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LINDA HOLMES, HOST:
This fall, a number of auteurs are directing major blockbusters. Cary Joji Fukunaga took on the "James Bond" movie "No Time to Die." Chloe Zhao joins the Marvel Cinematic Universe with "Eternals." And Denis Villeneuve hopes to launch a film franchise with "Dune."
STEPHEN THOMPSON, HOST:
So we thought it would be a good time to revisit our conversation about how auteur directors shape genre films. Our pals Glen Weldon and Shereen Marisol Meraji joined us on stage in Los Angeles to dream up some great artists taking on unexpected genres.
I'm Stephen Thompson.
HOLMES: And I'm Linda Holmes. In this encore episode of NPR's POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR, we're talking about auteurs and film franchises.
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HOLMES: So we were talking about how genre pieces of entertainment are affected by, like, auteur directors - stylists. And we got talking about this because of something that Shereen mentioned to us. You want to tell us what it was?
SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI: Yes. I mentioned that pop culture was responsible for where I chose my honeymoon, which was in New Zealand. I got married about a year ago. And I chose to go to New Zealand because of a film that I saw that came out last year called "Hunt For The Wilderpeople."
MERAJI: Yes. You guys love it as much as I do. There go my notes.
HOLMES: You don't need them.
GLEN WELDON: You don't need them.
HOLMES: You don't need them.
MERAJI: So yeah. So this film - explanatory comma for those of you who haven't seen it. It's about a Tupac-loving foster kid who grew up in the city. He gets placed with a foster family in the middle of the bush. It's kind of a fish-out-of-water story. But then it turns into this chase movie, where the foster authorities are chasing him and his uncle Hec, who's his foster guardian, through the bush. And it's absolutely beautifully shot, right?
MERAJI: The cinematography is incredible, which made me be like, oh, I have to go to this place. And it's just charming and sweet and funny, and it has a message, but it doesn't hit you over the head with it. And it's directed - I'm getting to the point, I swear.
MERAJI: And it's directed by this wonderful New Zealand filmmaker named Taika Waititi...
MERAJI: ...Who's done many other things, correct, Glen?
WELDON: Yes, he has.
MERAJI: "Flight of the Conchords" - does anybody know that?
MERAJI: He's directed a couple of episodes of that, A wonderful vampire mockumentary called "What We Do In The Shadows."
MERAJI: I love this audience.
MERAJI: "Boy," which was his first film, which was a very sweet film about an 11-year-old Maori boy who loves Michael Jackson, is reunited with his deadbeat dad - anyway, everything he does is quirky and weird and cool and funny and sweet, and he has become my favorite director of all time. And he has a new film coming out.
WELDON: Yes, he does.
MERAJI: And it is in my least favorite genre of all time.
MERAJI: It is "Thor: Ragnarok."
MERAJI: I have to look at Glen for this.
MERAJI: "Thor: Ragnarok" - and I'm actually excited to see this movie. Now, full disclosure - my husband makes me go to all these comic book movies. And we've been married for a year, so in the spirit of compromise...
HOLMES: So far.
THOMPSON: So far.
MERAJI: And being a good...
HOLMES: It's only a year.
MERAJI: ...Marriage partner, I've been going.
HOLMES: You can do anything for a year.
MERAJI: But for the first time, I'm excited. I'm excited about this superhero movie.
HOLMES: And what do you - can I just say, what do you hope that Taika Waititi might bring to "Thor: Ragnarok?"
MERAJI: OK. First of all, less fight scenes that go on for, like, 10 minutes straight, and more kind of...
MERAJI: I don't know. He knows how to make the ordinary charming and sweet. And I feel like there's nothing ordinary about superheroes, and I would love for him to kind of strip them down a little bit and make them real.
WELDON: Yeah. You know this is set in a gladiator arena in space, right?
MERAJI: Is that what it is? I haven't seen the other ones. So...
WELDON: Look. Genre and auteurs - that can be very, very tricky. On paper, sometimes it seems like it's going to work. Ang Lee and "The Hulk" (ph) - actually, that always seemed like it was going to be weird.
