philip haas Interview

07 January 2009

Director Philip Haas continues his tradition of emotional intensity, sexual tension in 'Up at the Villa'

Director Philip Haas continues his tradition of emotional intensity, sexual tension in 'Up at the Villa'

After a highly-specialized 10-year career in making 10 documentaries about 10 artists, in 1993 Philip Haas segued into directing equally eclectic and similarly thematic feature films.

The first, "The Music of Chance," he adapted with his wife Belinda from Paul Auster's swimming-in-symbolism cult novel about a poker game with very high stakes at an isolated country estate. Next he and his screenwriter spouse tackled the equally peculiar and astonishing "Angels and Insects," a tense Victorian ballet of class, family and sex that draws fascinating symbolic parallels to the insect world. Then it was 1998's "The Blood Oranges," an emotionally charged tale of a jealously-spawning wife-swapping roundelay at a Mexican resort in the 1970s. All Haas's films thus far have also been based on somewhat obscure literary sources ("Angels" came from A.S. Byatt's novella's "Morpho Eugenia," "Oranges" was taken from a little-known book by John Hawkes).

His latest directorial effort, "Up at the Villa," is based on a all-but-forgotten story by M. Somerset Maugham about a near-insolvent high-society widow played by Kristin Scott Thomas (who had a pivotal supporting role in "Angels and Insects" the same year she became a household name in "The English Patient"), who is forced to husband-hunt among wealthy aristocrats in pre-war Tuscany or face bankruptcy.

Almost out of money for renting her picturesque villa, her best prospect is a colorless British governor whom she hesitates to marry because she's holding out hope of finding love. Then along comes rakish American playboy Rawley Flint (Sean Penn), who already has a wife but serves as an ill-advised temptation after helping her cover-up a potentially scandalous suicide of another lover at her estate.

The day after the film's premiere at the San Francisco International Film Festival, I met Haas -- a 50-ish fellow with piercing eyes behind heavy glasses and a resonating voice that lends efficacy to everything he says -- to talk about this movie and his tendency toward a particular motifs in his story-telling.

Q: Emotional and sexual intensity are themes that run through all your films. What is it about this kind of drama that appeals to you and your screenwriter wife?

A: I think we're interested in exploring how people behave. The emotional and sexual pull is a very strong human quality. It makes for good drama, you know? Looking back on the films, they also all seem to take place in a big house with people feeling trapped, with sexual overtones. I don't know how much is like, oh let's look at that theme again, or this group of similar themes. But it's something we're drawn to and accentuate. Dread is also a quality the films all have. There's a sort of gentle dread, gentle unease. But at the end it's alleviated by a sense of hope. Ambivalent, ambiguous hope.

Q: Talking about the intensity, your characters always seem very well developed, very three-dimensional. How much time do you spend creating backstory for secondary characters and such?

A: I think it's really just to make sure that every scene that's in a movie is a scene that has some impact. For instance, Derek Jocobi (who plays a fay local gossip) doesn't have a large part in the film, but you see him and you immediately understand who this guy is. You understand his role, there's something sympathetic about him. It's not necessary to have more of him, in a sense, less is more. I'm not interested in making films in which there are gratuitous characters. I want them all to give a big punch for however long he or she might be on screen.

Q: Did you work extensively with Kristin Scott Thomas and Sean Penn in developing their characters?

A: Kristin we had a commitment from before Belinda wrote the script. She had read the book, she knew we were doing it. So Belinda wrote the scrip for her.

Q: And Sean Penn? I know he sometimes does surgical strike appearances in movies, where he shows up for his two weeks and he has everything in place in his head, and he just acts, acts, acts, then he's gone.

A: We had Sean in mind as well, but he didn't know it because we didn't know him. We'd heard that he liked "Angels and Insects" and liked Kristin's work, so we sent him the script and he committed very quickly.

Q: You cast him against type.

A: Well, yes and no. What I like about Sean playing Rawley is that Rawley is sort of meant to have this bad boy reputation, but you don't see so much of it. So whatever baggage you want to think Sean brings to it, it doesn't hurt. In films before "Villa" he's tended to play more contemporary, urban, grittier parts. But I think, in fact, you see Sean in this and he reminds you of a '30s movie star. Like (Robert) Mitchum. I tried to make the film like a '30s movie. If you had George Clooney playing the part, it just would have been a bit obvious.

Q: And that would have instantly made it more like a Hollywood thing.

A: Right.

Q: How was Penn on the set?

A: Great. He's a warm guy. He's fun. I had a really great time with him. He's obviously interested in directing films. He's just finishing one. But when he came as an actor, he came as an actor. It wasn't like, "Oh, why is the camera over here?" Any technical question was from the point of view of an actor.

Q: And Kristin Scott Thomas I know is not nearly as somber as she appears in many of her films. I interviewed her for "The English Patient" and somehow we started trading barbs with each other in fun.

A: She's a person with a great sense of humor. She's a good woman.

Q: You cast Kristin in "Angels and Insects" before she was a big name, you cast the wonderful Patsy Kensit and Sheryl Lee in the leads in your last two films. You seem to have made a habit of casting under-appreciated actresses.

A: I feel a camaraderie with actresses, which isn't to say that I don't like working with actors, but with actresses I have a natural, easy working relationship. If the actress is right, I go for her. Patsy was absolutely right for that part in "Angels and Insects," so that's why I cast her. Ditto with Kristin in "Angels and Insects." And she's absolutely right for "Up at the Villa," except by this time she was an international film star. Sometimes it's exciting to put someone unexpected in a film, or (someone) neglected. But that's not the main reason to do so. It's a byproduct.

Q: OK, enough about actors. I'd like to ask you about location scouting before we finish. In someplace like Tuscany cannot be easy. Everywhere you look is beautiful.

A: Let me tell you how I found the villa. It was very easy. It's on the cover of every book on Tuscan architecture. The tricky part was, it's owned by an English aristocrat named Lord Lampton who didn't see what was in it for him to let us film there. But many drunken meals later and much money later he agreed to do it. (Laughs.) I'm really interested in how these films look and I pretty much do the location scouting myself. The villa is as important a character as anybody in the film, so it was key.

Philip Haas is currently preparing his three next projects: A biopic about Louise Brooks starring Shriley MacLaine, a companion piece to "Angels & Insects" from a novella by the same author, and a film with Glenn Close called "Checkov's Sister" about saving the Russian playwright's home from Nazis during World War II. "It also takes place in a big house," he grins.


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