A Talk with James Van Der Beek
A Talk with James Van Der Beek
Formosa Betrayed is a fairly small thriller that is trying to make a political statement and, for the most part, it works. It's reminiscent of conspiracy thrillers of the seventies. Nothing major happens, no explosions or firefights, but it comes down to one man trying to uncover corruption and something that is beyond his power. That's obviously a theme that populated many of those early thrillers. In this nice lengthy chat with Van Der Beek we delved into the film's visual style, how it harkens back to those old thrillers, and even two of his well known past works. Formosa Betrayed is now in theaters.
DVD Talk: While watching the film you can't help but to be a bit reminded of those old seventies conspiracy films like say, The Conversation.
James Van Der Beek: Yeah, I love those films. I love All the President's Men, The Parallax View, The Conversation, and Three Days of the Condor. I love those movies and Adam Kane and I talked a lot about those films while making this. Some directors will throw those films around a lot saying stuff like, "I want it to be like Three Days of the Condor, but shot like The Constant Gardner!" (laughs) You think that's an amazing idea and then when you get to set they're just not able to pull it off. It's just where they're wildly optimistic. Adam started out as a cameraman, worked as a cinematographer, and he also writes so he just really got it. He killed it.
DVD Talk: Does it help coming onboard having someone with Adam's visual experience? I'd imagine he'd give you a good sense on what the film would be like aesthetically.
James Van Der Beek: In this case, yeah. We were working with a somewhat limited budget. I mean, we had six million dollars which in Thailand goes a long way, but we were really making something that was like a 30 or 40 million dollar film. It does help to have someone with that level of expertise who not only appreciates the visual style, but also lets you contribute here and there. Our DP was also phenomenal. He's done a bunch of Spielberg movies and we just got a great look for not that much money.
DVD Talk: You could ague that maybe the low budget was a blessing because the film is very grounded where you never see anything big happen onscreen. There's never a big showdown, which you'd usually see in a film like this.
James Van Der Beek: (laughs) Yeah, there's no explosions in this. When you make a movie on this type of budget it's really got to be about the script, the story, and the characters.
DVD Talk: Even a few of the smaller aspects like when you're in a car and there's that use of green-screen...
James Van Der Beek: Yes, we did use a little bit of green-screen (laughs).
DVD Talk: Some people may say it comes off as cheesy, but it fits into that seventies type of style with how it looks a bit off, but also has a charm to it.
James Van Der Beek: (laughs) For sure.
DVD Talk: Now, was the idea of Kelly being a little ignorant to the whole situation or not-in-the-know an idea that appealed to you? He's very out of his element.
James Van Der Beek: I try to play as many ignorant characters as possible (laughs). Well, I'd say he's pretty sharp and they send him out there because he doesn't particularly blend in and they don't expect him to uncover anything. He does though. He follows a couple of leads and he discovers a conspiracy which he isn't able to do anything about.
DVD Talk: I mean he's ignorant in a way that he acts a bit blind at times. When you first see him get to that fancy hotel in Taiwan he doesn't seem to quite get that he's being suckered or duped.
James Van Der Beek: Oh, right. Well, he's a true believer at the beginning of the film. He believes in the U.S. Government, he believes that he's sent there to do what's right, and he's just not a conspiracy theorist. At first, when he goes over there he doesn't find any reason to think that all of this is a hoax. I don't think of him as dumb. He's just a true believer and he becomes very disillusioned by the reality of the situation.
DVD Talk: One of the aspect in particular that's surprising about Kelly is that he isn't the guy who can bring all this down and uncover everything. In most films, that's exactly what would happen.
James Van Der Beek: Right, it being inspired by true events sort of keeps us tethered to the reality of the situation. The reality is that this is ongoing. It's just like what it says at the end of the film: Taiwan is still not recognized as an independent nation by the United States. Agent Kelly, as much as we would've loved to have seen him go to Washington and change everything (laughs)... This is just a situation that is relevant and ongoing. I think that's what makes the film relevant.
DVD Talk: You would expect the ending to be a montage of Kelly going to congress and saving the day.
James Van Der Beek: (laughs) And then end the film with a close-up on a newspaper with a big smile on his face. That doesn't happen. Like I said, we had to stick to reality on the flick (laughs).
DVD Talk: He's really grounded. There's honestly nothing he could do.
James Van Der Beek: He's one man caught up in something that's way bigger than him. His only option is to quit.
DVD Talk: Jumping into narration, which is a tricky thing, you handle it quite well...
James Van Der Beek: Thank you. Yeah, narration is always tricky. At the beginning of my career I didn't know how to do it or what the trick was. When I did The Rules of Attraction there was some voice over in that movie and I insisted on doing it the day we shot the scenes. They told me they wanted to record it in ADR, but now that were in the moment and in the energy I just said we should record it right now. So I bugged the sound department to find a quiet closet somewhere so we could do. We ended up using every bit of it. I ended up not doing any of it in the studio for that movie. So, I think that's kind of the key. When you're in the studio the temptation is always try to make your voice deeper while doing narration (laughs). I think that treating it like a performance and doing the same type of preparation you do before acting is really important. Just staying true to the moment is the only way to make it happen. I'm definitely guilty of some not-so-great narration in the first part of my career (laughs).