THOMPSON: OK. OK.
WELDON: It never really seemed...
THOMPSON: I do want to interrupt for a second...
THOMPSON: ...Because I watched that movie in the hotel room this morning...
THOMPSON: ...To prepare for this conversation.
WELDON: How'd that go?
THOMPSON: Well, I mean, it's a little slow, but it's also ponderous.
WELDON: Exactly. There's an argument to be made that for genre pieces, and especially for superhero films, you can think of each character as a different genre. Because theoretically, those films are not supposed to all feel the same. Different characters are supposed to have different tones.
HOLMES: They're - in Marvel, they are.
HOLMES: In DC, I would argue it's all been the same gray sidewalk.
MERAJI: Until recently.
WELDON: We'll get to it. We'll get to a little background. Warner Brothers made "Superman Returns" in 2006. It was actually pretty successful, but it disappointed, didn't live up to expectations. Then, Nolan does "Batman Begins" - huge, effective. And Warner Brothers learns exactly the wrong lesson. And I actually read an interview with a head of Warner Brothers saying, oh, this is how we do superheroes today. We make them grim, dark, tortured, which is a - fundamentally wrong. Because you can do that film. That fits "Batman" to a T. It does not fit "Superman." What Marvel does, and the reason Marvel has been so successful, is, it understands you can't make a "Thor" film the way you would make an "Ant-Man" film.
WELDON: They're different characters, different motivations. And so it doesn't feel, to most people, monotonous.
WELDON: So let's get to that, Shereen.
WELDON: So you have this antipathy toward the genre of superhero films, comic book films. Everybody is allowed to hate things. It's perfectly fine. Not everything is for everybody. How did or did "Wonder Woman" mitigate that at all?
MERAJI: I think it was because it was a female character in the lead. And she was also incredibly funny and charming. I wanted to hate her because she is, like, the most gorgeous human on the planet.
MERAJI: But you couldn't. You couldn't hate her. There was a lot of dialogue. I really liked the way - her interplay with Chris Pine's character. And...
WELDON: But there were also...
MERAJI: There was a horrible fight scene at the end, which almost ruined the whole thing for me.
MERAJI: It went on and on and on. But...
HOLMES: I didn't feel like it was as long...
THOMPSON: Yeah, I didn't either.
HOLMES: ...As some of the other ones, where the entire third act was smashing buildings.
MERAJI: Right. But it...
HOLMES: But I don't have the stats.
MERAJI: ...Had an ending at least two times.
HOLMES: No, it's true.
MERAJI: And it kept going.
HOLMES: It's true. Sure. And so one of the things that I want to talk about with auteur directors is, what do you think - or I guess with any stylist, what happens when a person who is, like, an individual stylist and has a - kind of an idiosyncratic perspective decides to make a genre piece, rather than kind of staying in that, like, super indie world? And it's not only superhero films. Another one that I thought about was Ryan Coogler, who made "Creed" at a time when he...
MERAJI: That is so good.
HOLMES: Of course. And "Creed" is wonderful. This is - the whole point is, there's nothing against "Creed," but, like, what happens when interesting indie directors become, like - you get better blockbusters, maybe, if you put interesting directors on them. But it means interesting directors...
THOMPSON: Aren't making...
HOLMES: ...Are being funneled into making blockbusters. Am I making sense?
MERAJI: But then hopefully they take that money that they make...
MERAJI: ...From making the blockbusters and fund...
MERAJI: ...These indie projects.
WELDON: One for them, one for me.
WELDON: That's something you hear a lot.
THOMPSON: Yeah. And there are directors...
THOMPSON: ...Who've certainly done that. And I mean, "Creed" is a genre picture.
THOMPSON: So making a different kind of genre picture...
THOMPSON: ...Isn't necessarily...
HOLMES: No, that's what I mean. That's what I mean. It is a genre picture.
