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Youthful Actor Jonathan Groff Is Taking Woodstock And The Stage

For such a young actor, Jonathan Groff has had this charmed life. First, he lands one of the highest profile roles in a musical, Spring Awakening, a show that was meant to confront Broadway conventions. Right after he leaves that show--with a Tony and Drama Desk Lead Actor nomination in hand for his performance as Melchior Gabor--he goes on to play Claude in The Public Theater's Shakespeare in the Park 2008 revival of the '60s revolutionary classic Hair. In both roles, the sweet-faced Groff challenges authority with a smile and triumphs theatrically, if nothing else. And this is all accomplished before his 24th birthday. As a newcomer to New York City, making his way here from Ronks--a town near Lancaster, PA--Groff went from high school theater geek to Broadway contender in a very short order.

But of course, with these two achievements under his belt, getting tapped to play the part of Woodstock organizer Michael Lang in Ang Lee's Taking Woodstock seemed a natural progression from Hair. Though he has limited screen time, he so effectively slipped into that role that he physically seemed to mutate into Lang.

Now, besides his illustrious cinematic debut playing a historically resonate figure on the heels of the 40th anniversary of the actual Festival, Groff adds further heat to this summer's boil by playing Dionysus in The Public Theater's Central Park presentation of Euripides' The Bacchae.

And despite some mixed reviews for The Bacchae, the play provides him with another way to provoke through a sort of primordial counter-cultural figure. Groff has had an uncanny instinct for landing provocative parts in great shows, created by well-recognized artists such as the legendary Greek tragedist, the Oscar-winning Lee, or the award-winning playwright Craig Lucas.

Q: Seeing you in The Bacchae, it's clear there's a connection between lots of the things you've done so far. Though Dionysus is a dark figure in this context, the idea of him unleashing sexual tension fits with your other projects. You embrace that kind of role. In Spring Awakening you are part of a generation that would have been hippies if they'd been in the 1960s. So you've experienced this cultural phenomenon being expressed in all these different vehicles.

JG: That's so true. It's funny; I've never even thought about it until you were talking about that. Yeah, I feel really lucky to get to play these revolutionary guys that are working for a cause; it's a really exciting thing. As we were rehearsing for The Bacchae we were doing the press for this movie, and I was on the phone with my dad a couple of weeks ago. I literally said to my dad, "I can't believe it, but there is a lot of Michael Lang in Dionysus."

Everyone talks about Michael's smile and how certain people view it as an angelic smile and other people view it as a devil's smile covering up something. It's the same thing with Dionysus; in the mythology, when they originally performed it in Greece, the mask for Dionysus was a smile. He was doing all of these evil things with a smile on his face.

Q: Wine was the intoxicant of the time but it could have just as well been psychedelics. You've got him going to the women and saying, "It's okay to be yourselves, to leave your husbands. It's okay to frolic nude in the woods with other women." Using intoxicants, unleashing women...

JG: Totally. And the gender-bending; seeing a man dressed up as a woman, which was a clichéd thing for some people, it still is to this day. Anthony Mackie, who plays Pentheus, was telling me about how people from his life, his neighborhood, are like, "Dude, I can't see you in a dress." They won't come see the play, they're like, "It freaks me out, it makes me feel weird," and he's like, "Really?" They know me, they've seen me in a bunch of stuff and it still freaks them out." It's mind-boggling.

Q: I guess they liked you at the Public after you did Hair; that led you to doing The Bacchae?...

JG: I did a Craig Lucas play at Playwrights Horizons, Prayer for My Enemy, and then did a Craig Lucas play at the Public, The Singing Forest and was playing these characters that were incredibly moral, searching, confused and heart-breaking.
[Groff won the 2009 Obie Award for both productions--he's pictured at left with the award and former fellow Hair cast member Karen Olivo]

I was talking with Craig one day, and he was like, "What do you want to do next?" I was like, "I think I want to do a classic play because I've never done a classic. I'd love to play a character that's not so moral, not so upstanding."

Even in Hair and Spring Awakening, they were rebels but they were really good people. But [Dionysus] is very revengeful. At the end of the play I ruin the old man, Cadmus' entire life but he didn't do anything wrong.

Q: When I look at the metaphor, I don't find him all that bad--at least not in you.

JG: It's interesting because there are a lot of parallels between Jesus and Dionysus. I mean, a new religious figure coming in out of nowhere and people starting to worship him.

