On the Highway to the Top: Matt Reeves

Piše: Sven Mikulec

A little more than a year has passed since we had a little chat with the cult director of Halloween and The Thing, and the thirteen months that followed were marked by our persistent but fruitless attempts at pulling the sleeves of foreign filmmakers. The kindness and one early Christmas present from our site’s friend Boris, the creator of the brilliant independent website Cinephilia & Beyond, put us in touch with the rising Hollywood ace Matt Reeves.

At the end of the nineties, one of his best friends J. J. Abrams and he created Felicity, a few years later he attracted a lot of attention with his intriguing Cloverfield, only to deliver the critically acclaimed American version of the inspired Swedish horror flick Let the Right One In.

Although his schedule busier than ever thanks to the new Planet of the Apes he’s supposed to shoot, he managed to fit us somehow into his schedule and in the brief conversation that took place while he was travelling the highway he left the impression of a talkative, approachable person. However, I know what you’re dying to know, so I will tell you straight away and save you some time scrolling – I didn’t ask him why Felicity cut her hair…

I started making movies when I was 8 years old and I just knew that that was what I wanted to do.

I know it’s a cliche and you’ve probably been asked the question countless times, but what made you become a filmmaker?

You know, when I was a kid, I got a 8mm camera. When I was 8 eight years old, I got a windup camera. I was actually in an amusement park with my grandparents, we were visiting from New York. We were looking at the dolphins in the theme park called Marine Land, and I saw these tourists, japanese tourists with an 8mm camera filming the dolphins. And somehow, being 8 eight years old, that kinda struck me that the tourists could essentially take the dolphins home and any time they would have wanted they could project them on the wall. That seemed like the greatest thing I have ever seen. And my grandparents said they had an old, windup camera that used to belong to my father. They mailed it to me and I began making movies at 8 yrs of age, and it became they way that I made friends. I would talk to people and say, hey, do you want to make a movie with me, because I was very shy. And that was it! To be honest with you, I started making movies when I was 8 and I just knew that that was what I wanted to do.

What role models have shaped your style and vision? Who would be your ultimate role model among directors?

Well, I think that the first time I really noticed a filmmaker behind the camera was Martin Scorsese. Definitely my hero when I was a kid. I saw ‘Raging Bull’ with my parents and they asked me what I thought of the movie. I was like 14 years old and I said, well, that’s the best directed movie I’ve ever seen.  As if I had any idea what that meant. But actually, the amazing thing is that to this day I still think it’s one of the best directed movies I’ve ever seen. He was really a major influence and hero of mine, and I think it’s because I felt that he had a way of expressing something that I’ve never seen on film before, which was that somehow the way that he felt and the mood were expressed through camera work and through performances, in a way that, I don’t know, it just excited me. So he was a major influence because I just thought, God, that’s something I’ve never seen before, just the way he used the camera and the way that he told stories. I would describe them as very passionate films. The other thing that they are is that they are very… point-of-view driven. That, I realize now, is one of the biggest things about it. I think that I was influenced initially and excited initially by Scorsese because of how talented he was, but I think the thing that was also coming through to me in terms of his point-of-views was how much he was heavily influenced by Alfred Hitchcock. I discovered Hitchcock’s films after Scorsese’s films and then became obsessed with them, and I’m still obsessed with them to this day. So, I would say that the one who excited me when I was young was Martin Scorsese, who’s still one of my heroes. And then I discovered all sorts of things through cinema, through Alfred Hitchcock. And when I was in film school, my mind was opened up to other points of view. I became obsessed with Federico Fellini, and as I was growing up I always loved FF Coppola.

I think when I look back at the movies that excited me when I was young, it was the films made by American storytellers that were heavily influenced by European films. That’s sort of what stuck to me to this very day. I love foreign films, too, I love Wong Kar Wai, Krzysztof Kieslowski… and I think I was particularly affected by filmmakers who are trying to express themselves through a particular point of view.

I’m glad you mentioned film school. Paul Thomas Anderson once said that, and I quote: „Film school is a complete con – the information is there if you want it.“ How important film school actually was to you?

Well, it’s interesting because… You know, I understand what you’re saying and it’s absolutely true. The way to learn how to make movies is to watch them and to make them. When I was a kid you could make 8mm movies, and now more than ever you can do them on your phone, edit them on your computer. The access to the technology for a filmmaker and a visual storyteller is right there, in your hand. So, that is really what you need to do to learn how to become a filmmaker.

