Whether she’s an ensemble player in a big-budget genre film (Goldeneye, X-Men), or the lead in an Ameri-indie (Love & Sex, Turn the River), Famke Janssen carries an aura of admirable self-sufficiency. Her exotic looks means that she can hold your attention even when’s placed at the margins of the frame. Orgasming to the sounds of machine gun as an assassin who kills men with her thighs in Goldeneye, or giggling at the idiocy of lover Kenneth Branagh, Celebrity (1998), she always seems game – even when the movie may have forgotten what to do with her.
While her leading roles feel like concepts derived from diva worship, Janssen is winningly, refreshingly opaque. In Turn the River (2007), she plays a working-class pool-shark, determined to win back custody of her son. The movie sounds like boilerplate for a de-glammed actor vehicle, but Janssen doesn’t pry for empathy. Her coolness results in a physical and emotional awkwardness that is true to the character.
A Dutch-born former model and New Yorker since the 80’s, Janssen debuted on-screen in the mid 90’s. In a fickle industry, genre films tend to be the sanctuary to Euro-goddesses. But while Taken 2 (opening October 5) might pay the mortgage, Janssen has written and directed her first feature, Bringing Up Bobby. Ukranian- Olive (Milla Jovovich) is a con artist and single-mother raising her young son in Oklahoma. But when one of her schemes results in jail time, she has to decide whether to fight for her son, or let him try to live a normal life with a wealthy couple played by Marcia Cross and Bill Pullman.
Bobby presents what now feels like a refreshing twist on the outsider/immigrant narrative by making the poor European – the one who wants the American dream – as the blithe, silly, funny one – and the American millionaires as earnest and self-serious. It’s encouragingly Old Hollywood.
Like Keep the Lights On, Bobby is about a foreigner living in the U.S, made by a New York director and an international crew (the film’s DP and editor are Dutch), But while it’s tempting to read the casting of Jovovich, another former-Euro model as an act of autobiography for Janssen, the writer/director insists that the film, while stemming from experience, takes more from old movies than it does from memoir.
You moved from Holland to New York, and not Oklahoma, but is this film at all autobiographical for you?
No, it’s really not. I mean yes, I am a foreigner and came to the United States and suppose I am living out my own version of this American dream, so that part is inspired by American experiences like there’s this little scene [in Bringing Up Bobby] where she cons the whole church group, I call it the bowling for the lord scene because they’re bowling, and they have this big poster in the background of Jesus Christ bowling in the background so there were a couple of things inspired by Oklahoma where I had seen people actually bowling with pumpkins and haystacks so I put it in there. And there’s some guy who came up to me and asked, once he found out that I was not American, “Do you raise the American flag?” – And so I said to him ‘no’ because I was so interested that he asked me if I was patriotic or not. So little bits and pieces, yes.
The title design of your film was very Paper Moon-esque. Did you do that optically?
The film was very much inspired by film in general – most importantly films from the 1930s – titles like Bringing Up Baby and the whole journey of this woman who is in America but is a Ukrainian giving her very skewed perspective of the American dream – one that is based on films rather than reality. And that came from my own experiences a little bit. When I came to the United States from Holland, the first time I was ever in New York I thought ‘people are gonna shoot me’ because I had seen too many movies with DeNiro and Pacino. That’s what happened in those films and so, it’s just that how powerful the media is and how our perceptions are formed by film… it’s very frequently felt by most people but generally more so by people from other countries. American film is really powerful.
On a kind of secondary, meta-contextual level it was interesting that Milla Jovovich, like you, is a former model who has done interesting character roles in between genre work. Did that have anything to do with her casting?
Well… casting got that part down to a very small group of people and one of the very important parts was that it needs to be a bankable international star because, as much as I was making a little, independent movie… we still we had to please certain people, or at least give them somewhat of a comfort zone in that we’re going to hire somebody who means something internationally.
And so, between the fact that she [Jovovich] had to mean something internationally, be a certain age, have a specific look that in the movie when in Oklahoma she would turn heads – she would get away with other things that she gets away with in the movie, she has this loveable quality… there’s just a very, very small list of people that actually qualified and out of that grew Milla. She had to be a foreigner.