Q: When you look at the values of the time there was the male dominance and women were supposed to follow orders--he attacked the values of the time.

JG: Totally. The son of god, the son of Zeus; a mortal mother, a sort of immaculate conception thing that some people believed in, and some people didn't. Spreading a new way; Jesus did, "Here's my body and here's my blood." That's all in there. It's really fascinating. I literally have so much fun doing this play, I go to bed at night thinking about how I get to do it the next day so I wake up in the morning and I want it to be 8 o'clock.

Q: How do you do this in all the heat we've had?

JG: We rehearsed in that heat. We we're there all day rehearsing, which is a lot. But the park is the most incredible space in New York; it's just magic A) because it's outside, and in the middle of Central Park which is my favorite place in all of New York, and B) because everyone, most everyone, that comes has waited in line all day to see the show so it's an audience like no other because people are hungry to see this play.

People have to work, or know someone, or find a way in, so when you they get there, and are in the audience, it feels very special and of the moment.

The other night, for example, there was that huge storm that came so we finished just in time before it started raining. There were huge cracks of thunder and lightening. And they keep calling the god whose voice is thunder, I was standing at the end, and I revealed myself as the god in the end. I was standing at the top in my sparkle thing, and there were, literally, strikes of lightening coming down from the thing and we were like, "Whoa, this is so cool!"

We had those moments in Hair too; suddenly a breeze would come through and it changes the entire meaning of everything. It's like you're standing there and suddenly a wind catches you. One night in Hair we were so hot, literally, that our bodies were steaming, and just the energy of it, it's just an amazing space.

Q: You played the one character who is the link to the real Woodstock experience, Michael Lang. You're at the right age, and getting to see this experience filtered through meeting him... How was that whole experience for you?

JG: Now Woodstock is obviously such a huge part of my life and I know so much about it, but when I try to think back to what I knew before this movie, even before I did Hair and before my life was consumed with the late '60s, I remember knowing that Woodstock was a very famous concert in the late '60s and knowing that Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Richie Havens, and The Who were all there.

It was a movement in some way and that's pretty much all that I knew about it. Now I know so much more about it, and have been learning a lot about it, so being a part of it and living in it for that summer was really inspiring. Michael Lang was 24 years old when he did that and it's mind-blowing. I'm 24 years old and to think that someone had the vision, that drive, and that idea at 24, and actually saw it through, is completely inspiring.

Q: And the fact that he wasn't intimidated.

JG: He's just this chill dude. I asked him, "450,000 people, a disaster area, not enough food, not enough bathrooms, people threatening not to play, rain--why were you so chill? Or even building up to that; what made you so relaxed the whole time? Is it just who you are?"

His answer to me was that he saw it. He said he was the only one; he knew exactly what it was going to look like, what it was going to feel like, what it was going to be like, and what the movement was going to be--what a beautiful thing it was going to be. He saw the light at the end of the tunnel.

Everyone else was sort of throwing their arms up, screaming, running around and doubting, not knowing, and he said, "I just knew that it would work and so I had complete confidence." It's just also who he is.

Q: How much are you like that or not?

JG: He and I have a lot in common; I think we share a similar quality. Like when I spent the weekend with him I learned just as much about playing him as a character as I did about a way in which you should live your life. I felt like what a cool thing, beyond finding a mannerism, or talking to him about the experience and getting information, it was just cool to spend time with this guy who knows how to live his life with such ease, passion and confidence. He has a lot of faith in people and I think he's incredibly positive. We sort of share that. And it takes a lot to ruffle his feathers; I'm sort of the same way.

Q: Sometimes, it's not good to meet the person you're playing, and there are other times when it's essential. This was an essential moment because you were the one person who plays a character that has to give authenticity to the film.

JG: That was one thing that when I sat down with Ang for the first time and he put the research in front of me, he was like, "Michael Lang, people not only know what he looked like, what he did, and they know his name, but they also know how he interacts with people, how he smiles, his look on his face, his vibe."

Michael's vibe is very specific and people that really know Woodstock really know him. He's also an important part in the movie because he represents all the business stuff like finding a location and doing the press conference and changing the hotel and making it offices and all of that stuff.

But Ang said to me, "When you come off that helicopter in that scene, I want to see Woodstock in that moment. Like Woodstock is landing in his front yard, like this is the start of the whole thing." So he was very, very intent on that and on that day when he shot, he kept saying that to me, he's like, "I really need that vibe, I really need to get that vibe."

