Married... with the Movies
Husband-Wife Team Ferne Pearlstein and Rob Edwards
Mel Brooks in THE LAST LAUGH
Robert Edwards and Ferne Pearlstein are a married filmmaking couple from New York. They both studied filmmaking at the Stanford University documentary program. Then Robert hired Ferne as DoP for his film THE VOICE OF THE PROPHET (Sundance 2002), and they became a couple in private life as well. Ferne is an award-winning camerawoman on films like SUMO EAST AND WEST, IMELDA and FREAKONOMICS, and has smuggled her camera across the border from Thailand to Burma to interview the rebel Keren Liberation Army. Robert writes and directs for Hollywood films, including seven-parter FLYING TIGERS for John Woo, AMERICAN PROMETHEUS about the life of Robert Oppenheimer, and BLACKWATER for HBO. His first dramatic feature film LAND OF THE BLIND, starring Ralph Fiennes and Donald Sutherland, screened at FILMFEST MÜNCHEN 2006. This year, they are presenting two films in Munich: Doc THE LAST LAUGH with a raft of top Jewish comedians like Mel Brooks and Sarah Silverman about humor and the Holocaust, and dramatic feature ONE MORE TIME starring Christopher Walken as an aging crooner who has to get along with his punk daughter Amber Heard. Ferne and Rob will be discussing with the audience at Filmmakers Live on Thursday, June 30 at 4 pm.
Robert, you were born in Bad Kreuznach 1963 to a military family. Travel a lot? What are your earliest memories of Germany?
ROBERT: Yes, we moved every year or so. I went to about a dozen schools. We left Germany shortly after I was born, but I later joined the US Army myself and was stationed here—near Giessen—at the end of the Cold War, from 1986-89. I loved it. It was a fascinating time and an eye-opening experience for a young provincial American. I count those years as some of the best and most rewarding of my whole life. I have a deep and abiding affection for Germany.
You joined the Army and fought in the first Iraq war. Could you describe your military career for us?
ROBERT: “Fought” is a bit of an overstatement. I was in a parachute infantry regiment that rolled over the Iraqi opposition after they had been severely battered by the US air campaign. Overall I spent about six and a half years as a US Army officer in both infantry and intelligence, in Germany (as I mentioned) and various assignments in the US as well as the Persian Gulf. It was an invaluable experience that I wouldn’t trade for the world, and it was my honor to serve with some of the finest people I’ve ever known. Sadly, it also offered a ringside view of the tragic absurdity of geopolitics, and a prelude to some of the worst foreign policy decisions of the post-World War II era. Principally, the cynical and criminally pointless 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Robert Edwards, Ralph Fiennes and Ferne Pearlstein shooting LAND OF THE BLIND
What made you go from being a soldier to being a filmmaker?
ROBERT: I had always wanted to be a filmmaker since my early teens. I thought of the army as a rite of passage, but I stayed longer than I originally intended because I enjoyed it, and I liked the people I was working with, and it was interesting times to be a soldier. But eventually it was time to move on.
French post-modern philosopher Paul Virilio wrote a book called “War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception” conflating the two. See any similarities?
ROBERT: War and cinema have many many similarities. Both are insanely complicated logistical undertakings, usually under the supervision of complete lunatics, featuring bitterly partisan fiefdoms that are supposed to be collaborating for the common good but often spend most of their time fighting each other, and never concluding with the intended results. And of course both war and cinema traffic heavily in illusion. In terms of their intersection, it’s impossible to make a true anti-war film because war is inherently dramatic—the ultimate drama of life and death, in fact. So on film war inevitably it becomes romanticized, even when one is trying valiantly to do the opposite.
My next project dips into this area a bit. It’s an adaptation of a memoir called “The Bomb in My Garden,” by the head of Saddam Hussein’s uranium enrichment program, who helped Iraq come within inches of getting the Bomb in 1990, and then buried the components in his backyard until the 2003 invasion when he escaped Iraq.
Ferne, what’s your childhood history? Assuming you’re Jewish, do you have any experience with Germany yourself?
FERNE: My strong Jewish connection was more a cultural connection than a religious one. I grew up in a tight-knit Jewish community in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. My grandparents and great-grandparents on both sides of my family came to the US from Russia to escape the pogroms in the late 1800s/early 1900s, as did the ancestors of many of the people I grew up with. So I didn’t know any survivors growing up. I have traveled to Germany on a few different occasions, but the one that made the biggest impression on me was in 2005 when we were making LAND OF THE BLIND and living in London. Bob wanted to return to Berlin, since he hadn’t been there since the Wall had come down. I was skeptical, having never been there, but having all the associations with the city that were part of my upbringing. But I was amazed by how much I loved it, with all its vibrancy, and how the city had come to grips with its own history. Then, just over a year later, we were invited to the Munich Film Festival to show LAND OF THE BLIND and had a most welcoming and wonderful experience there as well.
