By Ali Moosavi.
We wanted to make a movie that combined art and crime because to be a good criminal, you have to be a great artist and also be incredibly intelligent: it’s an art form in itself.”–Jonathan Rhys Meyers
American Night could perhaps be described as a post-modern neo-noir pop art movie. It is very colourful, both in the use of colours and also colourful characters. Every scene is filled with vivid primary colours of red, blue and yellow. When the corrupt gallery owner John Kaplan (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and his flame Sarah (Paz Vega) make love, they put paint on each other. The mob boss Michael Rubino (Emile Hirsch) considers himself an artist, creating artwork by splashing paint on a canvass and embellishing it with holes created by shooting real bullets onto it. The plot revolves an expensive artwork (tellingly, Andy Warhol’s Pink Marilyn) and rival gangs vying with each other for its possession. American Night owes a great deal to Tarantino, from the style of opening credits and its non-linear format, to its division into separate parts. For good measure, Tarantino favourite Michael Madsen appears as Lord Morgan, one of the crime bosses. The film asks a few questions concerning real and forged art, the subjective value of art and how its ever-rising value has attracted the attention of organized crime. Jeremy Piven also appears as a stuntman and there is even a link to the French New Wave by having Jean Paul Belmondo’s granddaughter, Annabelle Belmondo in the film.
I talked to both its director Alessio Della Valle and its lead actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers.
The Italian Alessio Della Valle, whose feature film debut American Night is, has also made commercials, directed opera and exhibited his paintings. I talked to him about American Night.
One of the characters in the film says: “a mirror can show your face, but art can show your soul”. What are your own views about art?
Alessio Della Valle (ADV): I think art is an invisible chain that connects us to all the people that came before us, because art in the widest term includes architecture and buildings, books, music, sculpture, paintings, it’s all that we have left from mankind.
Do you think that art has become a business now and people look at paintings as an investment and commodity rather than art?
ADV: I think it needs to be both. I mean Michelangelo was working for the Pope. There has always been somebody working for somebody or you can spring off your own creativity like Van Gogh. In this film we use Pop Art because it was a reflection of what is iconic and what is pop culture. So I thought the Pink Marilyn was a really good reference for this because Marilyn Monroe was obviously an icon and then Andy Warhol took that photo and made it become something else. So we try to do the same thing in the film on different levels to take references from iconic pop cultural things and make them become something else.
Your film resembles a modern painting. There are so much primary colors in every scene. Did you treat the film as a painting and let the images tell the story rather than write a lot of dialogue?
ADV: I think so. I was composing the shots in a in a way that I guess would be similar to painting and I was framing in a certain way. As a film watcher myself, I really like films where characters don’t talk much and I reflected that when I was writing. I wanted to infer things rather than just tell what happened. So yes, I consciously chose to do brief dialogues. We meet the characters without necessary explaining what has happened before, just like in real life when you first meet someone you don’t really know what happened to them before. And yes, in terms of colors I told all the heads of department we’re just going to use primary colors, in the clothes, in the sets, in the lights, there’s only going to be blue, red and yellow, unless something happens in their life. So, when Sarah breaks up with John the whole environment is green, and when there is the car accident there’s Violet, so I only added other colors when some kind of chaos was happening.
How did the idea for the film originate?
ADV: I really like non-linear films that are about three different stories and have a circular structure. I love this way of storytelling, so I started from my personal love for this. I guess it all started from on a subconscious level from an experience that I had when I was seventeen. They had just built a church in Florence in Italy and I was asked to be an assistant to this really famous old painter who was about to begin painting a cycle of three frescoes in that church. So I spent many months on scaffoldings 30 meters high on the ceiling of church hammering the Sinopia of the Madonna of the Holy Virgin on the walls. So I had a very physical encounter with art at an early age, which I guess on a subconscious level stayed with me.
The nonlinear structure of film and many other references in it remind one of Tarantino films. Did that come about subconsciously or consciously?
ADV: One of the cinematographers for the film was Andzej Sekula, who has shot Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994) for Tarantino, so that might have had an impact. However, I didn’t specifically think of him. My references were more like French poems and paintings from the 18th century. I guess I really like things that are a little bit over the top. I just love them. So, I wanted to tell a story that was a little bit over the top and yet believable and obviously Tarantino does things that are sometimes a little bit over the top. So that might be a connection that when people see something a bit crazy they think oh, Tarantino! But it’s just in terms of approach, not specifically in terms of style or storytelling and I take it as a compliment!