Q: Had you ridden horses before?

JG: My dad trains and races horses for a living, but he does harness racing so I had never been on the back of a horse; I didn't know how to ride a horse. A huge part of the joy of shooting the movie was that for two weeks I got to go horseback riding in upstate New York. That amazing horse that I ride at the end, this beautiful white chocolate horse that is RJ, the horse they use in Hidalgo. It was incredible, literally the most beautiful fields and trees and forests; it was so much fun.

Q: In Spring Awakening you're the character that leads the charge, in a sense, right?

JG: Yeah, Melchior's an atheist. It's a society in 1891 Germany where the kids are completely repressed, sex is obviously completely taboo; the very first scene of the play this young 14 girl asks her mom where babies come from and she says the stork. And my character is the only one in the whole play who was raised with liberal parents who taught me about sex.

With my best friend in the play, Moritz--who ends up committing suicide because his body is so out of control--I end up educating him and I write him a sex essay which gets me then kicked out of school. I have sex with that girl and get her pregnant; she has an abortion and dies. So Melchior's the rebel, the revolutionary; he's the open-minded guy that's going to lead. The final lyric that I sing in the show is "One day all will know," because he's going to go out and change the world.

Q: I really like the songwriter. Duncan Sheik. His pop music sounded a little bit like he is an heir to David Bowie for that post-Bowie generation. ?

JG: Duncan can't write a bad song. I'm a fan of his music as well; I listen to it all the time, I have his anthology. But it's so stunning. It's totally his own voice and it's completely unique.

Q: Then you do Hair--they came to you for that?

JG: At that point I had an agent so they submitted me for it, then I had an audition, a call-back for that, and then got it.

Q: Though it's very much an ensemble, the one or two of the characters that anybody remembers is yours, the nominal leader of the Tribe. Did you actually grow your hair for that part or was it a wig?

JG: A wig.

Q: You were never tempted to really grow it out?

JG: I totally would have if I could have, but I didn't have enough time. It was incredible though, to go from Spring Awakening where we were in these buttoned-up, 1891 costumes. Yes, we got to let loose in the songs, but the teachers were hitting us, we were on wooden chairs.

But then in Hair I got to literally release, physically. The whole show is about freedom, as if the kids in 1891 could have had rock 'n roll--that was the whole point of Spring Awakening.

Q: So when you get into Hair, the actual cast really is experiencing the idea of Hair--the idea of the moment. And, except for yourself, everybody else gets that moment of nudity on the stage. I'm sure they didn't do that before on stage back then. The fact that it's still provocative is even interesting.

JG: It is, it's fascinating. You know they say that moment of nudity in Hair, it's always optional, it's always been optional, like since '68 you could do it if you wanted to. They said that moment is about feeling free, whatever that means to you.

Q: You're the only one that isn't supposed to get naked.

JG: Yeah, because I don't burn my draft card, so I'm not free. And so I sing a song about it, and get completely upstaged by all the naked people. Literally, I've never been more upstaged than at the end of Act One of Hair, when you're singing this ballad, "Where Do I Go?," and you're crying and singing. It's this beautiful song, and people are literally in the audience craning their necks to look around you to see the naked people. It was hilarious.

But, when we started rehearsals, that show forces you to experience the vibe of the time. If you're really going to do Hair, you're really going to go there; you live it. It's pretty much all music, with some scenes here and there. Everyone's on stage the whole time. When we were doing it, we were outside in Central Park under the stars, the stage was made of grass. It was like we were really experiencing something that was other worldly.

There are lines like "look at the moon" and there was the moon in the sky in Central Park; and "Good Morning Starshine," and the stars are literally right above you. There are people dressed as hippies in the audience, people that actually experienced that time, and they're pulling out their own clothes and coming to celebrate. Then people that are my age that think that it's cool, are dressed up and sitting in the audience. And they come on stage with you in the end and dance with you.

Q: I went up on stage.

JG: Wow, that's so cool. One of the first things that I asked Michael while I was at his house--because obviously he's a pretty savvy music guy--I was like, "To you, who really knows the music of the late '60s and was really involved in the authenticity of what it really was, is Hair sugary and silly to you?" And he was like, "No man, that was the real thing. The Vietnam War was happening and they were protesting it on stage."

I was talking to some of the original cast members that came to see the show and they said that after the show was over, at the stage door, some kids would be like, "Do you think I should burn my draft card?" I mean, I can't imagine what it must have been like to be performing that show in 1969 on Broadway.