Werner Herzog helping out on THE LAST LAUGH
Did you meet at the Stanford documentary program? Over milkshakes at the student union?
ROBERT: No, we weren’t there at the same time. Ferne was a few years ahead of me. But it’s a very small program, so everyone is well aware of the classes that came before you. I knew of Ferne by reputation as a filmmaker and cinematographer and had really liked her work, so I hired her to shoot a documentary I was trying to make around 1998. I came to New York (where she lived) from San Francisco (where I lived), we shot for three days, went out to dinner on the last night, and—long story short—I was soon living in New York and never finished that film. But an excerpt from it did become a short that later played at Sundance, THE VOICE OF THE PROPHET. Tragically, it was an interview we shot in the World Trade Center with a man who three years later died saving thousands of lives on 9/11.
Your first feature doc together was SUMO EAST & WEST, with Rob as writer and Ferne as DoP/director/editor. Sounds like an adventure in Japan together, what do you recall?
ROBERT: Yes, we spent six weeks shooting in Japan after shooting in Hawaii and LA before that. It was completely surreal. Ferne had been to Japan before but I hadn’t. We shared a tiny hotel room in Tokyo where the bed was so small we had to sleep head to toe. Japan was jaw-dropping enough, but sumo is a strange little world even within that. We soon learned that we could get away with a lot just because we were foreigners and especially because Ferne (as director and DP) was a woman, and the sexist culture of sumo sort of just looked past her and didn’t take much notice of what we were filming.
FERNE: In addition to being a producer and writer on it, Bob also edited SUMO EAST AND WEST with me. This was our first (and last!) attempt to edit together in the same room. When we edited LAND OF THE BLIND, we worked in two different edit rooms, which was great until we started getting to the fine cut stage. Every time we would pass off a cut to the other via the Ethernet, we would just put the changes back to the way we had previously had it. We realized then that in order to actually finish the film we had to be in the same room together to make the hard choices, so we did. But suffice it to say, we came to realize that the secret to holding our marriage together was to stop editing together and we haven’t done so since!
Ferne Pearlstein shooting THE LAST LAUGH
Robert works as a writer for hire, Ferne as a DoP for hire. What’s the difference between your own projects and your for-hire work? Is it nice to be able to go home after a full day and not worry about a project sometimes?
ROBERT: That never happens. Even on work-for-hire the pace is usually pretty punishing, because I typically have multiple jobs going on at once in order to make ends meet. But I certainly invest more blood in things that are my own and that I am directing (or want to direct) myself. On work-for-hire I give it my all but ultimately it’s someone else’s vision and my job is simply to serve that.
FERNE: I agree with Bob! And most of my documentary cinematography jobs were on the road, so that made it hard to come home after a long day’s work and put my feet up. But we had a baby in February 2011 and I got money to make the THE LAST LAUGH five months later, so making that film has been my full time job for the past five years. Now that I’ve finished THE LAST LAUGH, I will have to revisit this question!
Ferne’s IMELDA was a work for hire and won Best Cinematography at Sundance 2004. You got to spend time with Philippine First Lady and presidential candidate Imelda Marcos. What was that like? Any anecdotes?
FERNE: Shooting IMELDA was one of the highlights of my cinematography career. We took two month-long trips to the Philippines: one in the spring of 1998 and one in the spring of 2001. It was beyond surreal. On our first trip, Imelda turned 70 and was running for President. One of my favorite anecdotes was our first meeting. We were shooting in 16mm and interviewing her standing behind Ferdinand’s refrigerated glass tomb, so he was in the foreground of the shot looking like a wax figure, with a sign beneath him that read “Here Lies Love.” We had very little time with her so it was crucial to get it right on the first try. We had our associate producer stand in for Imelda while we lit, but Imelda is extremely tall, and when she arrived—in her heels—she was a foot taller than our stand-in. As we started to roll, I was seeing the reflection of Imelda’s head doubled upside down on the upper panel of Ferdinand’s tomb. We tried to tell the director but she was understandably concerned we would lose our subject, so my assistant and I had to drop the tripod down a foot while keeping the interview rolling. With a loud thud, our tripod crashed down to the perfect position and we shot one of the interviews I am most proud of till this day.
