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Fred Schepisi (Words and Pictures)

Fred Schepisi: The Interview (Words and Pictures)

Fred Schepisi has spent decades directing all genres of films. His latest film, Words and Pictures, tells the interesting story about an English teacher (Clive Owen) who gets caught up in a battle of wits with an art teacher (Juliette Binoche). While the two form an unlikely relationship, it still doesn't keep them from arguing over which is better, words or pictures. Shakefire had the opportunity to talk with Schepisi and discuss the film and working with both words and pictures.

Shakefire (SF): We’ve seen love stories done to death in film before. What was it that attracted you to the script and what did you feel that you could do differently?
Fred Schepisi (FS): Well it wasn’t just a love story for starters so that helped. It was about a lot of things, about schools and school bullying and children not being attentive in school or not being stimulated. It was about teachers and the struggles they go through and about people who had hopes to be a writer or artist and finding out they weren’t good enough to be able to continue to do or the physical infirmity was preventing them from doing it, accepting their situation and finding a way forward. There was so much that there was about and out of that realistic story comes the discovery of one person and another person and how they might find a way to go forward together, not necessarily perfectly happy but with a real understanding. I think already I found there were lots of differences to the conventions of romantic comedies.

SF: As a director, do you have a preference between words or pictures? Which do you find to be more beneficial to your filming process?
FS: You know, I struggle with that all the time. I like words, but sometimes they’re just not necessary. There was a chance to explore that, particularly with Juliette in this picture, because almost all the time during all her struggles it’s just her and it’s just what’s going on on her face that tells you so much. With Clive there are some of those times with him, but he’s trying to put words down generally when we’re seeing that. The rest of the time there’s this verbiage coming out as a distraction, as a defense, as just plain having fun and probably in denial. So at times pictures are the strongest way of saying or doing something and words are other times. And then sometimes both together take on a magic. There’s a bit in there where he talks about the birds on the wire like punctuation for an invisible sentence and that hits you really strongly. But then when you see the birds on the wire, you go ‘Oh, wow!” The two come together and they’re very powerful.

SF: Did Juliette Binoche actually do the artwork we see in the film? It shows her painting, but are those her final works?
FS: Yes, that’s her work.

SF: Wow, I had no idea she was quite the artist.
FS: I didn’t know she was quite the artist, either. [laughs] I didn’t know the extent of her ability and experience. Like the character in the film she’s more of a portrait artist, a figurative artist, so the journey she goes on to find another way of expressing herself is also the journey that Juliette has to take to go into an area of art that she hasn’t dabbled in much at all. There was a lot of planning and a lot of her doing trial and error. We looked at other artists and getting ideas from them and then we had her do it live on camera and not faking it, which was a hell of a bonus.

SF: With Clive Owen’s character there was very much a Dead Poets Society vibe to him. Was that an inspiration for the character?
FS: No, it turned out that way. Clive’s from a working class background, pretty rough neighborhood and everything. As he will tell you himself, he got put into doing some amateur acting or something at one point and he suddenly realized that he really loved words and what words could do and where acting took you. He really took to it and was very lucky to get a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. You go do a RADA course and you’re really going to learn about the language big time.

SF: There’s this great scene in the film where he delivers this rant about Twitter and technology. Do you think society has become out of touch with the impact of words because of all this technology and social media.
FS: I think sometimes there’s an enormous amount of drivel, haha. People are probably learning to express themselves in a way where they take something that’s four pages and you put it down to about two thirds of a page and it still has to have all the same meaning and context. I think cleverer people are using Twitter and those things like that, but I would have to say 90% of them aren’t. People are writing a lot, you know? My wife is always on the phone texting people and about complex things. And I say, “Why don’t you just pick up the phone and talk to them? Have a conversation.” There’s this sort of a thing where they get to express themselves differently in the writing of it, in the typing down of it. While things have become very brief and succinct, I’m not sure that that’s always a bad thing. I don’t know if you’ve read any current or modern novelist, but boy some of them are repetitive in the extreme. It’s kinda like, “Where’s your editor?” They’ll say the same thing page after page; it’s a great story and great writing, but the repetition is just frightening.

SF: Clive and Juliette have wonderful chemistry together. Did you have to screen test a bunch of actors before you landed on them?
FS: No, I picked them quite early. Clive had apparently always wanted to work with Juliette, because I conferred with him. Similarly she’d always wanted to work with Clive. I don’t think they’d ever met or if they had it was in passing. I brought them together at the Mercer hotel in New York and from the minute they sat down they had a delight in one another, a little mischievous humor going around there but coming out of quite different points of view. You could feel the whole time that they loved working together. They would be laughing if something went wrong; they didn’t worry, they just laughed it off and get on with it. Sometimes they would break up in the middle of a take because of a look one gave the other or something. They were really good fun to be around and a very happy shoot.

Words and Pictures opens in limited release on June 6, 2014.

Matt Rodriguez
Interview by Matt Rodriguez
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