HOLMES: And now - obviously - so I do want to get off of only, only movies.
HOLMES: And one thing that I wanted to ask you was - this is something that musicians sometimes do, in terms of somebody that you maybe really, really deeply love, who might decide to dabble in - a kind of a straightforward - like, a country record or something like that. That's a thing, right?
THOMPSON: Yeah. I mean, you have somebody like Darius Rucker from Hootie and the Blowfish...
THOMPSON: ...Who - I'm not...
HOLMES: There's, like, moaning.
THOMPSON: I'm not saying my favorite band, Hootie and the Blowfish...
THOMPSON: ...Which then decided - but, I mean, that is a case of a band that largely ran its course. And you had this guy, Darius Rucker, and he still had - he had the music in him.
THOMPSON: And so he went on and recast himself as a country star and is now a legit country star. And it's...
THOMPSON: There's not miles-worth of difference between (vocalizing) and (vocalizing). It's just...
HOLMES: Very true.
THOMPSON: It's - you...
HOLMES: Who knew you would walk a mile to do two Darius Rucker impressions?
THOMPSON: But you have cases. And I always think it's interesting. Because you are so up against your audience's expectations.
THOMPSON: And you have a million examples of failures in that regard - again, talking about music, like when Garth Brooks decided to recast himself as a pop rock star, Chris Gaines. Does anybody remember this?
THOMPSON: The cover of this album is him, and he's got this, like - he's got this kind of, like, Jennifer Aniston hair. And he's got, like, this, like, kind of...
HOLMES: Everybody had that hair at that time...
WELDON: Yeah, that's true.
HOLMES: ...In fairness.
THOMPSON: That's true. And he had a soul patch, which really conjured the image of, like, Garth Brooks' evil twin.
THOMPSON: And nobody wanted it. Like, he was already, like, the biggest country star in the world. And he sort of thought to himself, like, what would happen if I put out a record that nobody wanted to listen to?
HOLMES: And what did happen?
THOMPSON: Nobody wanted to listen to it.
HOLMES: So one thing that we wanted to do before we left this topic was that we were each going to name a genre and a stylist that we would like to work in that genre. These are fantasy pairings. So, Glen, I want to go to you first. Give me your dream pairing of artist and genre.
WELDON: All right. There is a genre that I do not react to at all. It's like you and superhero films. It's romantic comedies.
WELDON: Never have.
MERAJI: Thank you.
WELDON: The foibles of straight people having minor little inconveniences on their way to a union...
WELDON: ...That is culturally embraced...
HOLMES: Oh, boy.
WELDON: ...Is - you know, my reaction every time is just, like, tell me more, you know?
WELDON: And yet - for a lot of reasons, I don't like romantic comedies. And yet I love - and you will love in about a week - "The Big Sick."
WELDON: And I was trying to unpack why, right? You know, maybe it's because - the graduate school Glen would say it's because the point of view is from a ethnicity or race, a culture that has been habitually othered by American film. And the fact that it's coming from that point of view makes it fresh, makes it an interesting. Possibly it's just because it's a good movie, which it really is.
WELDON: Plenty of jokes. Plenty of jokes.
THOMPSON: (Impersonating Ray Romano) And you got Ray Romano being Ray Romano doing his thing.
HOLMES: Everybody brought impressions for this.
MERAJI: That sounded like Kermit the Frog a little bit.
WELDON: It could be that I just have such goodwill toward Emily and Kumail, which I do. But I'd like to think if they made a lousy movie, I would be able to say they made a lousy movie. And then I remembered what "The Big Sick" has that other romantic comedies don't, which - minor spoiler, but it's right there in the title - a part of the film involves the character of Emily being put into a medically-induced coma so that she doesn't die. And then I thought, ah, the grim specter of death.
WELDON: That's what you need. You just need to kind of cut through it a little bit, kind of take the fat off. Picture me this - a romantic comedy directed by Werner Herzog.
WELDON: (Impersonating Werner Herzog) It's a fun, frothy, fizzy rom-com.