A painter learns his art by painting, but also by looking at the works of Rembrandt and other great painters – the filmmaker should do the same with movies.

The thing that was important to me in going to film school was the opportunity to make films on a little bit larger scale than I could afford to do and also to be in a community with other students who were as excited and passionate about movies as you were. And a lot of these friends and relationships that I created and found in film school are the ones I still have today. I had the pleasure of working with one of my good friends from film school, James Gray, who directed ‘Two Lovers’ and ‘The Yards’. We worked together, I co-wrote ‘The Yards’ with James. And there’s nothing more exciting than being able to work with friends of yours who share your passion. My friend Bryan Burk, with whom I went to film school, was also someone I’ve worked with, he and I made ‘Cloverfield’ together. You know, J.J. Abrams and I met at an 8mm film festival. We didn’t go to film school together, but we made movies together, ‘Cloverfield’, we co-created ‘Felicity’. It’s a very exciting thing to be able to be in a community of people who love the same things that you love and it challenges you. So, in that way, film school is a fantastic thing and I would say in one other major way it was for me, but it’s certainly not as necessary now as it was then, a lot of the access to the kinds of films that I would see was not really available. Now, I would say, you have such a splendid selection of films that are on DVD and Blu-Ray, but when I started film school there certainly were DVDs, but they didn’t have the same selection they have now. For instance, Rome, Open City… Memories of Underdevelopment… Not movies you could get at your local video store in the United States, but now they’re much more available.

A painter learns his art by painting, but also by looking at the works of Rembrandt and other great painters, the filmmaker should do the same with movies. For me, film school was important for that, too. We had great classes where I saw private films, European films… films I wouldn’t have access to in any other way.

Back in the old days (OK, not so long ago), you worked a lot on ‘Felicity’. What was it like to work for television?

The truth is, it was like film school all over again. You can make some shows by filming all of the episodes before they air. With our show, we had to meet deadlines so the shows could air. In that way, it was like film school because we were writing a story, shooting a story and editing a story round the clock until we’ve gotten through. I think we did 22 hours of TV the first year.

The thing that I liked about it as a filmmaker was that we had to follow the characters over a longer period of time. That was really different and it was more like… novelistic, I would say, it was closer to writing a novel than making a movie, where you have two hours to present to the audience everything they needed to know about the characters.

The thing that was harder and that I didn’t like very much, however, was that it moved so fast that I couldn’t give the directors as much time as they might have liked, time for setting up the shots, doing all the things you enjoy being a director for. What I will say that it was a very important experience and training for me because when I went back to making films, I brought with me a lot of tools about the economy of storytelling, making me more apt to economize the stories to fit them into the 2hr limitation.

I think the reason that most remakes are bad because they are generally not made from a passionate place.

Let’s talk about ‘Let Me In’ for a bit. You are very well aware of the way remakes are perceived among average film lovers. The scepticism, the doubts, prejudice, and so on. You said it yourself in an interview that most remakes are awful. So what made you decide to do take the risk with ‘Let Me In’?

Well, I think the reason that most remakes are bad because they are generally not made from a passionate place. There are remakes that I loved – John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’, for instance, or William Friedkin’s ‘Sorcerer’, which I think is an amazing remake of ‘The Wages of Fear’.

I was approached about the remake and I was very affected by the story, but the story also reminded me a lot of my childhood. I actually did turn the film down because, I told them, this is a beautiful film and I don’t want to remake it precisely because of that. They kept pursuing me and I couldn’t get my other projects made, and in the meantime, I read John Lindqvist’s novel – he also wrote the screenplay – and I was very affected by it and I thought it was a great horror story. More than anything, it was very clear it was a personal story. It so reminded me of my own childhood, the pains of adolescence, family, divorce… So I suddenly started thinking that maybe there was a way of being faithful to the story but to personalize it. I ended up writing to John Lindqvist and saying to him how much I loved the movie that he and Tomas Alfredson made, and how they were pursuing me and how I was torn about it. I told him that what excited me about it was that it by far the most personal thing I could get involved with at that moment, even though, of course, it was his story. I wanted to find a way to remain faithful to it but at the same time to put it into a world that I knew when I was growing up. We’re about the same age, John and I, and he turned out to be a huge fan of ‘Cloverfield’, and he loved the idea of me doing an American version of the film. I really want you to do it, he said, especially when I hear you describing it like that, because it really is about my childhood.  That was really when I decided to go on with the project. I made the film wishing to express what I thought Lindqvist so brilliantly expressed in the novel and in Alfredson’s picture, offering a story of the pain of adolescence through a vampire story. That’s the way I approached it and I have to say I did have a lot of trepidation about the end result, but all in all, it was a wonderful experience.