Q: So how long a gap was it between Hair and Taking Woodstock?

JG: Spring Awakening closed and five days later I auditioned for and got Taking Woodstock. And then I got Hair and Hair began. And then I was performing Hair at night, getting in a white van that drove me to upstate New York to rehearse with Ang, and then the van would drive me back the next morning and I would get up, go to rehearsal and then do Hair at night. That was back and forth for a while. And then I left Hair on a Saturday night and started shooting Taking Woodstock on Monday. So it was literally those two projects back to back.

I did it for about a month. it was a really intense time. It was completely joyful and exhausting at the same time.

Q: Well, I must admit, I wasn't sure how I was going to be affected by Hair. Did it resonate with Ang?

JG: When he cast me, he didn't know that Hair was happening. He didn't know anything about it. He just cast me. I literally put myself on tape, and hours later got a call that they had fast-tracked the tape to Ang and he was interested. So it was this happy accident; Woodstock didn't know about Hair, and Hair didn't know about Woodstock. They just happened to overlap and all the research was good for both. The characters that I played were actually pretty different, but to feel like you were in the world and you were living that time was a real gift.

Q: It was amazing to see how people were trying to re-embrace it and, I think, are still trying to re-embrace. I'm curious to see how Taking Woodstock is accepted.

JG: I can't wait. I think the thing that we have gotten away from, or at least that my generation has gotten away from that we're ready to re-embrace, is the idea of being passionate about something.

I feel like detachment and being an arm's length away and not caring or whatever is like the cool thing. Because in the '60s it was the very passionate defiance of the authority that was great, do you know what I mean? It wasn't that you were detaching like, "Fuck you, we don't care," it was like "Fuck you, we do care about something else."

There was a fire underneath everyone, and I think that that's what is coming back. For example, I was in Midtown when Obama got elected. First of all, up until the election, kids my age were going to Pennsylvania and Ohio and they were campaigning and they were asking questions and they were passionate about something.

Then, when he got elected, I was with my friend Allison Case from Hair, we were at a bar in Midtown when he got elected. It was like New Year's Eve; people were crying and running and screaming and shaking each other. That's the thing; whether it's peace and love, there's always an opposite and all of that, but it's the passion. It's the idea, which Michael had too, the idealistic view that we can hold each other's hands and make change, make something happen, and that we, whatever little thing that I do, can make a difference.

Q: Well I'm hoping is that people can have that feeling without being embarrassed by it.

JG: Exactly.

Q: Well, as good as those guys at Focus Features are at making hits that also have political and cultural credibility, Taking Woodstock is a risk. As Ang has said, "I want to do something that not everyone thinks about doing."

JG: I'm so inspired by Ang. Someone mentioned to me in an interview--that some critics at Cannes were disappointed because they thought it was going to be more about a concert and they also thought that, with Ang Lee, it would be more deeply, dramatically, intense or something.

Q: It is but it's not negative.

JG: That's the thing. When you go and see an Ang Lee movie, you should have no expectations--he reinvents himself with every film. All you know is that you're seeing a piece of art because Ang is a true artist and he listens to his instincts. He listens to his heart, is incredibly detail-oriented, does his research, is a hard worker, has an opinion about things, and puts together a work of art, whether it's comedy, a drama or whatever.

Like the inspiration for Taking Woodstock was that he was doing The Ice Storm and he always researches back five years before the movie. He was taken with the Woodstock thing and wanted to do something positive. This is a guy who reinvents himself every time he makes a movie, from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to "Sense and Sensibility", to The Ice Storm, to Ride with the Devil, to Brokeback Mountain--which is about gay cowboys--now to this movie about Woodstock. He's unbelievable.

Q: So are you getting weird offers, getting good offers or what?

JG: I'm back to auditioning again; back to square one.

Q: At least you're making a living.

JG: Totally. At this point, it's about just looking for the good writing. I love acting in the theater,but I'm fascinated with acting on film. I love acting on film, but I've been fortunate enough to work on projects and with writers that are really challenging.

I've learned so much from them and grown as an artist so the rule is if it's well written you can't lose. If it's a film or a play or whatever, if the writing is good and you really feel passionate about it, you just can't lose. You'll grow from it. Whether it's a success or not is neither here nor there; you're going to grow as an artist from this experience.

Q: When this is over do you have other things in hand?

