After a Great Loss, a Pair of Movies

Widowed director Mark Pellington returns to the Sundance Film Festival with two movies. His small feature Henry Poole Is Here was the weekend's hardest ticket to find. And his U2-3D concert film is unbelievably mega. Alison Stewart reports live from KCPW in Salt Lake City, Utah.

ALISON STEWART, host:

You know, we're here at KCPW in Salt Lake City, Utah, because we have been covering the Sundance Film Festival all weekend. And the last time that director Mark Pellington was at Sundance was 11 years ago when he was a first-time filmmaker. Since then, he's gone on to make "The Mothman Prophecies," "Arlington Road," designed U2's ZooTV video elements, the video for Pearl Jam's "Jeremy."

He also suffered a great loss. His wife died suddenly, quite young, leaving Pellington to raise their little girl. He's returned to Sundance this year older, wiser, calmer, with two films - one personal and one spectacular, both healing for him.

Tonight, his small feature "Henry Poole Is Here" premiers. And this past weekend, the hardest ticket to get in town was the premier of "U2 3D," which he co-directed with Catherine Owens.

We talked to Pellington on a balcony overlooking the mountains and the busy Park City streets.

So Mark, explain to me, as a director, getting to work in 3D, what that offers you?

Mr. MARK PELLINGTON (Film Director): It was new to me. When Catherine Owens and the band asked me to get involved, I originally said no because I said, you know, I'm not really interested in shooting a concert film. But when they said it's 3D, I said, wow, what an opportunity to learn about the new technology. And I did it as an experiment, like, okay, what could I learn to apply it to narrative? And the levels of depth that it gave you, the way that the technology kind of took you into a scene and not just an obvious, oh, hand in your face kind of way, but in the immersive, almost spiritual psychological way - it gave me a lot of ideas for how I would apply to a specific - to a specific, you know, narrative project or a project that may be mixed, you know, interior and exterior mindscapes and music. And, you know, I just think it's a brave frontier, so why not learn something about it?

STEWART: So me, as a viewer, what happens to me when I see it?

Mr. PELLINGTON: Well, I don't know - if you've ever seen U2 or their live show, right? I mean, out of the box, their music and their lighting and their design is pretty impeccable, so it's a great experience. But it's always that problem with the kind of the distance from the stage or the detachment between the audience member and the band. You know, they're so small in stage, and people rely on the screens. I think what this experience allows you to do is kind of get sucked into it, and not like, hey, you're in the front row. Because there are shot - some of the most beautiful shots are super wide shots. It gives you the communal sense of the experience, and lets you see the intimacy and detail of what each band member is doing in a way that 2D or being at the experience wouldn't let you do. I mean, it's really a quite enveloping and beautiful experience.

STEWART: Why did you choose to shoot mostly in South America?

Mr. PELLINGTON: The band decided. You know, they hadn't toured Mexico or South America in 10 years. And there's a really feverish fan base for them there - I mean, like there is around the world. But they said there was an energy. There was almost, again, the spiritual kind of feverish relationship that the audiences down there have. I mean, really, if you think about like soccer, and, you know, it's the way - it becomes almost this larger-than-life kind of communal experience. And they thought that that would be a really great thing to capture, to use as the, you know, kind of the surrounding environment for the tour.

(Soundbite of movie, "U2 3D")

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

Unidentified Man: Maybe it's the worst day of your life. And just one song makes you smile. Maybe it's the best day of your life, one song makes you cry. And that's what makes U2 the best band.

STEWART: So you know, being from NPR, I'm cool enough to get to like book readings, but not necessarily U2 premiers.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PELLINGTON: It was - I tell you, it was a tough ticket. And, you know, I mean, I don't know. I mean, everything out here is such a fever pitch. So you add that - the rock band thing. I mean, when they came out last night and were introduced, it was just like - I mean, you realize where they're the biggest rock band in the world. I mean, just their music is so beautiful and so amazing. It was a trip. You know, I met Al Gore, and it was like - I'm like, what's Al Gore doing backstage? And then you realize, wait, what Al Gore is trying to do and what Bono's trying to do. And you know, that's - it was pretty cool.

STEWART: You lead me nicely into my next question. In the film, is there any sort of political overture, knowing Bono's passions for his various causes?

Mr. PELLINGTON: Yeah. I mean, the entire, you know, declaration of human rights is recited in both English and Spanish. I mean, their song content, you know, starting with this kind of blast of rock and roll, through their messaging and social and political viewpoint is just definitely expressed throughout the whole film. I mean they, you know, they put it into their music, and there's not long speeches. I mean, he really - they stand by their music and stand by their words. So it's, you know, that definitely finds its way into it.

STEWART: You've had a long-term relationship with the band, though, right?

Mr. PELLINGTON: Yeah. I started working with them in 1991 on ZooTV and did a lot of the backdrop visuals for, you know, for "The Fly" and "One." And then I've contributed other pieces over the years. And then when they came back this year, worked on - helped Catherine Owens, who's really been my guide and my friend - the one who brought me into it - helped her do a little bit of work on the "Original of the Species" video and we redid "The Fly" for the (unintelligible). Yeah, they've been, you know, it's been a relationship that I've had for a while.

