This is the first part of a two part interview
Sara Voorhees is a syndicated film critic with vast experience and knowledge about movies. So it's probably no surprise that The Lumiere Affair: A Novel of Cannes, her first novel, has a character who is a movie critic.
The protagonist, Natalia Conway, has quit her job as a film critic to try to write more meaningful stories. But money gets too tight to mention and her old boss is begging her to come back to cover the Cannes Film Festival.
The book is engaging and engrossing and I'll say more about the book in the second part of the interview, which will be published about one week from today. The book comes out May 8th.
Scott Butki: How did you come to write this book?
Sara Voorhees: A few years ago, after an interview with Tom Hanks, when the cameras were off, he told me what he’d learned over the years about the interview process. He said that my job was to get him to tell me things he’d never told anyone before; his job was to make me feel like I’d done it. He was dead right.
That was when I decided to write about the relationship between the press and celebrities. It’s an uneasy symbiosis – there’s an artifice to all celebrity interviews that is awkward, and both the press and the celebrities feel it, but it’s a win-win situation for everyone involved, so it’s here to stay. And we’re living in the most celebrity-saturated culture in history – who doesn’t want to hear Halle Berry talk about how giraffes sweat at the end of their noses? I’m a big supporter of Media Literacy. I believe the more we know about what’s happening behind the curtains in the media, the better off we are.
Do you plan to write other novels?
Absolutely. I’m working on a new one that has nothing to do with movies. But I don’t think Nattie’s story is finished. I’d like to tell that one.
How are you different from the protagonist?
I did not grow up motherless, as Nattie did. I was raised by a wonderful, loving mother, and that relationship has given me a degree of confidence and courage that Nattie doesn’t have. She is so afraid of people, she’s spent her whole life hiding from relationships with them. I’m crazy about people.
How are you similar?
I’m a journalist, and I’m part of the publicity machine that Nattie is drawn to and yet confounded by. I find comfort and meaning in movies, as she does. We’re both pretty thin-skinned, but I bounce right back. She doesn’t.
Your bio says you interviewed "every major Hollywood celebrity."
That sounds pretty grandiose, doesn’t it? I never talked to Jack Nicholson.
What was the worst celebrity interview you ever did?
It’s possible to have bad interviews with your favorite actors, but that doesn’t necessarily make them terrible interviews, if you follow my logic. For example, Robert de Niro is one of the most brilliant actors in the business, but he’s also one of the shyest, and he doesn’t subscribe to Tom Hanks’ interview mission statement. So you’re never going to get a chatty little conversation with him, but it doesn’t diminish the value of the interview. In the book, Nattie mentions that Tommy Lee Jones is the meanest interview there is, and she’s right. It’s comforting to know that almost everyone agrees on that. The only actor who ever made me cry was Alexander Gudonov.
What did Alexander say that made you cry?
Alexander Godunov (may he rest in peace) was doing his first movie junket, for Die Hard, when I interviewed him in 1988. He was one of those people (I suspect) whose level of discomfort was directly proportional to his Grouchiness Quotient, and everything I asked made him grouchier still – I asked if he missed dancing ("if I missed dancing, I would be dancing"). And how he celebrated when he became a U.S. citizen ("Private"), even though I knew he'd had a hamburger stuffed with caviar. I should have had the good sense to thank him and get out while I was still in one piece, but I hammered on with a question about positive memories of the Soviet Union. "I don' understan." I repeated the question, more slowly. "I don' understan." And then… because I had apparently lost my mind, I leaned in to him as if he were deaf and asked him the same stupid question a third time. He leaned into me with his nose an inch from mine and said, "I DON' UNDERSTAN." I waited until I was alone in the hall before I started to cry.
What is it about Tommy Lee Jones that makes him unpopular among the press?
I am being charitable when I explain Tommy Lee Jones' GQ as having the same origin as Godunov's. More likely, he loathes the junket process and chooses to demonstrate his disdain by correcting and demeaning and arguing with journalists at every opportunity. Part of the pretense of the interview scene is that actor and press are chatting amiably in someone's living room. TLJ refuses to play that game, which would earn him a degree of respect if it weren't both of our jobs to be there. But he's a big enough star – he won an Oscar after all. He could probably refuse. So why does he participate in the process? A friend of mine once asked Wilford Brimley at a Cocoon junket why he was there, because he was being so uncooperative, and he said, "Now that you mention it, I don't know," and stood up and walked out of the hotel.