JG: No, I have nothing, I'm free. As of September 1st, I'm unemployed.

Q: At least you get unemployment right?

JG: I do actually; in theory I can.

Singer Schuyler Fisk On The Road

The daughter of actress Sissy Spacek and production designer Jack Fisk, singer Schuyler Fisk was born in Los Angeles, California, and moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, where she began acting and eventually progressed to film. In the meantime, she graduated from the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of Virginia in 2006.

Fisk also picked up the guitar, which she learned from her mother. In early 2006, she recorded a demo with Joshua Radin, whom she has toured with for the past two years. They wrote a song, "Paperweight," that was featured on the soundtrack to The Last Kiss. A full length LP, was released digitally on January 27, 2009 as a download at several online retailers including iTunes and Amazon. Fisk's debut album, The Good Stuff, climbed to #1 on the iTunes Folk Charts. Now she is with Universal Records. She is currently on tour with Ben Taylor which brought her to Japan as well.

 Q: I found your name to be unique. How did your parents name you?

SF: Thank you. My mother says that they almost named me "Tyler" or "Taylor," but my parents discovered a rock quarry where artists got their raw materials in Virginia that was in the town of "Schuyler" and they fell in love with the name.

Q: I heard that you initially started off acting before getting into music. How did you get into acting, and did your mother, Sissy Spacek, influence you in that?

SF: I did start out acting. When I was little, I had huge dreams of being an actress. I saw my mother on film sets and thought to myself, "I could do that! I want to do that!" I was very involved with my school's theatre productions as well as the local community theatre. I got my first film role after having an opportunity to audition for "The Baby-sitters Club" at age 11. I got really lucky!

Q: How did you decide that singing was your calling--your voice to the world?

SF: I have always loved singing. It's been a huge passion of mine my whole life, but I didn't start to think of doing it as a career until friends started mentioning it to me. I started writing my own songs at 14, but it wasn't until about 19 that I started to really take it seriously. Then it wasn't until about 21 that I decided to pursue it full-force.

Q: Take me through the songwriting process? When I listened to "From Where I Standing," the image that kept coming through my head were those of very soulful lyrics. How do you immerse yourself in that process?

SF: Honestly, it's different every time. Sometimes I just sit with my guitar or at the piano and fiddle around see what melodies I come up with and go from there. Sometimes I start with a song idea or a line or lyrics almost all written out. "From Where I'm Standing" is a song I wrote for a film, and so I came at it with an idea of what I wanted to say and a vibe of how I wanted the song to come across.

Q: Are there any musicians that you want to collaborate with? And why do you want to do that?

SF: There are a lot of musicians I'd love to collaborate with! I absolutely love writing with other writers. It takes me out of my comfort zone and allows me to bounce ideas off of someone else, which you don't really get to do when you're writing alone. I'd love to collaborate with Feist, Patty Griffin, Dave Matthews, Wilco, The Weepies, Keith Urban, Bela Fleck, Tom Petty, Ben Harper, Bonnie Raitt... the list is endless.

Q: The song, "The Good Stuff," makes me imagine a bright sunny day in California; it seems to have a positive outlook on life. Do you find this song in a sense represents you?

SF: It's funny because I wrote that song one afternoon in LA when I was feeling really homesick for my hometown in Virginia. I started off wanting to write a song about missing home, but I ended up realizing how amazing everything was right where I was. I just needed to focus on the "good stuff" instead of the bad. I wrote that song to remind me to be in the moment and to appreciate the little things.

Q: What direction do you want to go in in the future? Do you want to tackle a different genre?

SF: I'm not really sure where the future will lead my songwriting. I will say that I'm feeling a pull towards more alt-country music lately. I grew up listening to old school country and blue-grass music and lately I've been listening to a lot of Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye. I have this huge desire to make an alt-country/Motown record next, but we shall see!

Q: This is your first tour in Japan. What do you hope to take away from that experience?

SF: Are there any places you want to visit? I am so excited to be coming to tour in Japan. I have the longest list of all the things I want to do while I'm there - the trick will be fitting it all in! I will be posting photos and videos from my trip on so be sure to check it out.

