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Marc Forster: From Monster's Ball To The Zombie Apocalypse
... By way of high drama, offbeat comedy and heart-rending biopic.

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Empire spoke to the genre-hopping Swiss filmmaker at the Camerimage Festival Of Cinematography in Bydgoszcz, Poland, where he and frequent collaborator Roberto Schaefer were honoured with the Cinematographer-Director Duo Award. The Quantum Of Solace director has, if press reports are close to accurate, had a bruising two years on a World War Z production beset by difficulties.

Marc Forster: From Monster's Ball To The Zombie Apocalypse

What are your thoughts on Camerimage?
I think it's fantastic. It's the only festival I know of in the world dedicated to cinematography. It's amazing that it exists because people tend to forget how important the cinematographer is. We're in a visual medium so, obviously, without the image, you haven't got a movie.

How does it feel to be receiving an award here?
The problem with World War Z’s original ending was that you have a certain battle fatigue after Israel.
It's a great honour, because Poland has such a tradition of great filmmakers and great cinematographers. It's so hard to make movies that whenever people take notice and appreciate your work, its very gratifying.

Let's get this out of the way at the start. What really happened with the third act rewrite of World War Z?
(Laughs) Basically, originally there was a third act that I thought didn't work. As we were shooting we were discussing it and rewriting and rewriting it.

Why did you think it didn't work?
Because it was the same story outline that is now in the movie, the same story device. The only difference was that the WHO...

Not the rock band The Who?
No, The World Health Organisation, they went into Russia for a big battle [with the zombies]. The reason I felt it wouldn't work is that by that time you have a certain battle fatigue after Israel. After Israel and the plane crash, trying to trump that and make it even bigger wasn't working in our favour. The problem with a lot of these big movies is you start production and the script isn't finished; we had the same problem with Quantum [Of Solace]. The third act wasn't fully fleshed out, but we had to rush in to meet the release date.

Marc Forster: From Monster's Ball To The Zombie Apocalypse
On set of World War Z with Brad Pitt

Were you happy with the way it turned out?
Yes. Very, very happy. I was very happy that we didn't finish the third act with visual effects and everything, because that would've been a huge number, and we used that money to shoot a much simpler ending.

What first made you want to become a filmmaker?
My parents took me to see Apocalypse Now when I was fifteen. I was so blown away by it that I said to them, 'I'm going to be a filmmaker.' They said 'Oh, it's just a phase, you'll grow out of it.' But I didn't, and when I finished high school I met this guy who became kind of a benefactor. He said, 'Okay, I'll pay for your first year of film school, and if you have any talent I'll keep paying.'

And you obviously did, or we wouldn't be sitting here now.
Right (Laughs).

The first film that really put you on the map was Monster's Ball. How did that come your way?
Initially I didn't want Halle Berry for Monster's Ball. I thought she was too beautiful to be authentic.
I did a movie called Everything Put Together, my first feature. I was at Sundance and through that I won an Independent Spirit award. The writers of Monster's Ball had been trying to get it made for a couple of years, in different incarnations, with different people, always with a budget around nine million dollars. They saw Everything Put Together, which I did for $350,000, and they said, 'Here's our script. How much do you think you'd need to get it made?' I said, 'Maybe three million.' Then Lionsgate said, 'If you can do it for three million, we'll let you make the movie.'

And that, of course, was the movie that won Halle Berry an Academy Award. Was she, or anyone else, attached when you took it on?
No, I got Billy Bob Thornton, but I didn't want Halle Berry. Even though she was very passionate about the role.

I thought she was too beautiful. I thought she would not be authentic. Then I was location scouting in New Orleans and I was in a very poor neighbourhood. I saw these two girls walking down the street, away from this crumbling house, and they were drop-dead gorgeous. I thought to myself, 'How judgmental of me'. You can't be gorgeous and poor? What a ridiculous thought. I went back and I discussed the role with Halle and I said, 'Look, it's all about the sex scene. If I can shoot that scene the way I want to shoot it, and put the camera wherever I want to put the camera then you can have the role.' I actually gave her final cut on that scene.