You know, they're great guys, and they've been really friendly. And in a tough period in my life, they were very healing. You know, the opportunity to go there was coming after I lost my wife, and it was a tragedy. And it was a really big step for me to, you know, leave my daughter for five days and go there and do it. But I'm really glad I did, because the - feeling the music and feeling 80,000 people and feeling the power of that, it was - and conversations with him were really steps towards living, which is, you know, a big part of the grief recovery processes is, you know, it's not like forgetting the person you lost. But it's like you release that you need to live and put one foot in front of the other and embrace art and music and, you know, the power of life.

So you know, my gratitude, as I told them last night, my gratitude with them for that on a personal level.

STEWART: Let's talk about your feature.

Mr. PELLINGTON: Yes.

STEWART: All right. So "Henry Poole is Here" premiers Monday.

Mr. PELLINGTON: Yeah, "Henry Poole is Here" premiers Monday. It's something that took me about three years to get made. And it's a beautiful comic drama about faith and hope and miracles, and stars Luke Wilson in a role that, you know, I think, will really redefine people's perceptions of him. You know, it's - he carries it in a way that he hasn't carried a film before. And it's, you know - my inspiration was to find a script that looked to the light. And after having made kind of darker more ambiguous films, I wanted to do something that maybe expressed another side of myself. And, you know, it's a really accumulation of real human moments between people who have lost and how they come together and kind of transform each other, and was also very funny and sweet.

STEWART: So Henry Poole is living kind of a great life, and then he gets some extremely bad news. Tell us what it is.

Mr. PELLINGTON: Well, you don't realize it till an hour into the film. I mean, I think it starts off as this mystery about a guy who kind of wants to be left alone, and through the inevitability of - really of women and love and principally three characters named after - patience - light, hope and patience are tree, kind of, metaphorical elements that revive him and let him kind of find that even if you're told you're going to die, it's actually the time that you're told you're actually going to live.

STEWART: Was it difficult at all during the shooting for you emotionally, given all that you'd been through with the passing of your wife?

Mr. PELLINGTON: No. Well, you know, it was very healing and was very cathartic, actually, to be able to put - again, 'cause I was outside of it because it wasn't specifically my story. And when I met Albert early on, it was a feeling, and he's a great writer - and it was very sweet and heartfelt. And he wasn't afraid to be honest and sincere. And, you know, I've never done irony or cynicism well in my videos or anything. It's just like, I said, you know, all I can do is express what I feel and have these characters express these things, and Adriana Barraza and Radha Mitchell and the cast and everybody was very, you know, it was a very special - you know, everybody says that, but it was really a special piece for everybody.

And to be able to put those things into images and into the score - and that feeling, to be able to put that feeling which is a healing feeling, you know, it was just great. And I - the producers were great and I - they had a lot of faith and trust in me.

STEWART: How long did it take to make that film?

Mr. PELLINGTON: We just shot it - shot it quickly - shot it in 30 days this summer. You know, it's - my inspirations were probably like Hal Ashby movies who - which are loved and James Brooks and Cameron Crowe, it's like, you know, not without not aping them to gradual a little bit. It's very simple, and it kind of captures a little part of California that's like, kind of like, an hour south of the 5, that isn't really seen, you know? It's just a very working class California, you know, small kind of contained human place.

STEWART: What role does Cheryl Hines plays? I just love Cheryl Hines.

Mr. PELLINGTON: Cheryl is so - Cheryl Hines is so genius. She's only in two scenes where she plays a realtor who's just like - and her kind of tone sets the movie off. She's just away 'till it goes. Cheryl is just so sweet and funny - and when we heard that she was even interested, I was like - it wasn't even - it was like give her the role. There was no casting or meeting. And she was -and George Lopez plays a priest in here, and really…

STEWART: A priest?

Mr. PELLINGTON: Yeah. Really in a really different turn, you know, there really kind of (unintelligible) - it's not like - he doesn't play serious - I mean -but it's - he's definitely taken a little stretch and he did a great job. And Adriana Barraza from "Babel" is just really amazing, amazing soul. And Radha Mitchell, you know, and Luke, so it's great cast.

STEWART: Plus (unintelligible)

Mr. PELLINGTON: There's potential, like, controversy about it. I mean it's - it could be considered as a religious film. I mean it deals with the stain on a wall that appears to be the face of Christ. And, you know, you start - once you start getting into any sort of religious quality or anything that has to do with religion. For me it had to do with spirituality and power and not the thing as a metaphor, the thing as a symbol for, you know, her or anybody wants to see it or what they believe in. It's really kind of, you know, but it will be interesting to see how that goes, you know? We might get the "Passion Of the Christ" audience - and that didn't do so bad.

You know, I just wanted people to see it. This is a - I'm not worried about being cool, I think it's actually a real - when I watch - first time I watched the director's cut, it finished and I was like that's crowd pleaser, really, really like is about for me the things that matter, you know? And taking Luke through this journey or at the end, it is about like, fate and not be able to control those things, like, why are we in the place, and I'm like, why are we standing in this balcony now - and feel gratitude that we are because we know that things can just go away like that.

STEWART: My conversation with Mark Pellington, of course, will post at - on our Web site, npr.org/bryantpark.

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