Going back to The Apartment

Paul Schneider on Jane Campion, Nick Cave, La La Land, Trainspotting, Jack Lemmon, Billy Wilder and more.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Paul Schneider on Trainspotting to Bright Star: "There was that monologue that Kelly Macdonald spoke to Ewan McGregor."
Paul Schneider on Trainspotting to Bright Star: "There was that monologue that Kelly Macdonald spoke to Ewan McGregor." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

In our conversation, Paul Schneider tells of the importance Jan Chapman and Jane Campion's The Piano had, working with Christophe Honoré and Andrew Dominik, and meeting Nick Cave during The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. We started out with Métamorphoses and Les Bien-aimés, La La Land and Jacques Demy, onto the influence of Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine in Billy Wilder's The Apartment.

Paul Schneider in The Daughter
Paul Schneider in The Daughter

Paul Schneider, All The Real Girls director David Gordon Green, Loving and Midnight Special director Jeff Nichols, David LaChapelle, and MA director Celia Rowlson-Hall - all went to the North Carolina School of the Arts. Paul stars with Geoffrey Rush, Sam Neill, Miranda Otto, Odessa Young, Ewen Leslie, and with Anna Torv and Wilson Moore in Simon Stone's The Daughter, opening today in the US.

Anne-Katrin Titze: You've worked with some great directors. Christophe Honoré is one of them. I did features on two of his films with him. First Les bien-aimés and then Métamorphoses. I loved what he did with Les Bien-aimés. Who, besides Jacques Demy, dares to have a musical number about incest?

Paul Schneider: He has a very light, frothy form but the content is more complicated and more complex than anything you've ever seen in that form. It's that collision of form and content which makes his stuff really great. Especially when you are talking about issues like gender, identity, sexuality. Like you said, songs about incest - these are things never done.

AKT: Well, Jacques Demy did.

Chiara Mastroianni with Paul Schneider in Les Bien-aimés
Chiara Mastroianni with Paul Schneider in Les Bien-aimés

PS: And even he - yeah, it's true. But even he is someone I think of, I remember, as light. Light movies. But it's only because people say Jacques Demy - musical.

AKT: But his films have both and that's what my criticism is about La La Land. I know you haven't seen it. It just gives you the froth.

PS: And no ...?

AKT: No depth. It's about actors living quite comfortably and the Ryan Gosling character is going on tour with a successful band fronted by John Legend. That is no equivalent of going to war in Algeria in The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg. Because the band tour is not his ideal of being artistic.

PS: Most musicians I know would be like "he is what?" When I think of the collision of form and content, I always go back to The Apartment. Jack Lemmon does one of the greatest comedic performances ever.

AKT: And so does Shirley MacLaine, no?

Odessa Young in The Daughter
Odessa Young in The Daughter

PS: I think he does one of the greatest comedic performances ever. I think she does one of the best performances. And the reason I say that is because the movie is initially based on such a light premise. My bosses want to borrow my apartment to have sex with their secretaries or whatever.

AKT: Already, I'm not sure I would want to call this a "light premise."

PS: Especially at that time, you'd seen many movies that used that premise and treated it very lightly. Whether or not there were real consequences, we didn't worry about this. This is a men's world. The high jinks is just - will I get caught?, not, am I causing anyone any pain? The great thing is that Wilder takes that and slowly starts showing you the dark side of this premise.

The Shirley MacLaine character goes and tries to commit suicide and this guy is helping her. You've never seen that. The same guy! A guy who is straining spaghetti with a tennis racket is not the guy in movie language - he is never the guy who helps a woman after a suicide attempt! You know what I mean? You never call the clown when you need a hero.

Paul Schneider in Bright Star
Paul Schneider in Bright Star

AKT: Yeah. That's a good way to put it.

PS: And in this film he was the clown and the hero. For me, as a young man who found himself in a world of actors, I thought, that's something that I can relate to! I can laugh at him but he also is two sides of one guy.

AKT: Is that something you look for in roles? That there are two seemingly opposing sides to a person?

PS: I don't know if they necessarily have to be oppositional. There just has to be a suggestion of more than one thing going on at a time. The characters I relate to are the ones that could, like, turn to the camera at any moment during the movie and say:" I don't have any clue what's going on right now! I'm really scared. I feel completely ill-equipped to handle the mission at hand. I don't feel like I can do this but these people want me to do this.

They found the wrong guy. I am not the person to be on this mission right now. I'm terrified." [at this point, Schneider asks the waitress for hot sauce to go with his eggs.] And then they go on with what they need to do. You know, Jan Chapman and Jane Campion are the reasons why I went to film school. I never studied acting, I studied film editing.

Sam Neill in The Daughter
Sam Neill in The Daughter

AKT: Why Jane Campion?