DVD Talk: The narration is also only used during pivotal moments. It's not like in every scene you're spelling everything out.
James Van Der Beek: Yeah, that's always the danger of narration. It can become very much on-the-nose. I think in order for it to work it has to run a bit counter to what you're seeing onscreen. Then the great thing about narration is that you can always adjust it when you're in the studio. What works on page doesn't always workout when you're actually doing it. It's one of those things you can tinker with.
DVD Talk: Do you think the character Susan is sympathetic?
James Van Der Beek: You know, I looked at her from the standpoint of my character which is, "how can you do this? How can you stand for this?" Really, Susan is in the same position as Jake that there's really not that much she can do. She's not in a position of power. Her kicking and screaming is really not going to change the situation. It would only get her fired and they'd just replace her with someone else. So, as an audience member I can see her as someone who is sympathetic. From Jake's standpoint, he's a rare case. He's somebody who's willing to put up everything he's worked for and his entire life for a cause. He's ready to standup for something that's right even if it's not convenient. It's even downright dangerous for him on many levels. He's a pretty rare individual and Susan happens to be more of a self-preservation type of person. I hope she's somewhat sympathetic, but it's tough to be that when you're standing next to someone like Jake who's more than a boy scout (laughs). A boy scout who's willing to turn something big completely on its ear.
DVD Talk: One question that's always fun to ask is, you obviously talk a lot about the film and get asked a lot of the same questions, but is there anything about the film you haven't been asked about yet? And it's something you'd like to talk about?
James Van Der Beek: (laughs) Let me think... You know, actually the experience of shooting. We shot this in Thailand, it was a 90 percent non-English speaking crew, the crew was 90 percent Buddhist, and it was a really crazy situation. There's no substitute for shooting in an environment similar to the one in which your character is living in. Even though we were shooting in Bangkok for Taipei, it's much easier to shoot in Bangkok because it looks more like that era of Taipei does than current Taipei. Taipei is much more developed now. It really lends a sense of realism and legitimacy.
DVD Talk: There's two past films in particular of yours that I'd like to ask about if you don't mind?
James Van Der Beek: No, not at all.
DVD Talk: As I said earlier, I really like The Rules of Attraction. While it's obviously gained a cult following, it was pretty polarizing to critics when it initially came out. But there's one criticism in particular I never got: the characters aren't likable.
James Van Der Beek: Oh, thank god!
DVD Talk: And I don't think they're suppose to be.
James Van Der Beek: (laughs) God bless Roger Ebert, but yeah. I was baffled by that. I was like, really? That was never our goal to try to make Sean Bateman likable and cuddly. He's the brother to the American Psycho for god's sake. Yeah, I found that really strange too. I think part of it might've been a side-effect of a marketing campaign that was a little misguided. I remember seeing the trailers for that movie and thinking it wasn't the movie we made. They kind of marketed as American Pie with an edge, because American Pie had just worked. They thought that was the formula of how to sell a movie. I remember thinking people were really going to be disillusioned going in thinking that's what they're going to see. Those are decisions that fall out of the hands of the filmmakers most of the time. Yeah, that baffled me too. People really didn't get The Rules of Attraction. I think some people appreciated it more on the second viewing or with the more they thought about it. It is a dark movie and it can be brutal to watch. If you can get past the first twenty minutes you should be fine.
DVD Talk: It was just odd to find people asking, why are these people so hatable?
James Van Der Beek: (laughs) Well, not every character is likable. Bret Easton Ellis and I would laugh about that all the time.
DVD Talk: I think you brought up a good point that not enough people talk about: how expectations can really hurt a film for some people. James Van Der Beek: Yeah, expectations are always tricky. I understand getting people into the theater... A lot of people use the bait and switch, but I'm not sure if that's the best way to go.
DVD Talk: Another film that has a pretty big cult following of yours is of course Varsity Blues. What do you think of that film and how people look at it today?
James Van Der Beek: I have a real soft spot in my heart for that movie. I loved making it and I loved the experience of it. I'm really fond of the people I made it with. At the time, we were all really young and excited to be there. We all really cared about it and I remember off-set we always had a great time, but when we were on-set we were very focused on the work. It felt like we were making something important for that age. You know? Not in a pompous way, but we thought we were telling a story of a lot of kids dealing with teen angst, having to deal with authority figures, the hypocrisy of some coaches, and some of the craziness that takes in some sport's programs. I felt like we gave a voice to all that and we also just had a great time. The fact that other people responded to it, embraced it, and still watch it is just the greatest thing we could've asked for.
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