Interviews

INTERVIEW: THE BIG BANG / TONY KRANTZ

By • Jun 24th, 2011 •

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A recently paroled ex-boxer hires a private investigator to find his girlfriend and a satchel of missing diamonds. Sound like something you’ve seen before? It did to me too…at first.

While THE BIG BANG starts out using the familiar Raymond Chandler template, it soon turns into something much more bizarre as it takes an apocalyptic turn and dives head first into the surreal.

Along the way, P.I. Ned Cruz (Antonio Banderas) encounters a drugged-out movie star (James Van Der Beek), a porn director (Snoop Dogg), a kinky waitress with a fetish for particle physics (Autumn Reeser) and a wealthy billionaire intent on recreating the big bang underneath the New Mexico desert. (Sam Elliott)

Banderas gives an anchored lead performance that allows the quirky supporting characters to shine. Especially Autumn Reeser, a television veteran who I hadn’t seen in a film until now. Together they have a sex scene that is going in my book as the best of the year so far.

With the cast I just listed (plus William Fichtner, Delroy Lindo and Sienna Guillory), THE BIG BANG should be enjoying a much wider theatrical release. But in the end, I think it’s just too damn strange for most. You can catch it on DVD or On-Demand, and if you’re tired of the same old, I recommend you do just that.

I recently chatted up the director, Tony Krantz for an exclusive Films In Review interview.

David Guglielmo: I’d like to begin by talking about the evolution of your career. From your start as an agent, to a television producer and now a film producer and director. Did you always know that you’d eventually end up in the director’s chair?

Tony Krantz: In eighth grade I wrote an essay for a job survey in one of my classes and it was about being a director. So I really wanted to be a director most of my life, but after graduating from Berkeley College, where I was the concert promoter for the student body, I wanted a career that was a long-term prospect, so I joined the mail-room at CAA, which is sort of the classic thing to do in Hollywood history, and I ended up working at CAA for fifteen years, eventually running the prime-time television department where I packaged series for the network television. I packaged “ER”, “The West Wing”, “Twin Peaks”, and “90210” among many others. After leaving CAA, I took the next step to being a director and became a producer. I was the CEO and Co-Chairman of Imagine Television with Brian Grazer and Ron Howard. We started the company from scratch, and ended up producing a number of shows very quickly. We did “Felicity” with J.J. Abrams, “Sports Night” with Aaron Sorkin, “The PJ’s “with Eddie Murphy, and “Mulholland Dr.” with David Lynch, which started as a cancelled television pilot for ABC. “24” with Keifer Sutherland was the final show I did. Then about five years ago I started my own company, Flame Ventures, and along the way, my two partners and I had a project with two partners. We were going to do an anthological television series each week. But anthologies in television are almost impossible to sell. It was from the co-writer/director of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, Dan Myrick, and the Executive Producer of “The X- Files” John Shiban, and myself, the Executive Producer of “24”. It was essentially going to be the new “Twilight Zone”. But we couldn’t even get a script deal – no one would develop it with us given its anthological shape. Then one of my agents said to me “Why don’t you try to do them as a series of direct-to-DVD movies?”. We didn’t even know that that was a business. So we eventually sold three films to Warner Bros. They ended up being quite successful. One I directed, called SUBLIME, a surreal horror film. They ordered three more, and I directed another called OTIS, which is a black comedy horror movie, and then THE BIG BANG happened shortly thereafter because the writer, Erik Jendresen and I wanted to do a bigger movie – my first theatrical.

DG: Many directors that have made the transition from television to film often say that it helped them move much faster during feature production. Is this your experience as well?

TK: Definitely. The television training is invaluable. The first movie (SUBLIME) we did in fifteen days, which is the equivalent of two episodes of “24”. The way “24” was shot, was that two episodes were “cross-boarded”. That means the two episodes were shot as one movie, and it would take fifteen days, so we were shooting about an episode in seven and a half days. Typically an hour-long television show is shot in eight days. This was a way to save money. SUBLIME was shot in fifteen days, the equivalent of two episodes of “24”. But since it’s a movie, it was ambitious because we were working with all new sets and cast members, and we didn’t have the crew that a television show is used to. If I hadn’t had the experience working in television, I would have had a lot more trouble shooting SUBLIME in such a short period of time.