What was the best interview, and I'll let you choose how to define best?
Back to Tom Hanks on this one. Because of the nature of the interview dynamic, the best are usually the actors and directors who are either devilishly smart or have a natural charisma – and most of them do, which is what makes them instantly appealing to audiences. They are the ones who leave you feeling you’ve had a good interview. But even they have to be willing to drop their guard or turn on their personalities in order to create the illusion that they’re dropping their guard. Some of the “best” interviews I’d have had have been with directors — Mike Nichols, Rob Reiner, Martin Scorsese — or actors, like Robin Williams, who are so entertaining you just want to take them home with you. Then there are people you admire, like Meryl Streep or Edward Norton. You feel you should kneel in their presence. Occasionally you have an unaccountably fantastic interview with someone no one can pull anything out of, and when it’s over, your colleagues are scratching their heads, wondering what in the world they can use from their interviews, and you say, “Oh really? He told me all about his first sexual encounter.”
Did you have any control over what films you had to review?
For the most part, the choice of movies to review on any given Friday is dictated by what is opening that week. If The Hills Have Eyes is the new movie, you pretty much have to see it and review it. Occasionally you have several movies to choose from, and you make the wrong choice. When Snow White had her 50th anniversary, for example, I reviewed a magnificent Argentine film called Man Facing Southeast instead. I thought my news director was going to fire me on the spot.
What was the worst film you had to review?
No one sets out to make a bad movie, but the kind of movies I put in that category are movies that pretend to be something they’re not. I’m in the minority on this, but I think a movie like Lord of War is a good example – a well-crafted, brilliantly acted movie that was presented as a hilarious satire. The hero is small-minded, selfish, cruel, reprehensible, the movie is filled with unspeakable acts against children and women, and guns are a kind of macho Holy Grail. Even if you do find it merely hilarious, it’s in your head forever. The moving image always says “yes.”
What was the meanest thing you ever wrote in a review?
With the exception of movies that make me angry, I’m notorious for not being mean enough, at least on television. It’s hard for a woman to say something mean on television and not be perceived as bitchy. Marlo Thomas was right when she said that a man has to invade a small country before he’s considered ruthless. All a woman has to do is put you on hold.
What is the Cannes Film Festival — featured in this book — really like?
A friend of mine says that describing some things — a person, for instance, or the Cannes Film Festival — is like taking one photograph of the Grand Canyon and saying, “This is what it’s like.” The Cannes experience, for a journalist, is frenetic and frustrating and infuriating – so many movies, so many celebrities, so many deadlines, so little sleep. At the same time, you’re on the most spectacular stretch of beachfront property in the world, and there are hundreds of movies being screened and bought and sold, all within a three mile radius of where you’re standing. There is always the chance of stumbling upon a movie that will change the way you see the world, or entertain you, or inspire you to become a painter, so you forget the fight you had with your editor.
What is the biggest misconception about film critics?
That they have vast influence on the public’s movie choices. Woody Allen said that when it comes to movies the audience is always right. That was certainly the case in Pirates of the Caribbean, which was almost universally panned by critics, but it made nearly $400 million in the U.S. alone and spawned two sequels. Film critics are a great source of information about movies, but moviegoers have a mind of their own.
What question would you most like me to ask you?
There is one question I’d like you to answer: Is Halle Berry right? Do giraffe’s sweat at the end of their noses? I googled it after our interview and I can’t find the answer.
Maybe I'll pose your giraffe question to Yahoo! Answers and we can post a link to the response when we publish the interview. I may make you explain why she was talking about giraffes in the first place.
I did an interview with Halle Berry a few weeks ago, and we were talking about eating green chile. She said she liked it hot – the hotter the better. I said, "So hot it makes your forehead sweat?" and she said, "No, I sweat at the end of my nose, like a giraffe." She was quite convincing, that giraffes sweat at the end of their noses. If you could set your resources on this question, and find out if they actually do, I'll write a children's book about it.
Note: I have posed the question but as yet the answers are inadequate.