Doc Director Megan Mylan Brings Smile Pinki to the World

The story behind the making of 2009's winner of the Oscar for Best Documentary Short -- Smile Pinki --is something of a fairy tale equal to the story within the film. Pinki is a five-year-old girl with a cleft lip/palate from a tiny village in the Mirzapur District, India. It's a desperately poor place where no one even realizes a simple operation can repair her disfigurement. Then, a worker from the Smile Train organization who travels throughout India finding kids in need of this operation, gets Pinki to the hospital in Varanasi where she has the free surgery and discovers her smile.

A decade ago, former Computer Associates CEO Charles Wang and former Schell/Mullaney Advertising CEO Brian Mullaney created Smile Train, the world's largest cleft lip and palate repair organization, which became a new model for the way that clefts are treated on a global scale. After they had director Megan Mylan create a 40-minute short documenting Pinki's story, the film itself surprised everyone with its Academy Award win.

Said Mullaney, "Of the 1,200+ hospitals in 76 of the world's poorest countries that Smile Train works in, this [one in the film] is the busiest! They do more than 3,300 surgeries a year and it's run by a saint of a surgeon. We knew that with this volume we would have a great chance of casting a couple of great kids--and it worked."

So, with the Best Feature Oscar going to Slumdog Millionaire, this short enjoyed the resonate effect of being part of a very South Asian, very international year for filmmaking in the public mind. Now that HBO has started broadcasting the short--and making it available through its many distribution channels-- Smile Pinki continues to make people believe in this fairy tale, and, hopefully others as well.

Q: How did you come together with the Smile Train people?

MM: They came to me.

Q: How did they see your movies?

MM: I think Brian Mullaney and the other founders thought they had a great story that they thought would make a great documentary, so they went looking for someone, "Who do we want to tell the story?" and they really loved [my previous film] Lost Boys of Sudan. So my first reaction, honestly, was "Thanks, but no thanks, I come up with my own story ideas," and I just thought, "Well I don't do PSAs." But then they were a little persistent, and I think part of my job is to be open, as is yours, right? You've got to be open to what people are trying to tell you.

Q: I had a friend who had a cleft palate as a kid.

MM: That's one of the things; clefts weren't on my radar, besides ads you see in the Sunday paper. I thought of it as something cosmetic. But once they sent me some stuff and I started realizing how common it is, how devastating it is beyond its speech and ability to eat, and the tremendous social ostracism. And then, how totally curable it is.

Q: What's great about the organization, is that they've found something where they could have a huge impact, with something that had a clear and unmistakable goal and resolution.

MM: Exactly.

Q: So rather than try to cure all the world's ills with some kind of large organization, they figured this out.

MM: The other key piece for me about their strategy is that they support local doctors. It's wonderful when Americans choose to go abroad, and we should all give our time, but that's not the way you solve problems. You've got to empower the local people. If all of that had not been in place, I probably still would have done it, but the organization intrigued me.

Q: And it was a chance to go to India.

MM: Exactly. I thought it was a good story. It has the natural structure to it, so as a storyteller I thought, "this is a good story." And they had the funding in place, which seriously, that's the worst part of my job. If I never did that ever again, great.

To some degree having to convince people your idea is a good idea is a good filter for people not going off and making every story under the sun, but it's thankless. That's probably the piece the Oscar helped with the most; not convincing people to fund me, but when I open rejection letters or I get a rejection email, I can say to myself, "Okay there was a moment where people said yes." Because it's constant, it's constant.

Q: And you've been making films before this.

MM: I've been making independent documentaries for about 15 years and this is my third or fourth that I've directed, depending on how you count my first film which didn't get much of an audience. This is actually the first short I've done and it's a 40-minute one. The other two were features and one is still in production. But Lost Boys of Sudan... Jon Shenk and I co-directed that.

Q: I loved that movie.

MM: Oh good; I did too. It was such a life experience. Jon actually was one of my DPs on this film.

Q: How do you, as a doc director, separate yourself from the subjects you cover? With Lost Boys... you built relationships that you don't suddenly turn off. And with Smile Pinki, how do you divorce yourself from these little kids?

MM: I don't try to separate myself. It is an odd relationship you have because in some ways it's very much a friendship, especially with the kinds of films I make. If I have a strategy, it's [shooting] vérité so it's finding people who are going through these life-transforming moments.

Q: And you're dealing with younger people.

MM: Exactly. So you're with these people at these transformative moments in their lives and I'm just very clear that I'm a human being first and a filmmaker second. I don't think that those [two things] have to be in conflict. I don't need to film every single moment and I try and be really clear with my subject that if they say stop, I stop.

