Director Fred Schepisi (“Six Degrees of Separation,” “Roxanne”) is a lot more hopeful about the state of movies for adults after making “Words and Pictures” and tackling the dumbing-down of education and culture head on. Of course, it helps having Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche rekindling the joy of good, middle-brow drama as reliable counter-programming this Memorial weekend.
“Words and Pictures” is a postmodern Tracy/Hepburn riff: Owen plays a burned out English teacher in a New England prep school and Binoche a new art instructor and former painter severely hampered by rheumatoid arthritis. Owen immediately throws down the gauntlet and challenges Binoche to a contest to see which is more vital: literature or art to stir the complacent students and to save his job. You might know where it’s headed romantically but it’s worth the journey.
Schepisi says Owen signed on immediately but that Binoche took a little more coaxing before reconsidering after another actress bowed out because of a scheduling conflict. They were both the director’s first choices, only Schepisi had no idea beforehand that Binoche was a talented abstract painter in her own right. “We didn’t have to fake it,” he says, “and we could be spontaneous on camera and allowed her to privately practice and go forward with it. Then we’d shoot it for real and she’d develop it further. It was quite an ongoing process that made her tense but also gave her a freedom that I know she enjoys. She goes on the same journey artistically that the character goes on.”
Yet it’s a delicate balance between drama and polemics in confronting mediocrity, social media, stalking, and plagiarism, not to mention betrayal. But throw in those dark demons that possess most creative types and you’ve got a highly relevant movie.
“You use imagery as much as possible and a lot of it with careful plotting with actors to know when to give us the heavy stuff or the angry stuff,” Schepisi suggests. “And even during that to let us have glimpses into other feelings that they might have. And you use the humor to pull them out of their situations and pull us out as well.”
Shooting in the rustic beauty of Vancouver, and digitally for the first time with long-time cinematographer Ian Baker, was also invigorating for the director. “It’s very freeing in some ways. Some pitfalls in other ways. You have to be very careful because sometimes the digital camera can see things you can’t, which can be unkind on actresses. You can work in a lot of light and it can be very good on night stuff.
“We’ve been finishing digitally for quite a long time, but for years I’ve been saying to cinematographers — and particularly to mine — let’s stop saying what we’re going to lose; let’s start looking at what we’re going to gain. What are the advantages of this? How do we maximize or increase the advantages to keep some of what we loved in film? Once you do that, you’re not worried about wasting film. You still have to be [mindful] of what you want. There’s less wind-up time between takes. One of the things is you know you’ve got it. You don’t have to worry about the lab or look at rushes.”
Not surprisingly, two of Schepisi’s favorite moments are Owen’s stirring speeches about the co-existence of words and pictures and the sustaining value of literacy (scripted by Gerald Di Pego), and the night Owen disappoints Binoche and she discovers a dual betrayal. “With just the camera sitting there and watching the two of them going through their various emotions, it’s just simple and they do it all for you.”
Meanwhile, the director is pleased that young adults have already responded to his movie. “I think people enjoy written cleverness and you see on Netflix and Showtime that they’re allowing less compromised storytelling and taking risks and being controversial, sometimes a bit too much. So there’s a better quality coming out and not that middle of the road censorship that TV was doing in the past and still doing.”
Now if we can only get more of this in theaters and not just during awards season.
Our TOH! video interview with Binoche is here.