You directed a lot of commercials before going into feature film. Do you think that was a good preparation for feature film making?
ADV: The answer is yes, but I also directed art documentaries and was lucky enough to shoot inside the Uffizi Gallery in Florence or the Galleria Borghese in Rome. I think that had more of an impact because one thing is to go in a museum and watch the Caravaggios and another is to spend weeks alone inside the museum with the Caravaggios. You see them for so many hours that you develop a relationship with his paintings and sculpture. I think that was something that informed what I do now more than anything else.
You’ve done commercials, you’ve directed opera, made animations and now directed a feature film. Are you still exploring what area you want to focus on?
ADV: I definitely want to stay in cinema and keep making feature films. But at the same time, it’s about expressing what you have inside, always with a lot of respect towards the medium and towards the audience. I like to do different things.
Although this is your first film, you managed to get a great cast.
ADV: We just sent the screenplay out and they responded. Luckily, I was blessed that the cast liked the screenplay and wanted to be a part of it. They all believed in what I wrote, and I was honored and it was great working with such incredibly talented cast. Personally I loved every part of it.
Did you have any rehearsals with the actors or everybody just dived into it?
ADV: That’s a good question because we shot most of the movie on a studio lot and I had a really cool idea. I thought instead of storyboarding, let’s shoot it since we have the sets. So I took some local theater actors and a small camera and I shot most of the scenes on the sets and we also edited it and put music to it. So I was able to pre-visualize the scenes before actually going there with the cast. That was really cool. It was like a visual storyboard, I don’t know what to call it because it doesn’t exist, we made it. I very much respect actors and I love working with them and I respect everybody’s technique. Some people prefer to rehearse, while others prefer to just go into it because they feel otherwise it can take the energy off. I respect both approaches and I’m fine with both of them.
Jonathan Rhys Meyers, who plays the art gallery owner, John Kaplan in American Night, is from Ireland. He came into prominence in Todd Haynes’s Velvet Goldmine (1998) and got his major break with Woody Allen’s Match Point (2005). Meyers has also worked extensively in TV, including playing the eponymous vampire in TV series Dracula (2013-2014), King Henry VIII in The Tudors (2007-2010) and Bishop Heahmund in The Vikings (2017-2019). Jonathan is also a singer-songwriter. This talent was also exploited by filmmakers, who as well as casting him as the glam rock superstar Brian Slade in Velvet Goldmine, had him play the King in the mini-series Elvis (2005), The Clash’s Joe Strummer in London Town (2016) and a singer-songwriter in August Rush (2007). JRM contributed two songs to the soundtrack of Velvet Goldmine and four songs to August Rush.
I talked to Jonathan Rhys Meyers about American Night, art, music and working with Woody Allen.
American Night is difficult to categorize into a specific genre. Perhaps we can call it a Pop Art Neo Noir. Was that one of the things that attracted you to it?
Jonathan Rhys Meyers (JRM): Yes, we wanted to make a movie that combined art and crime because to be a good criminal, you have to be a great artist and also be incredibly intelligent: it’s an art form in itself. My character John Kaplan, is a painter but he’s also a forger and to be a forger you have to take on very many aspects of the people that you’re forging. You have to get into their lives, get into their heads. If you want to forge Picasso well, you have to know who Picasso was. If you want to forge Andy Warhol’s Pink Marilyn, you have to go beyond the brushstrokes, beyond the correct paint, so you have to do an awful lot of research. You are like an archaeologist digging into who the artist is and then you can copy them beautifully. The thing is nobody knows what good art is until they’re told, because if we did know what good art was then our great great grandparents would have been buying van Goghs when they were sold for seven Guilders in Paris streets, not for 50-60 million dollars at Christie’s. Now if you’re a wealthy person and you buy a van Gogh for $50 million in Christie’s, the first thing you’re going to do is contact incredibly good forgers to forge it. Because the real painting is going to go into a safety deposit box as you don’t want to risk having some drunken billionaire to party and suddenly throw a glass of Beaujolais all over your painting while he’s too busy doing the Rumba!
Art has become such a valuable investment that inevitably it was going to bring organized crime and corruption into it.