By the way, I decided - I remembered backstage that I'm about to do a Werner Herzog impression on the Largo stage where Paul F. Tompkins has been doing a Werner Herzog impression for years. This is going to be less than that. But we already had the slide, you know.
WELDON: (Impersonating Werner Herzog) So the name of my movie, which is fun and frothy and fizzy, is called "Huddle And Cling" because it is the story of Brad Huddle. He is a high-powered ad executive. And Judy Cling. She is a celebrity event planner. They are both married to their work. They do not know each other at the beginning of the film. Of course, it is a romantic comedy. They have separate friends who invite them to separate camping excursions in the Grand Canyon. It is actually glamping. You know, glamping? Which is - it is camping with sconces. Which of course, going on a camping excursion is foolish and vain because nature is evil and exists to destroy us.
WELDON: (Impersonating Werner Herzog) As they get separated from their parties, they wander alone without food or water for three days. So eventually, there is a second act complication. Maybe Brad gets - falls into a pit of rattlesnakes. Maybe Judy gets mauled by rabid coyotes. I don't know. I'm just the idea guy here. You work out the details. They meet each other finally. Brad is swollen and purple with deadly venom, which is racing to his heart. Judy is - and her fever is packing her body with clots of mud to stanch the copious blood flow. Then they come together. He is gnawing on the carcass of a frilled lizard. So they...
HOLMES: All right.
WELDON: (Impersonating Werner Herzog) So there you got your meet cute right there. There's the meet cute. There's hijinx. Maybe in their fever, he sees her as a giant hot dog. He sees her as a giant pork chop. They fall in love. Of course they die because nature wants to kill us. Their bodies are picked over by the turkey buzzards. But the beached, bleached skeletons are eventually found locked in an embrace. The end.
WELDON: I'd see it.
MERAJI: Oh, wow.
THOMPSON: I have to go next.
MERAJI: I am so sorry for you.
HOLMES: I was just going to say, and following that will be not me. Over to you, Stephen Thompson.
THOMPSON: Oh, for show and tell, I bought a water bottle. Until I brought
HOLMES: All right. Hit it, buddy. Hit it. Hit it.
THOMPSON: Well, I decided for this that I would stick to music. And I am not a believer in the notion that, like, rock 'n' roll is dead, man. Rock 'n' roll died when, you know, I don't know, Slash left Guns N' Roses or whatever people say when they say that rock 'n' roll is dead. I have a perfect solution to - of how to revitalize rock 'n' roll. And when I'm talking about revitalizing rock 'n' roll, I'm talking about things like when you watched the VMAs and, like, the only guitar you see in 2 1/2 hours is played by one of the members of DNCE. Like, to bring back a certain amount of of rock 'n' roll.
And so what I was thinking is that the perfect person to save rock 'n' roll is Beyonce. If you listen to to Beyonce's most recent album, "Lemonade," she has several genre experiments. So she's got a country song on the record called "Daddy Lessons," which shows that Beyonce is extremely well-equipped to do country music.
THOMPSON: And she's got a song called "Don't Hurt Yourself," which has - which is kind of a rock - it's a rock 'n' roll song. And it's got guest performance by Jack White from The White Stripes, The Raconteurs. And what I'm envisioning is for Beyonce to front a rock band. You take Jack White and you make him an audience member so that he is not participating in any way.
MERAJI: Wait. OK.
THOMPSON: Maybe you hire like Annie Clark - St. Vincent - who's maybe the best guitarist in the world, and form a supergroup in which Beyonce saves rock and roll the way she has saved so many of our lives.
MERAJI: I like it, Linda.
HOLMES: Oh, I'll take it.
HOLMES: I like it. I think it's good. Thank you very much, Stephen Thompson. Shereen, tell me...
HOLMES: ...What your dream pairing is.
MERAJI: ...All right. Well, since I am in the nesting phase of my life - marriage, you know, I bought a house, whatever - I've been reading a lot of home and garden magazines, specifically one called Sunset magazine. Do you guys know Sunset magazine?
