Sundance Film Festival 2010: Day Three

A chat with John Cooper, The Killer Inside Me

by Nick Da Costa and Amber Wilkinson

Nick Da Costa writes... If there was one thing dragging me from my make-shift sofa cushion meet floor bed that first day of the festival it was making sure I obtained a ticket to see Michael Winterbottom’s The Killer Inside Me. For some reason this didn’t get a press screening slot so I was fiending for a ticket as we made our way to the Marriott - the hub-headquarters-bat cave of the festival - and put in my request. Due to the forever-efficient team, I had my ticket ready for collection within the hour and so it was simply a case of waiting for today….

Before the movie started director Michael Winterbottom came out with some of the cast including Jessica Alba who plays Joyce Lakeland - the inciting incident so to speak - and Tom Bower who plays Sheriff Bob Rawls - the father figure and boss of our protagonist Lou Ford. He thanked us for coming and said that they’d be back to answer some questions after the movie had finished. Alba never returned and so once the credits rolled it was left to Winterbottom, along with Bower and some of the producers to field the questions.

Winterbottom sounded quite nervous, not helped by the first question which turned out to be more of a statement, expressing disgust that Sundance had selected this movie at all - presumably because of the explicit violence towards women. She then made a big thing about walking out, followed by a succession of boos from the crowd. Winterbottom did compose himself nicely though, simply asking if anyone else had a question.

It was difficult to hear some of the questions due to the size of the Eccles Theatre and the irritating behaviour of some of the audience who felt their chatter was more important than the guy who had directed the movie they’d just seen.

One question referred to the first adaptation of the novel, and asked how he approached material that had already been adapted. His response was that he hadn’t heard of this first effort and he simply stuck as close to the book as possible. It is a noir, a fictional world and he was moved by the picture of that world as described in the book. He was interested in the destructiveness of people. It was that emotion that made him want to make the film.

One woman asked why he made it so graphic. His answer being that around the time the original novel was released the content was very shocking. It deals with the contradiction of someone both loving and wanting to kill these people. He was interested in the underlying tenderness there.

This was a point he came back to in questions that were unfortunately obscured by noise in the room. He seemed very interested in getting into the mind of Lou Ford, and how it feels to be the way he is.

Casey Affleck in The Killer Inside Me
Casey Affleck in The Killer Inside Me

Tom Bower made a cogent point, that put Winterbottom’s points into a cinematic context. Some people simply want escapism from their movies. They want vampires and comic book heroes. What you get from movies like The Killer Inside Me, In Cold Blood or Henry Portrait Of A Serial Killer is how the world really is and asks us what we want to do about it. This seemed to get the best reaction, even though it was reiterating most of what Winterbottom had said. The Q&A was cut short after that. Literally. Just as someone else was about to ask another question. That could have been because of time or because of the early response to the film. It did get one sure thumbs up after someone from the audience shouted out: "Loved it".

As for my thoughts, I was impressed. I’ve been re-reading the novel over my days here at Sundance and as Winterbottom says, it’s a fairly literal adaptation. It’s a story of Lou Ford (Casey Affleck), small town Sheriff, a face for the public he serves and one for behind closed doors. One that hides murderous intentions and a damaged past and a life that begins to unravel as soon as he’s asked to chase prostitute Joyce Lakeland (Jessica Alba) out of town.

On a visceral level the film is both fascinating and sickening. As it should be. The repeated acts of violence instantly recal Gasper Noe’s Irreversible and its fire extinguisher scene - the wet crunch as metal impacts on face corresponding to the punches Lou Ford unleashes on his first victim early in the film. Also - though Winterbottom voiced his concerns it was too loud at this screening - the sound was similar to Noe's use of bass saturation to unsettle an audience.

You could certainly say it was gratuitous. Several people sitting around me were cursing under their breath suggesting a degree of overkill, but it’s what happens during and after the violence which is important. Winterbottom is keen to express Ford’s implied schizophrenia and there’s this unsettling balance between loving gesture and destructive force. When Ford whispers: "I love you. Goodbye" or gives a cheerful whistle, a giggle catches in your throat. His nonchalance is absurd, almost comical, yet terrible at the same time. Similarly, the use of Spade Cooley’s‘Shame On You is both a period detail and also a knowing punctuation of the murder.

Directorially it’s a mixed bag. It’s a beautiful film, certainly. There’s a touch of Edward Hopper. The period detail exact. And yet it’s not L.A. Confidential. It’s not a tribute or trophy. It doesn’t look ornate. It has a documentary eye for detail and so it looks lived in. There’s also an interesting use of jump cuts, flashbacks and audio to convey how unstable Lou Ford is. Almost like the splices in Fight Club that cue us into the appearance of Tyler Turden, yet far more subtle and random. I could have been spotting mistakes, but thinking it over after the Q&A it seemed to fit with Winterbottom’s vision of conveying Ford’s mental state.

I’m not sure the same could be said of some of the pacing in the scenes. On several occasions the footage feels little more than a rehearsal. They lack dramatic momentum. A sluggish, almost monotone delivery of the dialogue, the editing abrupt. This is emphasised whenever Liam Aiken, who plays Pappas, is onscreen, giving an utterly wooden performance that makes you wonder if they confused his stand-in for the real thing.

As for the other performances, the standouts are surprising and not. Alba’s role might be small, but her fate looms over the entire movie and she deals with the rather unpleasant psychosexual content well. There’s a touch of Jennifer Jones about her, and the fact she isn’t swallowed up by Affleck is testament to her solid work here.

Speaking of which, Affleck is astonishing in the lead role. His drawl that seems to turn everything he’s saying into a single, potent word. The way he internalises all of Ford’s turmoil, allowing it to ripple just at the surface, as if his skin was put on too tight. When he sucks on his teeth you know something is very wrong. When he opens them up in a piranha smile, his cold blue eyes blazing, it’s chilling. It’s a restrained performance, the violence meant to be explosive and shocking. This is an intelligent, calculating man. His real power is in his wordplay that he uses to bat people with like a kitten playing with a ball of string. If anyone had any doubt about his abilities as an actor after The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, this should obliterate them.

John Cooper introduces Exit Through The Gift Shop
John Cooper introduces Exit Through The Gift Shop

Amber Wilkinson writes... Up bright and early this morning to interview John Cooper - who was every bit as personable as I suspected he would be. We'll bring you the interview in full once I get a chance to transcribe it, but it was great to chat to him about his first year in the role of festival director and about his plans for the future.

He is at pains to point out that "this isn't the John Cooper Film Festival." He adds: "First and foremost this is a festival for filmmakers, then for audiences."

He is proud of some of the audience outreach they've done this year and with making quite a lot of the films available online.

He also talks a lot about helping directors to develop their work through the programmes at the institute. Talking about Brits who've come through, the conversation turns to Andrea Arnold.

"Her short was here," he says. "Then Red Road was here... and then, then they go to Cannes. I think we lose them. The truth is I never feel that's loss, that's just success because we still can say we helped at a crucial time in their career."

So, given this year's festival 'theme' does he feel like a rebel?

"I always feel rebellious. I'm a closet rebel I think. I like to look like I'm not a rebel but then I do things that are rebellious.

"When you read that thing that we made up - and a lot of that came from Redford - we're rebelling against expectations. You know it's funny wording in a lot of it but my favourite part is the 'Sundance reminded' because that's where we came into it this year - all the way back to the beginning."

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