DG: Let’s talk about THE BIG BANG. One of the reasons I really like it is that it has all the conventions we’ve come to associate with the Film Noir genre, but the actual story within that framework is highly original and it just keeps getting crazier. How important was it for you to hit those familiar staples, so the audience feels comfortable before you pull the rug out from underneath?

TK: It was very important to us. We were definitely paying homage to the great Noir movies of the 40’s and 50’s. The classic idea of somebody walking into a detective’s office and saying “I want you to find a missing girl” is a fundamental homage, but then it goes from there and incorporates the ideas of particle physics – and especially this notion of duality. The idea that everything is a wave and a particle at the same time, which is fundamental to the laws of physics, fit in very directly to the idea of a Noir movie to us, which is about opposites– It’s about shadow and light. If you look at the idea of physics being about opposites, and the paradoxical nature of life, you’ll see it played into the story we developed where what you think is happening is actually the opposite of what’s happening. And the two stories that you think are disparate, actually end up being the same. We deal with opposites throughout. Good and evil, male and female, light and dark, all those kinds of ideas are actually made real in THE BIG BANG. The subtext is made into text. So the ideas of physics and Noir show themselves in story terms.

DG: Were there any Film Noir you looked at for inspiration?

TK: TOUCH OF EVIL by Orson Welles. To me, it’s the pinnacle of Film Noir. It’s just the ultimate. The dutch angles, the tracking shot that goes on and on at the start of the film. The story itself.… It was a giant influence to me, and weirdly, it happened to be Antonio Banderas’ favorite movie of all time. But I’ll give you another example. There was a movie in the 50’s with Paul Newman called HUD. It ended up winning the Oscar for cinematography, shot by James Wong Howe, a brilliant cinematographer. He shot that movie in a West Texas landscape with all these incredible horizontals and verticals to punctuate the frame. I was inspired by that. I thought about Noir and the reinvention or modernization of Noir for the year 2011 and the first choice I made was to shoot it in color. Because most of the Noir we see are in Black and White. Then, if you’re really going to go for it, It should be very vibrant. Now the script has somewhat of a magical realistic quality to it. We already had that in the script. Little people bursting into fire and turning into flaming supernovas, you’ve got beams of light that are bending around the weight of Anton – that kind of thing — things that are somewhat surreal. I wanted to create a world that was slightly alternative. So we incorporated the rectangular kind of ideas that James Wong Howe already had in HUD. If you look at it you’ll see a horizontalism and verticality in the sets, as well as the way the camera was positioned to shoot the action. I used very wide-angle lenses. I don’t think I ever used a 50mm lens throughout the entire movie. I like the very wide and tight look you get simultaneously with an 18mm lens. Shelly Johnson is a brilliant DP, doing films like CAPTAIN AMERICA and WOLFMAN – he shot THE BIG BANG. He did a lot of aggressive things visually on a very limited budget to give this movie it’s own feel, and I think the results speak for themselves.

DG: I agree. The colors really pop but at the same time it’s so contrasty and shadowy that you keep a certain black and white feel. This was your first time working with Shelly Johnson, right?

TK: Yes. It was, and we hope to collaborate on many things in the future. He’s a master.

DG: How familiar were you with physics before this movie, and how much did you have to research?