If you give people that [control] and they actually believe you, they can test you out once or twice and if you really don't film, then it just becomes where they trust you and you're along for the ride and part of the experience. 


We always felt with Lost Boys..., those guys were going through such an intense experience, and part of it was having these two filmmakers along for the ride. They didn't know any different that you could come to a new country and not have a filmmaker as part of that experience. And I think, to some degree with Pinki, that might have been [the case] too.

Q: And these kids like Pinki are younger too.

MM: Yeah, she's much younger. Actually, in a lot of ways, even though [the Lost Boys] were Sudanese refugees who spent their whole childhood in a refugee camp, those guys were much more savvy about the ways of the world. Though they had gone through such hardship and experienced genocide as six year olds, they had BBC radio and knew what airplanes were and all of that.

Pinki's village is really the most isolated thing I've ever been in touch with. Neither she nor her father had ever been to town. She had never left that village and he had never been to that city, which, by car was only two hours away, and by their transport, only a few hours away, and here he is, a 27 year old man. And with her mother, one of the really challenging things was communication with them. The language level was tricky.

Q: What dialect do they speak?

MM: They speak Bhojpuri, which is a dialect of Hindi. So my field producer, who's from Delhi didn't even speak it, so we had to work through these layers. She would talk to the social worker--there are very few people who speak both English and Bhojpuri; there are a lot of people who speak Hindi and Bhojpuri, or Hindi and English, but not the whole chain, so you had to go through this.

Actually Dr. Subodh, the surgeon, is one of the few; he grew up in Banaras, but was sort of busy. Yet, often, he'd be translating for us at the same time he was doing the surgery and everything.

Q: It's a good thing that the surgery is relatively basic.

MM: And he does it all the time. So the communication with her family--to try and get that level of trust and explain to them what my mission as a filmmaker was, what my motivation in telling their story was--they had no concept even of what a movie was. Her mother could not wrap her head around the idea that I was a foreigner.

She can sort of understand Hindi, so said to my field producer, "There are people who speak Hindi and that's not what I speak, but I understand," and then she pointed at me and was like, "why is she talking like that?"

We finally realized that she didn't have the concept of a foreigner, that there's a world out there. So how do you find common ground with that? That was a big challenge.

Q: How did people there deal with someone with a cleft palate? How many people in that village had a cleft palate? Was she the only one?

MM: She was the only one. Her village is probably only 75 people; it is quite small. I think that especially with the film, it seems like every other child has a cleft, but it is very common in India because there's so much malnutrition and poverty; the poorer the country the higher the incidence.

Q: Do they have any idea what causes it?

MM: They don't know exactly; Brian [Mullaney] can tell you more, but they know that it's linked to prenatal nutrition and the health of the mother. The less wealthy the mother, the higher the incidence. It's sort of woven in there, and there's a genetic component too.

There's estimated to be a million children in India with clefts, but there are over a billion people in India, so it's still a bit of a needle in a haystack to find these kids. The poorer the mother the more likely and they are very isolated. That's one of the things I like the best, is when there's that big coming-together registration day and these kids are like-- and you can just see in their eyes--"I'm not the only one."

They had never seen anyone who looked like them. All around the world, I've come to learn, there are different superstitions about this [condition] and very much so in India. It's the eclipse or that the mother was cutting vegetables and you're not supposed to do that and the gods have punished you. So this child is born as a punishment to their family and village. That's how they're seen.

Q: Is there anywhere that thinks highly of them?

MM: Not that I've seen. Wouldn't that be great?

Q: Well I've read, that with one group certain cleft children are viewed as a pariah and with other communities they are viewed as a blessing--there were different kinds of cultural responses to this particular condition.

MM: One of the things I hope comes through in the film, and I feel like you see really clearly, is that Pinki's family really prized her. She was very much a loved child even though she had to deal with this ostracism and ridicule from the village and the other kids.

Q: Even though it's a 40-minute long film, how long did you work? How deep in can you get when making a 40 minute movie of a specific organization and act; it must arouse your curiosity so much that you want to cover all of India.

MM: There are endless stories in India, of course. That town where we were filming in, Banaras, is one of the holiest cities in the Hindu religion, so I went into it very similarly as to other things. With Smile Pinki as I did with Lost Boys--as I have with all films I've worked on for other people--it's sort of a gut, organic feeling for what's the story, who's the person going through this intense thing; it's character-driven, I get as close to them as possible for the big moments.

