Bringing Up New Challenges
by Jay S. Jacobs
Famke Janssen’s American dream keeps mutating. The striking actress moved from her native Holland in the mid-Eighties and became an in-demand fashion model. However, Janssen was always obsessed with films. She quickly segued into that world, getting a breakout role as a gorgeous assassin in the James Bond film GoldenEye. That eye-catching role (she was one of very few Bond villains who was preferred by fans to the Bond girl) led her into a series of fun and eclectic roles. She is probably best known as the brilliant mutant scientist Dr. Jean Gray in the series of movies based on the Marvel comics X-Men. She followed that with a quirky series of parts in Deep Rising, Rounders, Don’t Say a Word, Hide & Seek, The Wackness and Taken, as well as doing an important long arc in the popular cable series Nip/Tuck.
Still, Janssen has always longed to work behind the camera. Bringing Up Bobby, her debut as a writer and director, takes a look at a Ukrainian con woman named Olive (Milla Jovovich) trying to raise her son on the run in rural Oklahoma. The film, an old-fashioned look at modern dust bowl life, love and the importance and sacrifices of family, is going to be opening this weekend in New York and Los Angeles and then spreading across the country.
Don’t worry, though, Janssen hasn’t given up on the day job. A week after Bringing Up Bobby hits the art houses, the sequel to her popular film Taken will hit the cineplexes, reuniting her with Liam Neeson and Maggie Grace. She is also playing the wicked witch in the buzz-worthy upcoming film Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters with Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterson. On top of that, she is starring in the upcoming TV series Hemlock Grove.
A couple of weeks before Bringing Up Bobby opens, Janssen took time out of her busy schedule to give us a call to discuss her labor of love.
What inspired you to come up with the story of Bringing Up Bobby?
It was very much about being a foreigner in the US. I came twenty plus years [ago] to the US. I distinctly remember at the time when I first came to New York I really had the feeling that I was in a movie. New York, I’d seen it in movies all of my life growing up in Holland. My ideas about New York were really formed by films and were completely wrong and not in keeping with the reality of what America and New York were. I was petrified to leave the hotel that I was staying in. Turns out, I stayed in the Upper East Side in one of the fanciest areas of Manhattan. But I didn’t know that at the time. I’d seen Al Pacino running around with guns and shooting people. So, every single time somebody would put their hand in their pocket wanting to take something out, I thought they would pull a gun out. It seems absolutely idiotic right now, but it just shows you how strong the influence of film is on people. Especially on foreigners who come to the US, because the American film business is really strong and powerful, and a specific type of movie makes it across to other countries. Which is mostly the big studio movies, and they tend to be violent.
I’ve lived in New York for a really long time and of course New York is not really like the rest of the US. It’s very different. It’s almost like its own little country. It wasn’t until I went to Oklahoma, where my boyfriend’s family is from, that I was reminded of that feeling of how much of a foreigner I still am in this country. Oklahoma is really different from anything I know. It’s deeply religious, very conservative. I felt I had to censor myself in a way that I never had to as a person growing up in one of the most liberal countries in the world, Holland. It just brought back all these feelings of what it was like the first time I came to the US. Then, on top of that, visually it reminded me so much of a lot of the movies that I had loved for so many years, like Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, Bonnie & Clyde, Paper Moon, Thelma & Louise, and all of that. Put all of that together and I thought about what if this woman from another country comes to Oklahoma and she’s there with her little son. There grows out of this an amalgamation of many different things.
Bringing Up Bobby sort of had the vibe of a Seventies movie. What are some movies you’ve seen over the years that helped to inspire you to make this one?
There were two influences behind the film. Films from the 1930s, which I personally watch obsessively, and films from the 1970s. Those are really my two favorite eras in film. That became its own unique thing with Bringing Up Bobby. Olive, I wanted her to feel like she was a Thirties movie star who was living in a celluloid world.
Obviously, the title is very similar to Bringing Up Baby, was that a planned thing?