During my first shoot in the Philippines was when I first heard from Bob about shooting the film of his that he mentioned above, and we met only weeks after I returned. And then, nearly 3 years later, we got engaged just weeks before my second shoot in the Philippines, so I have very fond memories of those days.
Donald Sutherland in LAND OF THE BLIND
Robert wrote and directed the dark dystopian comedy LAND OF THE BLIND, which Ferne produced and edited, a kind of over-the-top HUNGER GAMES starring Ralph Fiennes and Donald Sutherland, an amazing piece of indie brilliance. How did that project come about? How did you get your cast on board? Did it get decent distribution?
ROBERT: Thank you for saying that. I think at the time it was very polarizing, because it was seen as a comment on Bush and the war on terror, when in fact it was written well before that and intended as a kind of universal fable about the madness of politics, which is why it was set in an unnamed time and place. I haven’t seen the HUNGER GAMES movies, so I can’t really say, but I did do a double take from the trailers. It was my first feature and I wrote it with the intention of doing it as a very small indie, guerrilla-style, the same way we’d done SUMO, but the script found its way into the Hollywood system almost by accident, which is how we were able to get those incredible actors onboard. CAA made it happen. Scott Greenberg became my agent because of it and was tenacious, and Roeg Sutherland put the financing together, for which I will always be very grateful. Distribution was a bit of a nightmare, though, for reasons that can only be discussed in an alcoholic stupor. I’ve blocked that part out.
THE LAST LAUGH features a who-is-who of modern Jewish comedians. How did you get Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Rob Reiner and Sarah Silverman on board on such a truly edgy topic? Did you get a lot of rain checks?
FERNE: Yes! We did get a lot of rain checks! But we knew there were certain comedians we couldn’t make the film without, so we kept finding new and creative ways to approach and re-approach those people—in particular Mel Brooks and Sarah Silverman, who had done a good deal of Holocaust humor. In the beginning it was hard. No one wanted to be the first one until Rob Reiner said yes. And because he is so well loved, he lent so much credibility to our project. Bob’s agent called him up and asked him point blank if he’d be in the film, and he said: “Sure, I’ll do it a week from Wednesday!” As I said, Rob Reiner is so beloved that as a result we were able to get a number of comedians based on his seal of approval, including his father, Carl Reiner. I don’t think these comedians were afraid of the edgy topic per se, but they did need assurance that I would do right by the delicate topic. I need to gain their trust that I would deal with it in a tasteful way.
Mel Brooks was harder. It took a few years, a few close connections, and a lot of luck to get him to finally say yes. But once we had him, he was incredibly supportive. In fact, Sarah Silverman—who was probably the hardest to get a ‘yes’ from—finally said yes only after Mel personally wrote her an e-mail encouraging her to do it. So she did!
Joan Rivers was one of the first people to say yes, but she was always so busy it was hard to pin her down with a time. We finally did schedule an interview for October 1st, 2014, but she tragically died just three weeks before we were supposed to film.
Ferne Pearlstein and Mel Brooks on THE LAST LAUGH
What do you think Germans will say?
FERNE: I don’t know; I’m very curious, of course. We had a German production assistant on the project who watched a finished cut for digital glitches. When he finished watching, my producer Amy Hobby, who was sitting beside him, asked him what he thought since he was so stoic watching, and he said, “I enjoyed it very much!” and Amy said, “But you were so silent while you were watching, and his response was: “Oh, I’m not allowed to laugh at that.”
Robert is credited as writer on LAST LAUGH, but there’s no voice-over and it mainly consists of the original interviews. What is the writer’s job on a doc like that?
ROBERT: Writing checks, mainly. Kidding aside, what we think of as the “writing” of the documentary—which Ferne and I collaborated on—consisted of all the planning that went into sculpting the shape of the film before we ever went to shoot it. If you were to go back and look at our treatments that were written before we did a single interview, the rough structure of the finished film is already there. We chose interview subjects and topics and questions to fit the story we were trying to tell, though of course there was also a massive amount of flexibility and adaptation required in the editing. The editing—which Ferne did—was like a second iteration of the writing process.
ONE MORE TIME is the story of an aging crooner who has to deal with his punkish daughter. How do you relate to the Rat pack generation of singers? Grow up with Sinatra and Bing Crosby? How do they fit in to the modern world, if at all?
ROBERT: I don’t relate to them at all. I respect them as artists, but it’s not my generation or my kind of music. I’m a child of the rock & roll era, to the marrow. But a character from that crooner world—a poor man’s Frank Sinatra—made for the most interesting character for the story that I wanted to tell. “Paul Lombard’s” inability to fit into a music scene that has passed him by (before he even got started in some ways) is the crux of the story.
