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The Dancer Upstairs - John Malkovich Q&A



Compiled by: Jack Foley

Q: What was it about Nicholas Shakespeare’s story that made you finally decide to direct?
JM: I had been scheduled to direct or develop several things and they fell apart, for one reason or another. We had our production company and I had read an article in the Daily Telegraph about Nicolas’s book and an article in Granta years ago and I had travelled in Peru in the 1980s and it was somehow a story I was very taken with. I loved the tone of it and the characters and really loved the character of Rejas and of the dance instructor and, in a way, Rejas’s wife. That’s how I started.

Q: What were the challenges you faced in bringing this story to the screen?
JM: We were able to secure the rights and I wanted Nicolas to work on the screenplay with me. That went fine and we kept working, working, working. Then you have to have an actor who will interest the people who fund movies and no one was interested in funding this movie because it took place in a far off land, because who cares about terrorism? It’s very political, supposedly, although that really isn’t the case.
And those people who did find the story interesting didn’t know who any of these actors were and they would do it if I had other actors that they did know. That didn’t interest me. I wanted the actors that I wanted because when you direct a movie, why do something you don’t want to do?
As an actor you are constantly doing things that somebody else wants you to do, that you may or may not agree with. But that’s the job definition and, generally, I do it.
But when you direct, then it’s really up to you and you do what you want to do - and that can be right or wrong, good or bad, brilliant or abysmal or anything in-between. But it should be what you want to do and I saw this movie very specifically as a small budget, with mostly Latin actors who speak English as a second language. That was a mandatory, obligatory part of the vision I had for it.

Q: What about the research?

JM: I read a lot. I also didn’t just want to do the story of The Shining Path, which is why it just says ‘Latin America - the recent past’.

Q: It seems important to you to handle the political part of the story in a very delicate manner?
JM: Yes, because usually when politics are handled in the cinema, and quite often in journalism, it doesn’t strike me as particularly well informed. It’s just people shooting off their mouths. This particular policeman was someone quite special because not only did he capture Guzman, he also captured Montesinos, who we call Calderon, who now lives in a jail next door to Guzman. But it’s not a black and white politic of hero and villain.

Q: Do you think it fair to regard Rejas as a hero?
JM: A hero with the simple definition of human - I mean a human engaged in a struggle in a film that is essentially about corruption and the various forms of corruption, whether they be political, financial, ideological or emotional. To me, I see it much more as a film like High Noon than a European art film. That’s how I look at it. It’s a very strong story and you want to find out what happens next.

Q: The complex relationship between Rejas and the three women in his life - his wife, daughter and the dance teacher - seems important for you to investigate in this film?
JM: I think it’s something that most people have lived, so they understand that sort of occurrence passing through one’s life.
It’s something I’m not very judgmental about, at all. That happens. When it happens, I think it brings to bear a number of contradictory sentiments, emotions and life choices. And it can destroy as much as it can create.
So, it’s very complicated. In this story, Rejas married someone and fell in love with someone who probably he doesn’t have a remarkable number of similarities with, but who he is amused by and gets along with and has a love for.
He then is attracted to somebody who probably does have a lot of similarities with him. I always mistrust when things don’t have the requisite complication. That’s not to be pretentious, it’s because, in my experience, things are normally more complicated than we realise or they are purported to be, or we could possibly know.

Q: Was Javier Bardem always your first choice for Rejas?
JM: I cast Javier before he had even met Julian Schnabel for Before Night Falls. It was six years ago. He was originally my first choice for Juan Diego Botto’s role, because he was so young then.
The people who were then funding the film - but not funding it, as it turned out - wanted a known actor, so we talked to a couple of other people. One of whom, Daniel Day Lewis, responded and wrote a lovely letter and was very nice about it, but didn’t want to do it. The other we never heard back from.
But when I met with Javier, he expressed an interest in playing Rejas. As I explored his work, I thought his idea was much better than mine.
Mercifully, the film was cancelled just before we were to start shooting, which meant Javier was five years older and had done Julian’s wonderful film in English by this time and his English had improved markedly and he had studied very hard.
He was able to communicate maturity even though he was still young, that helped us.

Q: What would you hope audiences would take from seeing The Dancer Upstairs?
JM: That it is a very well structured, ambitious, challenging film that also is very involving. I think it shows that there is an audience for things that are not so knee-jerk, retarded, stuffed down our throats.
There is an audience for something reflective and contemplative. Provided that the things that are reflective or contemplative compel us. People don’t like to be bored and I don’t think there is anything boring in this movie.
They don’t like to be bored and I agree with them. But if you have pretentions to want to do a film that is reflective, or contemplative or thoughtful, then your duty to compel people to watch it is multiplied because they are giving you that possibility but you have to give them something back. And I think this film does that - people don’t leave the theatre and say, ‘boy, that was obscure’.

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