It's pretty intense, and very graphic. Did she have any problems with that?
No. And I think it's key to the film.

Is it true you turned down Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban (and a $500,000 pay day) to direct Finding Neverland?
It's not exactly true. They offered me one of the Harry Potters, but I'm not sure of the timeline because I did Finding Neverland right after Monsters Ball.

Why was Finding Neverland something you especially wanted to do? It could hardly be more different than Monsters Ball.
I read the script and I was so moved I cried. It reminded me of my childhood in Switzerland. I played these little games in the woods and I dressed up as Indians and cowboys. I didn't have a lot of friends so imagination was my escape; it's what gave me happiness and joy. I read it and thought, I have to do this.

You seem to enjoy bouncing from genre to genre. Is that intentional?
Yeah. Directors like Billy Wilder and Howard Hawks were inspirations to me, and they both worked in so many different genres. I couldn't be like John Ford and just make Westerns, or like Hitchcock who made thrillers over and over again. I have such a broad interest in so many stories. I like humour and I like drama and I like big action movies. Looking at your résumé - Monsters Ball, Finding Neverland, Stranger Than Fiction, The Kite Runner, Quantum Of Solace, World War Z - that you've tried your hand at pretty much all of them. I've been blessed.

Apart from variety, what does a project have to have to get our interest?
I have to be inspired or moved; sometimes it's the challenge of wondering how I'm going to do it.

Marc Forster: From Monster's Ball To The Zombie Apocalypse
Shooting 2007's critically-acclaimed The Kite Runner

Taking The Kite Runner, that looks to have been a particularly challenging movie to make.
I'd read the book - I read the manuscript actually, before the book was published. I said to the producer, 'I love this book. We should shoot it in the real language, with subtitles and without movie stars.' They said, 'Okay, let's try to find the money.' We couldn't find the money until the book became a best seller. One that happened we got the money.

What was the location shoot like for that?
I'd say it was the most complicated, most difficult shoot of my life. Much more so than World War Z. There was a lot of press about how difficult World War Z was, but the press didn't write anything about Kite Runner which was much more dramatic (laughs).

Okay, let's set the record straight.
Directors like Wilder and Hawks were inspirations, and they both worked in so many different genres. I couldn't be like John Ford and just make Westerns
We were shooting in Western China in a place called Kashgar in Xinjiang province. It's inhabited on one side by the Uyghurs, the minority, and on the other by the Han Chinese. There is a lot of tension and conflict between them. We were the first western production to ever shoot there and we were in the middle of it.

We were filming at high altitudes, fifteen, sixteen thousand feet, sleeping in yurts with no showers. The food truck broke down, so suddenly there was no food. People had altitude sickness. The brakes failed on a car with the actors in it and nearly went over a cliff. One time we were shooting in this big sports stadium, where the stoning happens (Baoding Stadium in Beijing), and the Chinese got worried that having so many Uyghurs in one place - we had about 1200 extras - might start an uprising. So before we started shooting, at six in the morning, all these armoured vehicles appeared and locked us down. We were told if we tried to start shooting, we'd be arrested. It was things like that on a daily basis.

When you say conflict, do you mean actual armed conflict?
Yes, it's a very similar situation as in Tibet. The Chinese invaded the area because it's very rich in natural resources, so now it's an occupied territory in a sense, the same as Tibet. So we get a permit to shoot there, but now we're in the middle of the Uyghurs and the Han Chinese. There's this constant conflict between the two, one says we have a permit; the other says we don't and vice versa. We show up to a shoot and we're told, 'You don't have a permit.'