Yes. The title came last, but it was because I’m obsessed with Cary Grant. I’m obsessed with all movies from the 1930s. I love all the screwball. I love how strong women were in the films. I don’t mean strong as in hard, I mean strong as in female protagonists often carried the movie even more so than the men. They were allowed to be glamorous and beautiful and funny and quirky and silly and all of the things that I feel we’ve lost in modern day cinema. So, I keep turning back to films like Bringing Up Baby, The Philadelphia Story, The Awful Truth and all those types of movies. They played a very big influence in the making of Bringing Up Bobby. Ultimately, yes, when I was looking for a title and I had called my boy Bobby, I thought that Bringing Up Bobby was perfect, because Bringing Up Baby is one of my favorite movies. It all worked out that way. But Milla [Jovovich], I made her watch a lot of movies from that time to understand where her character would have gotten all her influences in how she acts and what her ideas about the United States are. In addition to that love for Seventies movies, and a lot of foreign movies, too. French movies were influences.
Why do you think people are so intrigued with conmen and women?
Those are the movies that I certainly grew up watching. A lot of those stories seem very American for us foreigners. Movies like the ones I mentioned before, like Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid and Bonnie & Clyde and all of those types of movies, that’s the history of film. You see those a lot still in life, you read about them. I remember there was a big story in the New York Post. I live in New York. I’ve lived there for a long time and The New York Post is something we all read, whether we dare to admit it or not. There was this story about Sante Kimes, this woman and her son was in his twenties – and they conned their way through the years. [Kimes was eventually arrested for committing a long list of crimes, including grifting, arson, and murder.] This was not long ago. So, these stories happen. I guess they feel cinematic.
It’s interesting, but despite the fact that she obviously loved her son very much, Olive was not a very good mother until she realized she may very well lose him. Do you feel that most or even all people have sort of a tipping point that can push them into being better people – or even worse?
Well, yeah. There are two things that I want to say first about that. Olive thinks she’s a good mother in the beginning. Like many people who think they’re a good parent, it really isn’t until your child starts cursing and you wonder where he got it from, until you look at yourself in the mirror and you realize, oh, I was the one who said that kind of thing. I think that’s one of the things, is that people ultimately don’t always realize that what they do is bad for their children. They really are trying to do the best that they can. Olive is trying to do the best that she can. Her main priority in life, which is why this is so ironic, is actually giving him better opportunities, because she comes from a really poor background in the Ukraine. In her eyes trying to get him financial stability and all of those things are what she thinks is what he needs more than anything. Now, she comes from limited means, and she has no education or whatever, and like I said, she’s influenced by films, so she thinks that the perfectly normal thing to do in America is to steal and con your way through it. Then get your son the education and put him through school and all the things that otherwise she could never afford to do. Obviously, for an audience member, from the beginning – and it’s set up that way and that’s why I referenced all those movies before – because in all those movies, those classics, from the beginning in Bonnie & Clyde, you know they are going to get caught. Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, you know they are going to get caught. You know that you’re sitting on a time bomb with these people. Sooner or later, something has to go wrong. It’s not until later, of course, that she realizes that what she’s doing is not good for her son and that she’s the one who needs to grow up.
Milla is obviously of Ukranian descent, though like you, she has been in the US for many years. Did you have her in mind for Olive all along?
No. I mean, I toyed around with the idea when I was writing it. I knew that Olive had to be from a poor country. She couldn’t be from a country like Holland because it wouldn’t have worked. I knew she had to be from a place like the Ukraine or Russia. Then I thought, what if she is from a South American country? Then I thought that would make it a different type of story: an immigrant into the United States that I feel that we have explored enough in cinema already. I kept toying around with where she would be from. It wasn’t specifically the Ukraine at the time. We got the first money that came in, my producing partner Sofia Sondervan and I put it together through very different independent ways of financing. The first people who came on board were a British sales agent called Bankside. They asked us for a list of actors. It’s really a short list who can meet the means of what you want. It’s a business and ultimately you have to sell your movie. It’s not just, oh, I’m going to make this little movie and watch it on my own DVD player. You help to sell the movie and all of that. She was on the short list. They were very enthusiastic about her. I thought, wow, yes, Ukraine, wouldn’t that be great? A good country for Olive to come from. I approached her through her agent. I’m making this sound really simple, because this movie took five years to get off of the ground, but ultimately, when we got to her, she agreed to doing it. But it was a nightmare getting this movie off the ground.