JRM: Yes, the problem with art is that you can’t move it because it’s too well known and famous. In Ireland in the 1990s there was a man called Martin Cahill and they called him The General. He was a great criminal and he stole a lot of paintings from a country house in Ireland but one of them was a Vermeer. The problem is how do you get rid of a Vermeer? There’s only so many of them, there’s only two in private ownership and one is owned by the Queen of England and I think the other is owned by the King of Jordan. So if you start pushing around a Vermeer you’re going to get caught very quickly. Therefore you have to have a huge network to be able to move art and then when you move the art, those who buy it nefariously will have to keep that private just for themselves. They won’t be able to put it up in the living room of their $50 million mansion because somebody will walk in and go, is that the missing Vermeer? That’s a Dutch national treasure and suddenly you’ve got Interpol and the FBI wondering where you got this Vermeer from. And of course they’re going to put you under pressure and then you’re going to have to give away your contacts. So even though it brings the criminal world into, it it’s very hard to move. That’s where the genius comes in. You have to be able to sell the forgery, then have it discovered as a forgery, while the real painting is in a vault somewhere in Switzerland. So the person who bought it can actually take the painting, bring it to their private house, and put it in a locked room and just sit back with a glass of wine and laugh at your beautiful painting, like Pierce Brosnan did in the Thomas Crown Affair remake. He gets to gobble it up, he gets to see every stroke, he gets to smell the paint. So this is how it works. But also if you’ve ever been involved in the art world in New York, it’s a mafia onto itself. I mean who decides what’s good art? It’s a matter of taste.
Deciding on what’s good art is a very subjective thing. It’s very difficult to quantify the worth of an art artwork.
JRM: Time quantifies it. So if I have an original William Turner of some of the scenes from Margate, it also has the time, the authenticity and the history behind it. If I forged a William two days ago, it has no history and has no time to settle in the world. It hasn’t been given the information that was given to it by the world, It hasn’t had the eyes upon it that an original William Turner would have had.
When Andy Warhol did the Campbell’s tomato soup, probably many people at that time thought what the hell is this? How can you call this art? And as you say time changes everything.
JRM: I don’t even think Andy Warhol really thought of it as art. He thought of it as a reflection of Americans’ consumerism, their obsession with having, having, having. Going to work every day so they can buy the cars, they can buy the house, they can buy the watch, they can be in a good neighborhood. Warhol was reflecting the consumerism of the United States. He was also a visionary, because he said that everybody at some point will have 15 minutes of fame; well obviously the Internet is here and everybody does have their 15 minutes of fame. So in some way he was the ugly prophet!
American Night somehow reminded me of Velvet Goldmine which has music as its art form. When you look at some of the music of that era, people thought oh what is this, it’s not really music and with time they have become classics. Do you see a parallel between music and painting?
JRM: Yes sure, at the time it was very shocking. I think the whole Glam Rock era, David Bowie, Marc Bolan, Brian Eno, Bryan Ferry and all of them, what they were doing was an antithesis to the post war England that was still full of drab, burned out and broken buildings. They had just been out of the war, the country was bankrupt and politics was all over the place. So they decided to forget about this and bring some bombastic color into it. For the first time you start seeing men dressed up in makeup and high heels and stuff like that. People were thinking that these people are weirdos but the kids loved it because it was the antithesis to the boring black suit, let’s all listen to Lawrence Welk and the bullshit that was going on by the older generation that had fought the war. Maybe sometimes they took it too far. I do know that it took a lot of convincing to get Mick Ronson who was Bowie’s incredible electric guitar player, into some spangly shorts and make up. Mick was like, David I’m not sure I like looking like this. I’m a Yorkshire man, I go home and someone’s gonna take the hair off my head! But the reality is when he went out on stage with all the makeup, women loved it. They were like oh my god we want this so badly. So his eyebrows were raised and he said I might get the shit kick out of me but I’m gonna have a real good time before that happens! And of course Bowie had lots of different ideas. He was a chameleon and wanted to interchange his personality as much as he could. He wanted to get away from David Jones because that was so boring. He wanted to get out there and he created Ziggy Stardust who was the ultimate alien and then he had to kill him. It is important, you have to kill the icon for them to be an icon. Then he went away to Berlin and he created The