Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Director Alexandre Moors is used to taking relevant, real and resonant hot topics and channeling them into visceral, visionary art. With BLUE CAPRICE, he captured a riveting fictionalized look at 2002’s Beltway sniper attacks. His latest, an adaptation of Kevin Powers’ award-winning novel, THE YELLOW BIRDS takes a fictionalized look at the all-too-real psyche of soldiers in wartime. Much like the novel adapted, Moors portrays the lyrical qualities with precision and a compassionate touch.
At the film’s recent press day, I spoke with the affable auteur about everything from not feeling the pressure of adapting art into another medium, to the inspired aesthetics, to the over year and a half wait for the release of this film.
How did the novel first pop onto your radar?
A few years back, producers Jeffrey Sharp and Evan Hayes reached out to me after the release of my film BLUE CAPRICE. They had just optioned the book and wanted me to take a look to see if I was interested. I was immediately seduced by the material and what a unique film it could be.
What were some of the essential elements from the book you wanted to make sure you brought to life?
The novel is quite an internal journey. It’s introspective. It’s almost like a free-flowing poetry, inside about the war. That lyrical quality really seduced me. I wanted to translate it into film language. It opened up the scope of what a war film could be. It seemed like we were only seeing films about true stories – or so called true stories that happened. They were very monochromatic. Here, I was given the opportunity to open the spectrum and make a film that is more lyrical and function like an allegory – that conjures the poetry and dreams. And on top of that use that fragmented timeline. All of that provided a fresh perspective on the genre.
Can we talk about the camera’s role in the context of storytelling? I think it’s essential here that it’s not used a passive observer. It forces the viewer to be an active participant, as words on the page would be doing if we were reading the book. Is there a trick to making that barrier disappear?
They always say the best camerawork is the invisible one. Strangely, I don’t really have a particular approach or style. I read some critics who say I do a lot of close-ups and I don’t think I do. I don’t even that much of a pre-conceived approach. I find the position of the camera is something that’s dictated once you’re in the scene and in the location and the action that unfolds in front of you. We try not to have too many pre-conceived notions about style.
Of course, [cinematographer] Daniel Landin and I talked about films – the color palette of the pictorial quality that we wanted. But you always try to stay very open and make the real decision in the moment.
Speaking of Daniel, let’s talk about working with him to get the look, the color palette, the pacing. He’s done tremendous work as well on other films. What was that like to collaborate with somebody?
Absolutely. And each film is very different. The previous film that he shot was UNDER THE SKIN and he shot it with little Go Pro cameras. The material always dictates what it should be. In this case, the film is very lyrical. For me, he talked about this continuity of the accidental presence in this part of the world. We went with a very big, picturesque approach. We tried to capture paintings, like landscapes, and the poetry of the image. That was the general approach.
War movies always seem relevant – sadly. What were some of your cinematic inspirations or touchstones here that you’d reference for aesthetics or in tone?
Absolutely. Talking about Daniel, when we were meeting online, within the first minute, he immediately brought up one of my favorite movies, COME AND SEE, a Russian war film about WWII. That was the biggest inspiration in both a film that is very harsh and difficult to watch, but at the same time, have an amazing lyrical beauty to it that contrasts between the horror and the elegance. To be able to use all the tools of cinema – not some pseudo documentary approach – with classical music and fogs to create a surreal mentality was the approach. The other was APOCALYPSE NOW, in that aspect. It’s a dream – it’s phantasmagoric. It’s like an opera.
What were some of the qualities that made your cast suited to their parts?
The thing I was really adamant about, I thought it was important to cast young actors. Often, you’d see in war movies, the recruits would be played by 29-year-old actors, but in reality, you should see the kids that are going there. They’re fresh out of high school. It was important for the main actor to carry that quality. Tye Sheridan was 17 when we were shooting. I was extremely happy he carried that innocence with him. Alden was not so much more older.
I’d imagine in the combat scenes with explosions and guns, those days might’ve been logistically challenging. But maybe they weren’t.
I was expecting some of those challenges of those scenes to be more challenging. I think it has to do with us not shooting in America – we were shooting in Morocco. So I guess they were a little bit looser with safety [laughs], or restrictions. They were going pretty fast. It turned out to be quite easy to orchestrate.
The biggest challenges for me, as opposed to my previous film, BLUE CAPRICE, only had like one star in the role – Isiah Washington. Here, I was playing with a maximum cast. Learning to direct a maximum cast is quite a gymnastic routine I had to learn. You find out the actors are very different from one another – they need a different type of direction. Some need to be left alone. Others, it requires a lot of attention. How you can make that alchemy work and speak to all those people at the same time, was a new challenge for me.
Music is another important element – not just the score, but the soundtrack as well. How did you did you work with composer Adam Wiltzie to make sure the score wasn’t obtrusive and also lyrical?
Yes. The music was quite a process. Actually I went through three people who worked on it: Adam Wiltzie, Adam Peters and Marc Ribot – a guitarist. The main reason was the film is separated between the war in Iraq scenes and the American scenes. It occurred to me very quickly that those should have a different musicality to them. I had to call upon different styles of musicians to achieve the different moods. Marc does very dry guitar work. Adam Wiltzie does electronic compositions. Adam Peters does more of a classic, dramatic film score. But the film required all those different influences to get the right notes. It was a process that I loved. I’m very musically oriented. I can’t think about the film without thinking about the music at the same time. I would play music while the actors are acting.
Were they coming up with the compositions live where you could play that along with what the actors were doing? Or was that all in post?
No. For instance, Marc, who is a blues man, I played the film for him and he did a lot improvisation just watching it unfold. He played his guitar to it and captured the Bartle character with that.
How did John Mellencamp get involved? Did that come along after?
Yes. He was a friend of Mark Canton, one of the producers. We all said it would be great to anchor the film with someone with such a distinct voice in that country community – and that he would put his stamp on the film. He composed it specifically for the film.
Has it been an agonizing wait for you to see this released since Sundance 2017?
Yeah. It’s been a long process. What ended up happening was, after Sundance, I decided that the film could use some editing. So we went back in the editing room to improve on it and make it somewhat closer to the original book. The first cut [from Sundance,] which was twenty minutes longer, made us realize that there’s only so much we can ask of the audience in the terms of the mystery element. You can not hold the curiosity for so long without giving something back.
THE YELLOW BIRDS opens in theaters on June 15. It’s available exclusively on DirecTV now.