“The unknown excites me. A lot of people it doesn’t,” says Kim Basinger, explaining how she ended up in Denmark for her latest film “The 11th Hour,” giving herself over completely to a would-be mother’s descent into madness in a world of junkies, thieves and black market baby dealers, not to mention the circus dwarf (Jordan Prentice) she’s forced to place her trust in if she’s to accomplish her longheld dream of having a child. “Whatever comes up, it’s got to excite me and I have to somewhat fear it because I don’t know where I’m going with it.”
For whatever reason, Basinger is not known for her fearlessness, perhaps because for all those years that she was held up as a peerless beauty, little was asked of her than to be the sex bomb. However, the ferocity that long lurked underneath the surface, the feeling of danger that only enhanced her allure, has manifested itself in interesting ways since she won an Oscar for “L.A. Confidential,” which, in playing the world-weary femme fatale Lynn Bracken, was the first real subversion of the screen persona she often inhabited. She has followed it up by throwing caution to the wind with a series of turns without vanity in such films as “The Door in the Floor,” “The Burning Plain” and “While She Was Out” that weren’t mere detours from what seemed to be expected from her, but full-on excursions that not only pushed her own limits, but what could be done with the medium.
Which explains why Anders Morgenthaler, a director best known for his provocative 2006 animated revenge drama “Princess,” wasn’t so crazy after all to begin writing “The 11th Hour” (known to festival audiences as “I Am Here”) specifically for the actress, despite having any connection to her or the Hollywood system that often guards against such madmen from entering its gates. In Basinger, Morgenthaler found a kindred spirit to star as Maria, whose plight as a woman desperate to fulfill her desire to be a mother is made all the more devastating because of the fact she’s played someone who’s long been defined by stoicism, a statuesque figure that’s reduced to rubble over the course of the film, elegantly portrayed in a visually and sonically fragmented style by cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen and recent Oscar-winning composer Jóhann Jóhannsson.
Recently in Los Angeles, the two reunited to tell war stories from the emotionally draining shoot, using their wits to craft such a raw character study and pull off the film’s evocative opening sequence from inside the womb, as well as the sense of adventure that brought them together.
Kim Basinger: Oh, dear. [laughs] He’d written this little paragraph, and God, it seems like this journey has been going on for 10 years. It’ll be that soon.
Anders Morgenthaler: We started it six years ago, or more?
Kim Basinger: Yes, more, but I remember when I was brought this material, I saw “Princess.” And you search for really unique material, and I must say this was quite unique material, but initially, when I saw “Princess,” there was such beautiful imagery. I loved her. I loved him. I loved all the drawings. I must have watched it maybe four times. I have shown so many people that movie since, and I only have one copy.
Anders Morgenthaler: Yeah, yeah, you should have more.
Kim Basinger: But you know what? I showed everybody what’s on YouTube, just because I wanted them to see the little girl, Princess, and all the beauty. I said, “I don’t know who’s doing this, but he’s just got that mind that I’m drawn to.” That’s initially what led me there. I had no idea where this journey was going. Great character, but I was not even going there yet. I had to connect with him first and here was this guy Anders, thousands and thousands of miles away and I hate the phrase “out of the box” but this guy lives out of the box – not just thinks, but lives. He was such a dichotomy of so many [things] – he is a comedian and a children’s author. It just fascinated me.
Anders Morgenthaler: When I got the idea for the movie, I wanted an actress that could embody that feel of being perfect and having everything – being one of the most beautiful women in the world and someone who could be sensible and still be strong. Kim can also do these roles where she’s very fragile. She’s very vulnerable and still you sense this super strong core within the character she’s playing, so I sat down and started writing a movie for Kim Basinger. People were like, “yeah, right.” And I’d say, “Yeah, I’m going to do it no matter if I can get in touch with her or not.” Then by some super weird chance-
Kim Basinger: This was meant to be made. It fell apart so many times, just financing and getting [other] things together. People that were relentless had to match their minds together. Here I was in America, and I didn’t know what was going on in Denmark, but I honestly felt like I was walking like this [dragging her foot as if it was bound by a chain], my leg had been roped by the ankle. And I said, “I’m not doing [dropping this].”