Amber Heard and Christopher Walken in ONE MORE TIME
Who wrote the songs? Can Christopher Walken and Amber Heard really sing?
ROBERT: I wrote the lyrics (and the music to one, “Montreal”). But most of the music, including the title track in all three of its incarnations, was written by the great Joe McGinty: pianist, composer, bandleader, producer, and musician’s musician extraordinaire. The film’s original title was “When I Live My Life Over Again,” so I still think of that as the title song. Its lyrics are integral to the story and were written into the script, but I knew I needed a consummate songwriter to write music in that big band idiom. I knew of Joe from the Losers Lounge, his bimonthly revue at Joe’s Pub in New York City, and already had him in mind when our producer Lucas Joaquin suggested him, so I jumped at the chance. Joe is one of the greatest talents in the NYC scene and I was privileged to work with him. By sheer coincidence and totally unrelated to ONE MORE TIME, his wife Amy Hobby is one of the producers of THE LAST LAUGH, with her company Tangerine Entertainment.
Re singing, Christopher Walken has been singing and dancing since he was a kid in the chorus of Broadway shows. Amber, by contrast, very frankly told me that she’d never sung even in the shower (which is kind of hard to believe), but that if I was willing to take a chance on her she was willing to bust her ass and take lessons and learn to do it. And she did. My hat is off to her. That was incredibly brave, acting-wise.
Ferne credits buying a 16mm camera with launching her DoP career. Do you still shoot on 16mm? Feel like a crooner in a punk world sometimes?
FERNE: I do still shoot in Super 16mm and I LOVE that analogy. I do feel like a crooner in a punk world, and more than sometimes! It’s a complicated topic for me. Shooting in film is definitely not driven by practical reasons, even though I own my own 16mm camera. It’s aesthetic. On our first shoot for THE LAST LAUGH, when I went to rent Super 16mm magazines as I have done before every other Super 16mm shoot, I quickly learned that there was so little demand for those magazines that the rental house had taken them all apart for parts. In fact, I couldn’t find the Super 16mm magazines that fit on my camera anywhere in the world. At the eleventh hour I had to purchase four higher-end magazines from Aaton itself in France, then Aaton had to downgraded them so they worked with my beat-up old camera! So in that regard, shooting in film was definitely an aesthetic choice. However, as a documentary DP and director, it is how I enjoy shooting a film. I thrive on the challenge of working within the confines of a limited number of 10-minute rolls. It’s my way of thinking through the process and mapping out the film, while not overshooting, which is a risk shooting digitally, especially in documentaries.
All that said, there were many obstacles, which looking back were almost comical. The infrastructure for Super 16mm was collapsing all around us. In the years we were shooting (2011-2015), Kodak filed for Chapter 11, film labs were closing everywhere leaving no lab in NYC whatsoever, the equipment houses had fewer and fewer people who knew about servicing motion picture film gear, and there were fewer and fewer camera assistants who had worked with film that were available on a moment’s notice.
Robert as director and Ferne as 2nd unit camera on LAND OF THE BLIND
What’s it like as a husband-wife filmmaking team? Do you have “creative differences”? Slam any doors? If so, how do you get over it? What’s the secret to a happy marriage?
ROBERT: As I mentioned, we met on a job so our entire relationship has been intertwined with our professional lives. It’s second nature by now. There is certainly creative friction but that’s part of what propels the work, and it’s in the DNA of our personal lives as well. I feel lucky to have a live-in collaborator of Ferne’s talents, which is almost like having a second brain when we’re working. It’s not for the faint of heart, though.
FERNE: Many slammed doors, or—our actual first attempt at letting off steam—one of us walking around the block! But to take Bob’s point a step further, we have a very similar sensibility but come at ideas and stories from such different parts of our brain that in the end our styles are very complementary, which allows us to bring so much more to the end product than we would be able to do alone.
What are you looking forward to doing in Munich?
ROBERT: We were last there in 2006 with LAND OF THE BLIND and had a great time, and great Q&As, and met loads of terrific people. It’s a wonderful city, and I’ve spent a fair amount of time there, even if most of it was in the late Eighties. The raft trip is always a highlight, but the whole festival is so warm and welcoming….we’re really thrilled to be coming back.
FERNE: I am very excited and anxious to see how the generous audiences in Munich will receive my film. After that, beer and pretzels!
Interview: Collin McMahon