There are a lot of other really terrific actors there – like Bill Paxton, Marcia Cross and Rory Cochrane. This was a low-budget film which was made very quickly. Was it nice to see that such terrific talents would be willing to take the ride with you?
Oh, my God, yes, absolutely. I am so grateful. The thing about independent films is that you cannot offer people any financial means. You can’t offer them money. You can’t offer them a good trailer, because we were shooting in Oklahoma in 105 degrees in the summer. You’re asking a lot of your actors without being able to give them much in return. So, the only thing they have to go by is the script. You just hope that they like it enough to put up with all of it. They did. I’m really grateful.
Oklahoma does not seem to be a very common film setting. You mentioned earlier that your boyfriend was from there. Was that how you decided to film there and what special attributes do you think the state brought to the film?
The landscape was everything to me. It’s what inspired me to write the story. It’s what really made me think back again to the days of coming back to the US for the first time. All of that. So, it was really crucial for me that that was the place I wanted to shoot in. Getting to shoot there was much more complicated because my producing partner and other people said there was not going to be an infrastructure there. Crew-wise, it’s going to be difficult. With tax rebates… Ultimately, we made it work, thankfully. One of the great advantages was that I’d been there several times already, so as I was writing the script and on visits I would just sort of location scout, even though I wasn’t sure if we were ever going to get the movie off of the ground. By the time we actually got the film off the ground, I’d done so much of the work already. I’d found locations. I’d made contacts with people. Finding the house that we shot in was a complicated endeavor because I had been very specific about how I wanted to have a lot of glass and so many elements of it. My boyfriend’s mother actually was the one who said, “Oh, I think I have the house for you.” And so, we knocked on the door (laughs) and they gave us not only their house but their office. It was the kindness of the people in Oklahoma. I play around with that in the film in that we see the movie through Olive’s eyes and in the beginning the colors are really saturated. It looks like a fake world that she operates in, because she thinks she lives in a movie. The same way that she looks at the locals, she mistakes their kindness for stupidity. It isn’t until life catches with to her and she gets caught that we desaturate the colors, we show a different kind of Oklahoma. A different kind of America, which is much more complex. Which is not the way it appears to be in the movies.
Was it interesting after having been on the other side of the camera for so many years to step behind the scenes?
It was a dream come true. I’ve been wanting to do this for so long. I wrote, directed, produced, and starred in a little short fifteen years ago. I wrote a screenplay about fifteen years ago that made me get accepted into the AFI [American Film Institute] film writing program, but at the time I got cast into the Bond movie [GoldenEye]. After years of struggling, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to keep acting, because it wasn’t going well. I thought I’m going to go into the writing/directing world. Then, I finally got cast in the Bond movie and I thought I need to take this opportunity now. That kind of catapulted my career in a different direction. But all along, all these years, I’ve been wanting to do it, it’s just the right opportunity never came about. The right script… I tried a couple of times, but it wasn’t until five years ago when I started exploring this idea of this particular movie that finally all the pieces of the puzzle came together. This became my opportunity and my chance to do it. Now I really have got the bug. I’m very busy with acting at the moment. I’m shooting in Toronto Hemlock Grove, and I have Taken 2 coming out and Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters coming out. I’m putting together my next movie together that I wrote, called Rio Rojo. And I’m going to direct that one. So, I’m very, very excited about the prospect of doing it again.
Taken 2 is also coming out really soon. I haven’t seen it yet, but it appears from the trailers that you have a much more substantial role than in the original. Was the fun to make and what can the audience expect of it?
I do, yes, but that wasn’t hard because in the first one I was this horrible, bitchy character, for some reason. (laughs) I was never happy with the way that they wanted me to play it, but that was how they wanted to do it. The second one, I got the opportunity to soften her. It was great to be back with Liam [Neeson] and Maggie [Grace]. They are lovely people, and we had a great time shooting. Fantastic locations like Istanbul, Paris, and LA. So, we’re coming out October 5th. It’s very exciting. Bobby comes out September 28th in New York and then it goes wider after that.
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