It was one thing after another. We had 28 nationalities on the shoot; we had four separate call sheets for the different languages - English, Uyghur, Mandarin and Dari, the Afghan language we shot the movie in. So everything went through translators. I had a translator to talk to the actors, and different translators to talk to the Uyghurs and the Han Chinese. We had a Chinese AD, a Uyghur AD and an English AD. We were in the middle of nowhere and the hotel we were staying in was a brothel; there were no real hotels. And there were rats everywhere. Everything had to be shipped in. One day Roberto (Schaefer, DP) comes to me and says, 'The film didn't get here.' All I had was short ends (the remnants of a full film roll). I had a dialogue scene that lasted six minutes, but I could only shoot two minutes of it. The actors want to perform the whole scene, so you can't tell them you're only pushing the button on the camera for the last two minutes of it. Then they come up to me and say, 'Wasn't the beginning great!?'

It sounds like a nightmare.
Now when I watch the Apocalypse Now documentary, I think that maybe it wasn't that extreme. But we were headed in the same direction.

Marc Forster: From Monster's Ball To The Zombie Apocalypse
Marc Forster with Daniel Craig on the set of Quantum Of Solace

So after that, Quantum Of Solace must've seemed like a walk in the park.
Not quite a walk in the park (laughs). Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson are great producers producers, the best I've ever worked with - fantastic. So you have a well-oiled machine and you're in such good hands, even though you don't have a script (laughs). It makes it easier, even when you only have half a script. That was the problem there. You had Casino Royale, which came from the best book by Ian Fleming, and three or four years to develop the script. You have Skyfall, another three years to develop a script. We were in the middle - 'Here, three months, make a movie.' And as a director you can only do as much as you have on the page.

In that case, why did you take it on?
Because I believed the script would come. But it never did! (Laughs). At one point I felt like pulling out but I didn't. Barbara and Michael and Eon wanted to make the movie and I thought we'd pull it off.

Are you happy with the end result?
I am, actually. Barbara and Michael wanted something to follow on immediately after Casino Royale, so I see it more as a '70s revenge thriller: lots of action, very fast paced.

Apparently Daniel Craig was a big fan of yours and he recommended you to Barbara Broccoli.
That could be true. I really wanted to work with Daniel. I have a lot of respect for him and he's fantastic as an actor.

Best Bond ever?
Yeah, he is incredible.

Did you also want to direct a Bond movie? It's quite a notch on your belt.
There was a lot of press about how difficult it was to shoot World War Z, but Kite Runner was much more dramatic
Yeah, that was another thing. When do you get an opportunity like that? And if you turn it down once, they're not going to come back (Laughs). They wanted me to do Skyfall but after Quantum I was so tired that doing another Bond just seemed too exhausting.

Do you regret that now, having seen the movie?
I don't regret it, but Skyfall had such a good script. I wish, in retrospect, we'd had a better script on Quantum.

Had you read the book of World War Z before you were attached to that?

That would seem particularly challenging for a filmmaker, given the documentary style and multiple narratives.
I loved the book but, yeah, it's 54 separate stories. The film is more of a companion piece to the book. But I couldn't be more happy with the film, because it did exactly what I wanted it to do.

What was that?
First of all, I think the zombies are a great cinematic metaphor. I feel like people have been over-exposed to zombie movies; they can see it every week on TV. I wanted to do the zombie genre like nobody had done it before. I wanted to create my own zombies, I wanted you to be on your feet from beginning to end and I wanted to create a metaphor to reflect the state of the world at the moment.

And how do you see that? What are the zombies a metaphor for?
For us not being awake to what's going on around us. We live in a time that is so fragile in terms of the economy and the environment; we seem to be hanging by a thin thread. I'm always hopeful and believe in humanity, but we have to realise that the systems we've put in place are not working any more. We have to rethink things, to stop believing that capitalism is the answer to everything. We have to find a way to function and work together. I think it's important for filmmakers to put stories out there that provoke discussion. Maybe we can't change things, but we can get people talking about them.

Interview by Simon Braund

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