PS: Well, because I saw The Piano when I was 17. I saw it at a theatre with my parents in the town I grew up in and I just hadn't seen anything like it in my life. It was, you know, very violent and scary and extremely sexual and complex. The cinematography and the music especially, Michael Nyman's score - everything about it just spun my head around. I knew this was somehow empowering, this woman character, but also they beat the shit out of this woman, too.

I was confused about how is this empowering if they chop off her finger? I was 17, obviously, I hadn't seen a movie where a woman enters into a bargain with a man and uses her sexuality as her end of the bargain. I've never seen things like this! Also seeing New Zealand - it was out of control. It was beautiful.

AKT: The Piano made a strong impression on me too. And then you worked with Jane Campion!

PS: Well, that's what made me go to film school. I found a film school in North Carolina, where I lived.

Geoffrey Rush in The Daughter
Geoffrey Rush in The Daughter

AKT: Good people went to that school.

PS: At the time, it was two years old. I was in the second class. It was brand new, we didn't know if it was good or not.

AKT: Do you know Celia Rowlson-Hall, the choreographer, dancer? I just did the post-screening discussion with her for her first feature film MA at the IFC.

PS: How old is she?

AKT: Quite a bit younger - she also went to the North Carolina School of the Arts. Jeff Nichols also went there, didn't he?

PS: He was one year below me.

AKT: Back to The Piano, for a moment. A scene that sums up so much about the business of make-believe is the Bluebeard event. Language of cinema, what is theatre, what is performance? - she packs it all in this moment.

Ewen Leslie in The Daughter
Ewen Leslie in The Daughter

PS: Also, having to explain to the Maori Chief later when those guys come out in the back and say "That guy is hurting that woman, that woman is in trouble." So the warriors come and run and attack the stage and then it cuts to the woman explaining the special effects to the Maori Chief. It's great.

AKT: So what was the process from there to work with her in Bright Star? In a nutshell?

PS: 14, I don't know how many, years later?

AKT: Did Jane Campion know that you went to film school because of her?

PS: I didn't tell her at the time. She saw The Assassination Of Jesse James [By The Coward Robert Ford] at the Venice Film Festival and she was on the jury at that film festival and she saw me in that. She then called me up and I had a poster of The Piano on my kitchen wall. So I was talking to her on the phone.

AKT: Looking at the poster?

"She [Jane Campion] then called me up and I had a poster of The Piano on my kitchen wall."
"She [Jane Campion] then called me up and I had a poster of The Piano on my kitchen wall."

PS: Yeah. But I didn't say anything, because that's gauche, I don't know, a very small-town thing to do. So she wanted me to read the script and make a videotape of my ideas about the character. And she wanted me to try a Scottish accent. I have never had any accent training. I didn't know anything about it. So I watched a couple of scenes from Trainspotting. There was that monologue that Kelly Macdonald spoke to Ewan McGregor. I just listened to the speech and copied the speech onto the videotape and sent it to her. And she said "Let's make this movie."

AKT: You had made the film with Andrew Dominik before, so there already was an Australia connection?

PS: I don't know how much Andrew Dominik had to do with it. I don't know if they know each other.

AKT: In Jesse James, did you shoot a scene with Nick Cave?

PS: I didn't, but I spent some time with him when he was shooting. I remember when we were shooting in Canada, I was sitting on the ground and smoking a cigarette. All of a sudden I saw these black boots move in my periphery and come right to me. And I looked up and it was Nick Cave and he looked down at me and said: "You got a light?" And we chatted for a bit. And I was just thinking, I act in movies, occasionally. But Nick Cave lives in a movie, you know? He was not in costume. He was not in character. He was just Nick Cave.

AKT: Did you see 20,000 Days On Earth?

PS: I did. I really wish I had someone like Warren Ellis in my life. Like seeing those guys collaborate and seeing the friendship, seeing a creative friendship like that. I just thought that was so beautiful. Especially between two men.

AKT: When I interviewed the two directors, talking to them, suddenly there he was, Nick Cave, appearing out of thin air, just checking in. A bit how you describe it. Andrew Dominik also made a documentary [One More Time With Feeling] about him recently. I haven't seen it yet.

PS: Neither have I … When I look at someone like Nick Cave, I'm not jealous about anything except his motivation and his ability to sit and write and make things.

AKT: Do you write?

PS: Yeah. But I struggle more than I produce. I wrote and directed a film a few years ago called Pretty Bird and there's a film called All the Real Girls that my friend [David Gordon Green] and I wrote. There've been films where I wrote the dialogue that I say. I'm writing a play right now and a screenplay.

Read what Paul Schneider had to say on The Daughter.

The Daughter is in cinemas in the US.

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