TK: Erik Jendresen was very familiar with many of the laws of physics. Schrödinger’s cat, and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle – those kinds of things and experiments. And Because of that there are a lot of plays on words. [The character] Fay Neman is a play on Richard Feynman. Schrödinger’s Cat is a very famous physics experiment and we’ve got a guy named Snoop Dogg playing that part of a porn director and he’s making a movie called THE BLACK HOLE about a bunch of white guys who enter into a black porn star – and disappear and never come out, like white stars disappearing into a black hole. We were doing those kinds of things all over the place — and we thought that would be fun, to have Easter eggs for people who know physics, but I’m not super-duper knowledgeable, myself. I realized that it wasn’t my strong suit throughout school. I was better at English and History. But Eric is, and he’s also a master of Noir films and his knowledge of [Raymond] Chandler and those kinds of things. So we found a way to pepper the film with those little subtleties. Here’s a fun thing: That beam of light that hits the stripper?. The idea behind that is that we’re shooting the movie at the speed of light, because if you’re seeing the leading edge of a beam of light you are literally traveling as fast as those photons are traveling. That beam of light that bends around Anton is light bending through space, being bent by the gravitational objects that have a certain amount of mass to them. There are ideas like that everywhere throughout the film. Planck’s Constant is the name of the diner that Fay works in – that kind of thing – and the reason why it’s called Constant is because it never closes, it’s twenty-four hours. But most importantly it’s the idea that Simon Kestral, played by Sam Elliot, is looking for the missing subatomic particle that Einstein theorized existed — something known as the Higgs Particle — also known as The God Particle — and that Antonio Banderas is looking for a missing woman — but what he’s really looking for in his life is love. And these two stories are discovered to be the same story — and one might argue that God is love, and Sam Elliott is looking for the same thing Antonio is looking for. Except Sam’s so fucking crazy that he builds a billion dollar particle collider under the New Mexican desert to find that thing that Antonio discovers through a very odd set of circumstances where the person who he thinks has been writing these letters is actually a completely different person. So it’s a really complex plot but it’s something we really loved because it’s a metaphor for all these kinds of ideas on spirituality and physics built inside a noir detective story.

DG: I thought Autumn Reeser was just terrific, and I loved that sex scene. The way she delivered her dialogue while explaining her tattoos and physics, felt like a stream of consciousness. How much of it was scripted?

TK: All of it was scripted. In the DVD extras there is actually an extended version of the sex scene. It’s longer. She explains more of her tattoos. It was first sex scene Autumn had ever done in a movie. So the night before, in a very professional and fully clothed way, Erik, Antonio, Autumn, and I met in Antonio’s hotel room and went over the scene. We spoke in detail about it and rehearsed it physically. Fully clothed, but right there on the ground. So on the day of shooting we knew exactly what we were going to do. It was a limited crew because of the nudity, and we had originally negotiated a deal with Autumn where the nudity would have been a lot more limited than what you see now in the movie. Which is to say, she really went for it. She was incredibly professional and elegant. The visuals were actually motivated by a book of photographs I have by Scott Caan, James Caan’s son. He took some nudes that were bathed in yellow light and shadow. I thought those were so beautiful. So Shelly and I looked at them and we wanted to give the scene that kind of a sepia feel. You spoke about the movie being colorful but having a black and white feel at the same time. So there’s a sepia feel to that scene, where there was really only one other color, other than black in that scene — A cayenne, paprika, orangey kind of color. Steve Arnold, our wonderful Production Designer, matched that color — from the gels to the sheets to the pillow cases. The set decoration, everything was built to that color palate. In addition to those horizontals and verticals on the walls. In the end we did a crazy scene that I think is very beautiful and lyrical, where Autumn is literally explaining the laws of particle physics to Antonio’s character, Ned Cruz, while she’s making love to him.

DG: The score for the film, composed by Johnny Marr from The Smiths, is getting a lot of attention, and deservedly so. At what point did you approach him, and what were your directions?

