectable. The campy ones are imperfect, more human, and we relate. They add an unexpected dimension to celebrity watching: fun without malice.

Still, we can be mean. We are a cynical public and our searching appraisals are often made through a scrim of hopeful schadenfreude. While some camp-ready stars are vectors of their own free-falls into risible self-caricature – Joan Crawford, Ozzy Osbourne, Tammy Faye Bakker, the two Coreys – others, like Borgnine, William Shatner and Shelley Winters merely got old yet kept going, a Hollywood sin.

Showbiz Law No. 152: If you ever appeared on “The Love Boat,” you will never be taken as seriously as you were before. (Borgnine rode the Love Boat in the early ’80s. Did “The Poseidon Adventure” teach him nothing about the perils of nautical voyage?)

But Borgnine, mysteriously, has claimed a place in our hearts, like a big fuzzy teddy bear, all smiles and elbow nudges. As critic David Thomson notes, at a point in his career Borgnine made the “transition from actor to inexplicable celebrity.”

Borgnine’s one of the good ones. We know this because he probably could not pull off a reality show. He is far from the Anna Nicole abyss. He is not a loser. He still says things like “Holy mackerel!”

Is his tirelessness, his urge to crank out smaller movies and sell DVDs on cable, really such a crime? 

“I just like to work too much. That’s my problem,” Borgnine  says. “I’d do anything, I don’t care. I even do (the voice of Mermaid Man on) ‘SpongeBob SquarePants,’ for heaven sakes!”

He laughs that crazy laugh. When it recedes like a passing jet, he says, “I tell you, it pays.”

You do what you have to do. What you want to do. Retired athletes pitch deodorant and life insurance. Suzanne Sommers and Chuck Norris peddle exercise regimes. Borgnine makes movies. He never stopped.

“No regrets whatsoever,” he says.

Stumped, I tell him he sounds like the happiest man in the world.

“I AM the happiest man in the world,” he says. “Why shouldn’t I be? I’m recognized throughout the world. I’ve got my health. The good Lord loves me. I got a good wife. Gee whillikers, I’m sitting on top of the world!”

And then Ernest Borgnine laughs and laughs and laughs.

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Interview: Bud Cort

‘Harold and Maude’ actor broods about life’s letdowns

 ‘A Coffee with’ Bud Cort

March 27, 2008, Austin American-Statesman  

“Coffee with?” How about breakfast with? How about scrambled eggs with? More to the point: “loose, wet” scrambled eggs (with onions and a tomato on the side) with?

Breakfast with Bud. How’s that?

Bud Cort — known forever, ruefully, as death-obsessed Harold in the 1971 cult classic “Harold and Maude,” co-starring a randy and geriatric Ruth Gordon — wants breakfast on this rainy day at a big Austin hotel. He will have coffee, too. And orange juice. And a bagel. Please, take away the cream cheese. It’s not low-fat.

He’s picky and precise. And, after all these years, Harold is still gloomy.

Strike that. Cort is not Harold. About this he is adamant. That was the Paramount hype contraption, selling the owl-eyed, 22-year-old actor as the freaky, alienated teenager he played in the movie. There’s nothing odd or unusual about Cort. Nothing, and everything.

He wears disappointment nicely. His outfit is a snazzy shade of melancholy. Behind the Harry Potter glasses, those famous big eyes are moist with complaint.

There is no Cat Stevens ditty on hand to telegraph the emotions unspooling in this scene, unless he’s changed the name of “Tea for the Tillerman” to “Coffee for Cort.” Even then, it would be a tune jangling with resentment, backed by a chorus of blustery sighs.

Cort was in Austin last week to present three of his movies at the Alamo Ritz: Robert Altman’s Houston-shot “Brewster McCloud,” Hal Ashby’s “Harold and Maude” and the only film Cort wrote and directed, “Ted and Venus,” which went straight to video in 1991.

We have no idea how breakfast started with this, but it did: the one-man Truman Capote stage show that Cort developed and was meant to star in. With a lisp and quivering high notes that create the unnerving noise of an emphysemic Munchkin, Cort warbles a snatch of “Moon River” as if sung by Capote.

It’s something he does in Kinky Friedman’s show when Friedman takes his touring act to Cort’s hometown, which will go unnamed here at Cort’s request. (He believes he has a stalker.)

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