With Smile Pinki the length and the structure was very natural; the journey story. Lost... was a journey story too, but it was about life here and at what point do you say, "Okay... enough." The hard thing with Lost Boys, was to know when to stop, because their lives are still going on, we could have just kept going and going and going.

Q: You had to find a moment.

MM: We could feel there was a point where they plateaued is sort of a negative, but the transitions and the big steps forward got smaller and smaller [as we went along].

Q: Was Pinki easier in that way; did you decide on Pinki because she had the perfect name for it?

MM: Isn't it a great name? The funny thing is Pinki doesn't mean "pink" in Hindi, you know.

Q: Did you give her pink clothes after the film?

MM: Well Sheila [Nevins--president of HBO's documentary division] gave her a bunch of pink clothes when she came to visit; all sorts of adorable pink stuff and I brought her back clothes and stuff.

Q: They were here in New York?

MM: Yeah, they were, it was great. They came for the Oscars.

Q: Did they go to the Oscars--Pinki and her family?

MM: Yeah, it was pretty crazy, I can show you some pictures.

Q: Did you videotape all of that? Come on, you must have documented it.

MM: No...

Q: Are you nuts?

MM: I know. We photographed a lot, but we didn't videotape. I wanted to go through the experience. I know, I know, I'm not a real documentary filmmaker.

Q: The DVD extras!

MM: We have a little bit, and they got a hero's welcome when they went back home. They met with the Prime Minister and all that stuff. It was pretty crazy.

Q: Isn't it weird to have it happen in the same year as Slumdog Millionaire?

MM: Oh, it was very much India's year and I think we benefited a great deal. The film's a huge deal in India, which is bizarre for a short documentary to be like this--every time they would mention Slumdog they'd mention Smile Pinki too. And the day after the Prime Minister congratulated the filmmakers of Slumdog Millionaire they did so with Smile Pinki like in the same breath.

Q: Did you meet the Indian Prime Minister?

MM: Well I haven't gone back , but they did. Pinki, her father and Dr. Subodh--who all came to the Oscars--all met the prime minister and the president. And Pinki, there's these mega Bollywood stars who have signed on now to be part of Smile Train. There's a scholarship for her.

Q: You heard about the Slumdog kids.

MM: Yeah, and she's had just the opposite experience. From what I've read, and I don't know anything first-hand, it sounds like Danny Boyle and those folks tried to do the right thing too. Like we [Americans] can't wrap our head around honor killing or anything like that so you have to try to get into that reality. Not that any poor family wants sell their child, that's a horrible thing, but you have to see it in their reality, not ours, right?

Q: [Having filmmakers come there] must be like having aliens from another planet drop into the middle of their society.

MM: I know, I know. And those kids [from Slumdog] were for sure more savvy than Pinki. Her coming here was just... First I thought, "Oh this is sort of icky. America's weird enough, and you're going to bring her for the Oscars?"

Q: She has no idea! She's never seen a movie. But by now she's seen movies...

MM: Well, no, still, they've only seen the movie that they're in.

Q: Did you guys take them out to some of the parties?

MM: Oh yeah, we actually went to a Slumdog Millionaire party the night before because they were staying at the same Four Seasons.

Q: They must have appreciated the level of stars they were meeting.

MM: Well no, see that's the thing, which is great. I got a translator just for Pinki and her dad, because Dr. Sabodh can speak English and everything, so the translator told me that they met the guy who was the host of Who Wants to be a Millionaire?--Anil Kapoor. He's a huge huge deal, right?

Q: He's like a Robert DeNiro or something.

MM: Right, and so then right after they met, [the translator] turned to Pinki's dad and said, "Did you know who that is?" and he said, "No, but I know that I'm meeting very many important people in America." He had no clue who the guy was.

Q: Do they have electricity?

MM: No, but some nice concrete things have happened for them. The district government has made Pinki's village a model village, and so new housing's gone in with corrugated roofs that can withstand the monsoon, and electrified water pumps, and the roads have been reworked.

So here's this child who was this ostracized scar on the village and now there's a lot of talk about her being blessed and bringing all this good fortune to the village, and it's great. There's been a ton of press coverage in India about her and the whole Oscar thing, and I saw this interview with her mom, the same mom who couldn't wrap her head around me being a foreigner, she said "We've already got our gift, it's not about the prize and America. All of these people who are now celebrating my daughter's success are the same ones who were ridiculing us." And I was like, "You're a good mom!"

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