TK: I’ve known Johnny for twenty years or more. When I was a young agent at CAA in LA, my roommate, Ken Friedman, managed The Smiths, UB40 and Simple Minds, at the same time. Imagine that! So Johnny came for a couple of weeks and stayed with us in the house that we were renting in the Hollywood Hills. Over the years I lost touch with him, and one day I was driving in my car listening to his solo record Boomslang and I thought this is the perfect music for THE BIG BANG. So I contacted him and we met a couple weeks later in Los Angeles. Then it turns out MULHOLLAND DR. is one of his favorite movies – which I had produced. I pointed to portions of the Boomslang record and said this is what I’m looking for, and we used some of the music, and took all the vocals out, then re-recorded it so it’s all new – it was influenced by his solo record. We then fit it to the picture, but we had a framework. That record already existed so I knew what it was going to sound like. We had a whole library of music that he was giving us and we were mixing and matching. Johnny did it all while he was in London and I was in LA but we were very much in contact on a daily basis. I would send him a cut of a scene at the end of every day. We’d send him the visual file, and the next morning he would send it back with the music fitted to the image. He’s a genius, and one of the greatest guitarists in the world. But it was a very unusual way to go about it – not being in the same room, and in our taking a rock record that existed and using that to score the movie. But Johnny adapted all of it so the emotional parts were done in a non-traditional way. The emotional strings don’t swell at an emotional moment. It’s more of an atmospheric score, creating a mood in a scene, instead of scoring each specific beat, which is more of the traditional way to deal with score.

DG: You mentioned how you packaged TWIN PEAKS, then later produced MULHOLLAND DR. Would you say David Lynch has been an influence on your career?

TK: Definitely. You can look at THE BIG BANG and see how much of an influence he’s been. I think he is one of the great treasures of American cinema. He’s a unique original. He’s a deep, passionate, mysterious, dream-like director. I think he’s truly one of the great directors working in the world today. I love his work and this movie has pieces of David Lynch in it.

DG: Has he seen the film?

TK: I don’t know. He may have, but David is sort of doing his own thing these days. He’s involved in various other art projects and business projects not directly related to movie making. So I honestly don’t know if he has or hasn’t.

DG: What’s next for you and Flame Ventures?

TK: We’re doing a lot of different things. We’re developing a number of movies. There’s a movie I’m going to be doing next called HONEY VICARRO, which is set in the 60’s, behind the scenes of the television business in Los Angeles. It’s about a television show that was too hot to handle. It was political and sort of pulled the cover off of some of the things that were happening secretly in the government at the time. It’s BOOGIE NIGHTS meets NETWORK, in a way. It’s written by a brilliant writer, Dan Knauf, who wrote “Carnivale” for HBO. I have a number of movies I’m developing. One with the NFL, another is a revenge movie set in West Texas, a World War II movie based on a video game, and several others. My interests vary.

DG: Is Erik Jendresen writing any of them?

TK: No, but we’re working together with Chris McQuarrie, who wrote THE USUAL SUSPECTS, and Francis [Ford] Coppola, on a television adaptation of THE CONVERSATION, based on the mini-masterpiece that Francis Coppola created all those years ago. Flame has very interesting projects we are doing on the television side of the equation in addition to the films we’re involved in, which I love. That’s the thing about my career — It’s always been different projects that tend to push the limits of things. “Twin Peaks” is very different from “ER”, which is very different from “Sports Night” which is very different from “24” or “The PJ’s” or “Felicity” or “Wild Palms” or “Melrose Place” or “Wonderland” which I did with Pete Berg. I do think there is a link between all of them and that’s the desire to do interesting and good work. As a director I don’t know if I can necessarily be categorized in a any particular kind of way. An action director or thriller director or surreal director, whatever that might be. I just respond to great material and do what interests me – I am really lucky to be able to create what comes to my mind. It’s a cliché to say it, but I am blessed. And I do work very hard. I can look at a movie like FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, and admire that, and be interested in making a movie with that kind of energy and truth, but in my own way. So the NFL movie has pieces of that, and it’s obviously very different from THE BIG BANG and has different requirements in so many ways. That kind of directing career is an unusual one, but I find it to be exhilarating and refreshing to me personally. I love it. There are so many ways to make art and commerce. I think people will take a look at my movies over time and they might see a common thread — but it won’t indicate a singular type of subject matter, or even a singular approach to filmmaking. At the end of the day, I hope people love what they see, feeling something that moves and inspires them. If I can contribute in that way, it’s all worth it, that’s for sure.

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