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 director’s-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 Petersen‘s 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, there‘s 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 guest‘s 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, Monster’s 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, Monster’s Ball makes achingly real a world of spiritual deadening, and the pauses before either falling into an abyss or re-awakening to life‘s possibilities.
It’s 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. Monster‘s 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 countrymen’s language of coded gestures. During shooting, whenever he believed dialogue or action in the script made a character‘s feelings too apparent, he sought more indirect communication: A line became a look, or action simply disappeared. The movie’s biggest surprises, in fact, lie in what isn‘t expressed. ”It’s what my films tap into,“ says Forster. ”That everything is much more inward.“
Not that the movie doesn‘t 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 haven’t been aware of before.“
Forster‘s introduction to upheaval was as a teenager in his hometown of Klosters, Switzerland, when, in the 1987 stock-market crash, his father’s ill-managed investments eradicated the family‘s 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 don’t have any expectations from anybody.“ Even recently, in 1998, when one of Forster‘s 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, that‘s 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 Monster‘s 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 actress’s deeply felt conviction won him over. With enough stars for any $4 million film, then, the casting of hip-hop impresario Sean Combs as Leticia‘s 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 film‘s galvanizing sex scene. Unlike movies in which the sex seems apart from everything else — a specially lit, choreographed anomaly — Monster’s Ball pivots on the power of Hank and Leticia‘s explosive late-night first fuck. Anger, desire, insanity, death and love swirl around the graphic, extended sequence, and to secure Berry’s commitment to acting it with total freedom, Forster gave her final approval of the edit. ”At the end of the day, it‘s her onscreen and not me,“ he says. ”Because basically she exposes her soul, her most private, inner secrets. If she’s willing to go there, I have to be willing to grant her that.“
Forster‘s 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. ”They’re very generous, I think,“ he reports. Not that each successive trim, related mostly to thrusts per shot, didn‘t take its toll. By the seventh edit, recalls Forster, ”I thought, ’If they‘re 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 hasn‘t developed any illusions yet about the future. It’s safe to say he‘ll have most actors begging to work with him, and he’s helped to keep alive a long-standing tradition in Hollywood, that of foreign-born-and-raised directors training an unbiased eye on American society‘s dreams and failings, and slapping us awake with their visions. Forster, however, only modestly plays the world-citizen card. He stresses that Monster’s 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,“ it‘s 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 couldn’t make a film about Swiss people. I‘m very judgmental. I think I know them, but I probably don’t.“
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