MERAJI: Give it up for Sunset magazine, your guide for living in the West.
MERAJI: And so I was like, who would I want to guest edit Sunset magazine? Who would fit the role? You want somebody from California. You want somebody who knows their wine, their food, perhaps their greenery.
MERAJI: And so I thought E-40...
MERAJI: ...Should guest edit Sunset magazine - Earl Stevens.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: "Hurricane."
THOMPSON: I just heard "Hurricane."
MERAJI: Wait. By a show of claps, who knows who E-40 is?
MERAJI: OK. E-40 is a Northern California rapper. He's from Vallejo. Sunset magazine is from Menlo Park, also from Northern California.
MERAJI: E-40 raps about Carlo Rossi - right? - if you know E-40. But he also has a wine label called Earl Stevens Selects (ph), where he has three wines. He has a red blend called Function, which is based on his song - we out here tryna (ph) function.
MERAJI: He also has a Moscato. It's called Mangoscato - 18% alcohol.
MERAJI: He also has a Zinfandel, and he has a craft malt liquor - small-batch craft malt liquor - and a hard liquor called Sluricane. So E-40 knows his alcohol, and we know Sunset magazine loves their listicles - like, you know, "The Eight Best, Most Affordable Roses For Summer." I want E-40 picking those roses for me.
MERAJI: E-40 also knows his food. Should I keep going?
WELDON: Yeah. Why not?
MERAJI: I mean, all right.
HOLMES: Don't stop on my account.
MERAJI: He knows his food. He loves to rap about food - gouda...
MERAJI: ...Wonder Bread, mayonnaise and mustard. And you know - and for the gardening tips, you know, E-40 would give you the best tips on how to grow the greenest, most potent broccoli.
MERAJI: If you don't know what broccoli is, Google it.
MERAJI: So yeah, I want E-40 to give me that, you know, "20 Best Events For Summer of '17." And I can - or '17 - 2017 - "The Best Events For Summer Of 2017." And I can guarantee you the Oregon Shakespeare Festival will not be on that list.
MERAJI: The Telluride Bluegrass Festival will not be on that list. So E-40 guest editing Sunset. I think that would be amazing.
HOLMES: These are amazing, you guys.
HOLMES: All right. I actually thought in terms of what movie I desperately wanted to see.
HOLMES: And I was thinking about genres that I like, but that I'm picky about, that I would like to see exactly the right person sink their teeth into. And I was thinking about sci-fi. Because there are science fiction movies that I like and enjoy, but I'm very picky about how much time is spent - and Glen can vouch for this - how much time is spent on world-building and kind of table-setting and all of that stuff. I want it to be perfect and distinct, but I don't want it to go on for 100 years, and I want it to be fun to watch. I don't just want it to be explanatory. And I thought, who do I know who creates gorgeously shot stuff that gives you an incredibly precise sense of the world that you're in and the people that you are in that world with? And so I thought naturally of Barry Jenkins.
HOLMES: Because if you can create, with such precision, the Miami of "Moonlight," you can create anything - any other world, any other characters in that world. And this is a movie that I really desperately want to see. And it was after this that I learned that he had dropped in some interview that at one point, he had a sci-fi project in development with Solange.
MERAJI: Whoa. Yes.
HOLMES: For real.
HOLMES: For real. And it's kind of like, we're not working on it right now. And I'm like, do you have something better to do than that?
HOLMES: So I'm still hoping that that's going to somehow come back to life. But even if that specific one doesn't come back to life, Barry Jenkins' sci-fi movie - I will be in line.
THOMPSON: Woo. Yeah.
HOLMES: Now see, I stand by my idea about Barry Jenkins. Stephen, I stand by it, even lo these years later.
THOMPSON: And well you should.
HOLMES: Always good to hear from, of course, Glen, and also our friend, Shereen. We want to know what you think about your dream director and genre matchups. Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter at @PCHH. That brings us to the end of our show. We will see you all tomorrow.
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