Thin White Duke, another element of his personality. Then he started working with Japanese designers and stuff like that. He was a very clever man, an extraordinary person with extraordinary clever ideas about what pop culture really is. Pop culture is enjoyed for a certain period of time. It’s got a fiscal oxygen. So it works until it doesn’t work and when it doesn’t work you have to be able to change. You have to be adaptable to something else and so then you suddenly have the Bowie baggy pants in the 1983 Station to Station era. It’s the same with art. Artists have to change. Sometimes they have to do something so outrageous, like Damien Hirst’s $50 million fucking diamond skull. it’s outrageous, $50 million worth of diamonds and I’m going to make a skull. I better not make a bloody mistake. Even a lot of people would look at Mark Rothko paintings and say what’s in it? I can understand why people would be attracted to Mark Rothko, while other people would go, wow it just seems like squares on a fucking canvas to me. It was like art as Dada, as a kind of an anti-art extension of the existentialism movement. Is it art? is it not art? it’s up to you to decide. They decided it was great art and so he became a very famous artist. And same with Jackson Pollock, but nobody could do it quite like Jackson Pollock. This was not something that he just went and sprayed the paint all over the place and said here, this is my art. This took an awful lot of time, an awful lot of thoughts, and of course it also added into Jackson’s depression which sort of spilled over onto the canvas. So then the canvas became a reflection of what was going on in Jackson pollock’s mind at the time.
In Woody Allen’s memoirs (Apropos of Nothing, 2020), he is extremely flattering about you. Have you read it?
JRM: No, but it was funny on the last night of shooting he came up to me and he gave me a book from 1881 which is a collection of Byron’s works that he had bought in Florence the weekend before and he wrote a note on the inside of it saying, “you are the ultimate Byronic hero”, adding this poetic dramatic phrase, “but you have the weight of the world upon your shoulders”. And he said it was one of the high points of his career to work with me and I was very flattered by that because it was one of the high points of my career to work with him. I will have to tell you a story. I was doing a scene and Woody doesn’t use a monitor and I never look at the monitor. It’s not my job to look at the monitor, it’s my job to stay in the character. But Woody doesn’t use a monitor, he stands next to the camera like directors used to do. He wants to see if it works in the room. But Woody can’t hear out of his left ear. So one day I’m doing this scene and Woody is standing next to the camera but with his left ear to me. So I know he cannot hear me properly and I do this scene and then as soon as we finish the scene, he says (doing a pitch perfect imitation of Woody’s voice) “That’s wonderful, I love it, that’s great”. And I was like, Woody you can’t hear it and you’re not seeing it because you’re looking at the camera! There was one scene with Scarlett Johansson that we did at the start of the film and she had just flown in from Los Angeles. We did our first thing together in the bar and she knocked it out of the park. Woody carried that scene around in his head for the entire two months of shooting and some days we would shoot so well during the day that we’d be wrapped by four o’clock in the afternoon and he would come up to me and say, “hey Johnny you wanna try that scene again?” So I ended up shooting that scene eight times in different locations and ended up using the first take. It was a great pleasure to be able to work with him. He’s a great artist I’m sorry that he has faced so many troubles in his personal life. But that is the nature of being an artist.
This is part of what Woody has written about you: “his Irish voice was so beautiful it made me sound like I was a writer and not just any writer. I’m talking Dylan Thomas or James Joyce.”
JRM: Wow, that’s pretty flattering. I hope I have a better ending than Dylan Thomas. I don’t think I’m going to end up in the White Horse Tavern in New York drinking eighteen whiskeys at the same time and dropping down. I think I’d rather the Joycean thing but without thinking about my mother’s underwear! It’s funny even when I was in school and I talked to other people and said have you read any James Joyce? They said yeah, well I’ve been reading Ulysses. The mistake that people make with Ulysses is this: it isn’t the first book you read, it’s the last book you read. Because he is so knowledgeable about different art forms that he spans the whole art world, the whole literature world. At one moment you’re in a sort of Vaudeville play, the next minute you’re reading Aeschylus, you’re reading Euripides, and then he changes it again and suddenly you’re in a surreal romantic drama, then you’re in an existential film and existential chapter of the book. So I think that’s the mistake that people make with Ulysses and they can’t get through it. Read everything else beforehand and then you can understand what it means.
Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine (Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).