Did you have much time in pre-production out in Oklahoma?
I actually did only because I had gone there before filming – before we got the money in place – it’s your typical independent story of ‘we have the money – it falls apart. We have this actor – they’re actually unavailable. Something happens and the whole thing falls apart again.’
So we had many false starts. In that time frame before we were in official pre-production, I wound up going to Oklahoma many times looking at specific locations, getting to know people there, so I had a head start in that sense so by the time we actually went into pre-production I had done so much of that work already which was amazing because I never, otherwise could have done it in 20 days that we had for production which was really because of all the help I got locally in Oklahoma.
There’s also a difference in acting styles [between Pullman/Cross and Jovovich] that I thought was well modulated. Pullman and Marcia Cross give more subdued performances than I have seen out of them, and it’s an approximation of American affect.
Yeah, very much so. The Marcia Cross and Bill Pullman characters were made to represent the real America – the real Oklahoma. [Milla] had an idea about the United States, which was completely unrealistic, because if you form your opinions based on movies of course they will be completely unrealistic, so in the beginning she really thinks she can manipulate everybody and she underestimates them and thinks that they’re stupid and I wanted the character to face that kind of reality…the world that she starts inhabiting winds up being a world based much more in reality.
These are really tricky things to do of course because I hope that an audience can go along with a person who is affected in that way and who is not real, who has trouble being herself, who only can function in a world where she’s a made up character.
There’s definitely a melancholy about the movie in a weird way.
My love of film definitely lies in the past. I have yet to find movies that are shot today that I can have that feeling that I get when I go back to classics.
What do you like about Bringing Up Baby (1938)?
I think the writing is flawless in that film. I love the humor in it. I think the interactions between all the different characters… I’m really a fan of that kind of screwball genre anyway and nobody seems to be able to do today anymore but that of course was not my intention with my movie. It is a bizarre amalgamation; many of my influences are from an era when people made films that weren’t a very clear genre in the way that people are making genre films now that allows them to be much [more free].
I think if you look at a film like The Landlord (1970), Hal Ashby’s first movie, he plays around constantly back and forth between highly comedic and extremely dark subject matters. I was just re-watching Witness (1985) on the plane out here and that movie starts out a thriller and it turns into… a really beautiful romantic story… these kind of films are rarely made anymore and I always felt, in the independent world, you should be able to take risks. Films like Bonnie and Clyde (1968), or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1968) were reviewed negatively because tonally the started out one way and ended up a different way. I can easily imagine that’s the criticism I am going to get, but these are the films that inspired me and this is what I’m playing around with.
Are there any other films you’ve seen recently that interest you? Are you a Film Forum person?
I live around the corner from the Film Forum so that’s my theatre. The film [Bobby] played at so many different festivals…in France, in Italy… so I just haven’t had much of a normal life this year where I can actually see a move. I can’t even remember the last time I saw a movie in a theatre, which is terrible because that’s where I generally like to see a movie. Have you seen anything good?
I saw Puzzle of a Downfall Child – that old Faye Dunaway film a couple weeks ago at Film Forum. It was very stylish and very Faye with elliptical editing and zooms… very 70s. I would definitely take a look at it if you get a chance.
I love her. Nobody can compete with the way she looked in Bonnie and Clyde and Chinatown, I mean, come on!
Do you have any interest in making a film in New York?
Very much so – if I had the budget. I wrote a screenplay called All About Ruth that is set in New York. I wrote a couple of scripts in my 3-year break from acting. They are more goof-ball comedies inspired by films from the 1930s.
So what are you working on next? Are you looking to direct again or are you developing anything?
I wrote a film, which is set in Mexico, and it’s about half spoken in Spanish and half in English. I’m trying to put the whole thing together but at the moment my schedule is mad. The screenplay is written but now I have to put the whole package together.
I’m shooting Hemlock Grove (a Netflix Original series directed by Eli Roth) and Hansel and Gretel [with Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton] comes out in January of 2013 so between the shooting and all the publicity stuff I haven’t found myself with a whole lot of free time to get the whole thing off the ground. It is my intention to get it off the ground and shoot it on my hiatus.