Spielberg told me – give them some room, ask them what they would do. This turned out to be great advice.

What was it like directing Kodi and Chloe? What’s the difference in the approach to them, as opposed to directing grown-ups in ‘Cloverfield’?

They are so remarkably talented and both of them are much wiser than their years. The way I liked to direct them was this – I would keep the camera rolling and I would talk to them, make them laugh… I was just trying to find a way to get some reaction from them. What’s great about them as young actors is that they are actually really open in a way that adult actors really aren’t always.

The other thing that was great was the advice that I got from Steven Spielberg. After ‘Cloverfield’, he started working with J.J. and I asked J.J. if he thought I could talk to him, and he told me that he loved ‘Cloverfield’, so why not, and he asked him and Spielberg said yes. We talked about directing children and he told me I should really ask them what they would do in every situation. You know, he said, you are trying to remember what it was like to be 11 or 12 years old, but they are. Give them more room, ask them what they would do.

That turned out to be great advice. As I said, I’m very interested in points of view and a lot of the movie was filmed from their points of view and I was able to incorporate it.

Has your close friendship with J. J. Abrams had an impact on your filmmaking in any way, and, if yes, how so?

You know, I’m not going to be able to answer that question because I think that whatever influence he’s had on me or we’ve had on eachother comes from the fact that we’ve been friends since we were kids and that we both love movies. One of the things that I would always do while I was in film school was that I would always show J.J. my movies, and he would send me his short stories and novels. We would always share each other’s work and he was the person I would always turn to whenever I had an idea. So, there’s no question we’ve influenced one another, but I can’t really be specific about it because it’s like asking you how you were influenced by your friend you’ve known since you were 13 years old, which is actually how long I’ve known J.J. I certainly love working with him and I’m glad to have him as my friend, and I hope we’ll work more together in the future.

J.J. and I have tremendous trust in each other and we know one another so well it seems like we’re inside each other’s head.

In what way has the fact that you have a long history together helped you in making ‘Cloverfield’?

He talked to me about doing it and I was like, wait a minute, I’ve never really done any visual effects, why do you want me to do it? And he said, well, because I know you’re passionate about making something feel authentic. He told me not to worry about the visual effects part, because I would learn that quickly, since he previously worked with visual effects on ‘Mission Impossible’. He told me he wanted me to bring my point of view to it because the part of the idea is that it is really happening. From that perspective of trying to make something as outlandish and insane feel grounded and real I got very excited and one of the things we have is tremendous trust in each other. The experience was great. A lot of the script I directed on ‘Felicity’ J.J. would write. We would break the story together but it was like we were inside of each other’s head. The movie was a great experience for me because I was jumping into something that I’ve never done before and finding my way to do it, and he was totally supportive and excited for what I was doing.

I mean, he wasn’t on set that much, because he was making ‘Star Trek’ at that moment, but the huge thing he did for me was, first of all, to suggest that I do it, because otherwise I never would’ve thought that I would be somebody to do that movie, and then support me in letting me go and do it the way I felt it should be done. To be honest with you, it was so fast that it felt like making a TV show, and I think that was a part of the reason J.J. wanted me to do it because we’d done TV together for 4 years.

I read some theories on ‘Cloverfield’, on what it was really about, what ideas were hidden beneath the surface. Apart from the widespread belief that the movie dealt with the post-9/11 anxiety, I found an interesting review written by a young Croatian director. In it he stated his opinion on the subtext of the film, that it was actually about love. How the Godzilla-like monster basically represented jealously and love felt by the main character in the face of losing the love of his life. He even pointed out the word ‘love’ is actually a part of the title.

That’s great. There’s no question that the movie was definitely about the feelings we all had connected to 9/11 and to experiences like that where something sort of pauses you in a moment and makes you grapple with the questions of your life that you normally, in your day-to-day existence, sort of put elsewhere. I mean, you don’t think about your mortality every day, you don’t think about all of the things that are out of our control and are so much larger than we are. But I would have to say that I love the interpretation that you mentioned the young filmmaker had. I don’t know how overt the question of love would have been as we’ve discussed it, but there’s no question that that was the subtext – the idea of priority, of connectedness, of what matters in the middle of a crisis, about what happens to you in a crisis, how you live in that moment and try to get through that moment. In that way, it was a metaphore for those things absolutely.

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