Swiss-born filmmaker Marc Forster was a newcomer to Los Angeles in 1996, when he was invited to sit in on the digital sound remixing of Das Boot for its directors-cut release. Three years out of NYU film school, Forster had studied up on the original the night before, but as he listened to the sonic overhaul of Wolfgang Petersens submarine nail-biter that day, the former student found the director in him emerging. I saw what they did with it, and I thought, Oh my God, theres too much sound, recalls the 31-year-old, disappointment shading the German lilt in his voice. When Petersen piped in with his reaction, it was a confirmation of his guests unvoiced assessment: He said, This is too much. It was very interesting because I realized then that Hollywood is afraid of silences.
With his new feature, Monsters Ball, Forster betrays no such fear. (His first, the 1999 DV-shot Everything Put Together, saw a brief art-house run this year, while an absurdist musical he shot in 1995, an actors showcase called Loungers, won him an award at Slamdance.) The story of a love affair between two shattered souls in rural Georgia -- a white death-row executioner from an abusive, racist family and a black death-row widow barely making ends meet -- the film is a study in what Forster likes to call interrupted silences. From the stillness of a diner where it seems everyone eats alone to the ritualized etiquette of an electrocution, to the rooms of houses that have experienced one too many deaths, Monsters Ball makes achingly real a world of spiritual deadening, and the pauses before either falling into an abyss or re-awakening to lifes possibilities.
Its this unflinching tableau of grief, as well as the Academy Awards talk surrounding leads Billy Bob Thornton and Halle Berry, which -- in only six months since production wrapped and without a Cannes or Toronto to crank up hype -- has thrust Forster into the forefront of vital new directors. Monsters Ball is a hushed, personal movie with some big themes -- interracial romance, the death penalty, familial violence, forgiveness -- but minus the preachiness. Loath to wring moviegoers dry with sentimentality, Forster drew from his experience parsing the Swiss reluctance to display emotion, and his countrymens language of coded gestures. During shooting, whenever he believed dialogue or action in the script made a characters feelings too apparent, he sought more indirect communication: A line became a look, or action simply disappeared. The movies biggest surprises, in fact, lie in what isnt expressed. Its what my films tap into, says Forster. That everything is much more inward.
Not that the movie doesnt scoop out your insides with shocking, tragic incident before the healing can begin. But Forster cherishes the redemptive qualities of grim tales; his is an unexpectedly resonant sensibility for these uncertain, emotional times. Every dark story has an aspect of growing, because you become aware of things you havent been aware of before.
Forsters introduction to upheaval was as a teenager in his hometown of Klosters, Switzerland, when, in the 1987 stock-market crash, his fathers ill-managed investments eradicated the familys wealth. Soon their moneyed mountain ski town became an outpost of social rejection. It really made us all look at each other for the first time, really made us appreciate each other, says Forster, who ended up using the ostracizing of his family as the inspiration for Everything Put Together, a psychodrama about a new mother who is shunned by her friends after her baby dies: It was the best thing that ever happened to us, losing our fortune. It gave me the first experience that there is no security in life. I dont have any expectations from anybody. Even recently, in 1998, when one of Forsters brothers, his father and his grandmother all died in one year, he says, A higher consciousness and hopefulness came out of that.
Forster overcame the naysaying that accompanied his desire to be a filmmaker after he saw his first movie, Apocalypse Now, at age 12. I remember how everything was like this dream state, he says, and I said, Oh my God, thats what I want to do in my life. He wrote 30 letters to people he knew liked his short stories, and one of those people agreed to finance his education at NYU. Once there, the new arrival became a video-store habitue, both to soak up the possibilities of the art and, more practically, to learn English. I made it my goal to watch three movies a day the entire time, he says, citing Bergman (silence), Truffaut (human relations), Fellini (lightness), Buñuel (dreaminess) and Antonioni (visual poetry) as influences. I thought it was more important than writing papers, just to understand the language of basic cinema.
The script for Monsters Ball had been around since 1995, but, chastened by failed attempts to get the film made after attracting the likes of Robert De Niro, Sean Penn and Tommy Lee Jones, the producers finally opted for the low-budget route. They turned to Forster after seeing Everything Put Together and noting how assuredly he had worked with actors to create a palpable milieu of suffering. When Forster read the script, he was taken aback by the rawness of it, the pure emotionality. Nothing was really explained, it was very loose and sparse, so I had the opportunity to bring my own vision to it. Thornton was a natural first choice for Hank, but Forster wrestled with hiring a knockout like Berry for such a downtrodden role as Leticia, until the actresss deeply felt conviction won him over. With enough stars for any $4 million film, then, the casting of hip-hop impresario Sean Combs as Leticias condemned husband seems odd. Forster says he responded to Combs audition tape, and, after meeting with the eager-to-please actor, wanted to reward potential. I felt if someone was just humble and passionate and wanted the chance, it should be great to give it to him. And he was very prepared.
Still, the acting skills of P. Diddy will pale as a topic of conversation next to the films galvanizing sex scene. Unlike movies in which the sex seems apart from everything else -- a specially lit, choreographed anomaly -- Monsters Ball pivots on the power of Hank and Leticias explosive late-night first fuck. Anger, desire, insanity, death and love swirl around the graphic, extended sequence, and to secure Berrys commitment to acting it with total freedom, Forster gave her final approval of the edit. At the end of the day, its her onscreen and not me, he says. Because basically she exposes her soul, her most private, inner secrets. If shes willing to go there, I have to be willing to grant her that.
Forsters concession paid off: Berry let loose on camera and later approved his cut. The ratings board, however, saw NC-17. So Forster -- who, with his open face, thin frame and unfailingly polite demeanor, seems to radiate goodwill -- set out to work with the MPAA to get an R rating that satisfied both him and the board. Theyre very generous, I think, he reports. Not that each successive trim, related mostly to thrusts per shot, didnt take its toll. By the seventh edit, recalls Forster, I thought, If theyre not going to approve it, I will get painfully sick. It would lose the power of the scene. Then they saw and approved it, and I was so happy.
Forster hasnt developed any illusions yet about the future. Its safe to say hell have most actors begging to work with him, and hes helped to keep alive a long-standing tradition in Hollywood, that of foreign-born-and-raised directors training an unbiased eye on American societys dreams and failings, and slapping us awake with their visions. Forster, however, only modestly plays the world-citizen card. He stresses that Monsters Ball -- while visually and psychologically attuned to Southern life -- is an emotional road map that transcends territory. When he says, Human beings all over the world need to be loved, its not so canned: You sense that Hank and Leticia are so real to him that only the most irony-free platitude will do. Nevertheless, he adds, I couldnt make a film about Swiss people. Im very judgmental. I think I know them, but I probably dont.