Anders Morgenthaler: The movie had a real struggle to be financed. At some point, we were all set up at Hamburg, and two days before Kim was supposed to land, the financing fell through. So we needed to reboot. [Kim and I] had met once in a café in LA and we talked on the phone, but we needed to connect [because it’s a complex] character and a super low-budget shoot. So I needed Kim to totally trust me. I said to her, “If you don’t trust me completely, this will fall through. We won’t get that sensibility out of the characters.” And as [Kim] explained many times really eloquently, on many movies, it’s hard to trust anybody.
Kim Basinger: It is. You have to get in sync and start skating together. We sort of formed our own language – Anders and Sturla [Brandth Grøvlen, the cinematographer], the three of us were just in it, and of course, Jordan [Prentice], but when he speaks, he’d gone into this woman’s mind and in order to do that he had to enter one’s aura. You don’t know how that’s gonna feel. For me, it felt like they’re inside the epidermis and they’re just going deeper and deeper and deeper and deeper, so when your words are spoken, they are speaking it as well. We all went on this journey, and it’s like “Alice in Wonderland,” down the rabbit hole. It just gets darker and darker. It’s like really having to go through an inferno to find the light.
If you were working on this six or seven years ago, I know that was around the time of “While She Was Out,” which also went to some really dark places. Do these characters find you or do you seek them out?
Kim Basinger: Honestly, this one did seek me out, but this was meant to be made. And I’m always drawn to these characters. Lars von Trier did “Breaking the Waves” and Emily Watson’s character, she’s not broken. You don’t fix her. She’s just on a journey. She doesn’t know where the journey is going to lead her, but she knows the truth and everybody else is slapping her away. And I’m very, very drawn to that. As far as “While She Was Out,” my God, that was a journey. That was a journey of mud up to here [Basinger brings her hand up to her waist], shooting nights. That was a frightmare. But that’s a different kind of darkness. [“The 11th Hour”] is you having to hold hands with your soul and go down as it pulls you down to be able to receive light.
Anders Morgenthaler: I think the character in “11th Hour” is much more in tune with the one from “The Door in the Floor.”
Kim Basinger: I agree. The beginning of that film, with her boys, is the only time that you got to see her alive as the character. She was dead throughout the movie. She had gone with them, and was trying to stay physically alive in this world.
Anders Morgenthaler: And this character [in “The 11th Hour”] is deciding to die. She says, “Okay, I have all of this, but I’m willing to die for this.” My idea was that a woman was willing to say to nature, “Listen, I want this [baby] 100 percent.” If you don’t want to grab it, I will then, as well, be dead.” That’s why [the ending is the way it is].
It’s interesting that Kim mentions the collaboration with the cinematographer because the way the character is framed really becomes part of her makeup – you never see her whole, but often from the side or the back. Did you talk about that style together?
Kim Basinger: Anders really had wonderful people around him and what I love about this is it was all done in an elementary fashion. Anders can only tell you how they did all those graphics for the babies [where they] took these beautiful shots and it’s not expensive CGI – it was all done like it was cooked in the kitchen, like we were friends just doing this. Honestly, we had to be that close in the partnership we had. Anders would be in the backseat of a car curled up in a fetus position, with his little monitor looking and Strola is tapping him with one hand and then he’s on top of me, going down my throat [with the camera]. I mean, I’m going, “Fuck off, boys.” [laughs]
Anders Morgenthaler: Yeah, but Kim allows you, as the creative team, to be super close and to be very, very …
Kim Basinger: Invasive.
Anders Morgenthaler: Extremely invasive. We didn’t plan [shots] out. We planned it so I would say to Kim, “I don’t know where you’re going to stand…” because it depends on where’s the light good – where is the light emphasizing anything? Where does the background play a well-tuned composition? We didn’t know, and I’ve tried tons of cinematographers. Generally, either [they’re] going into the business because they like techniques or they’re drawn to telling stories. Unfortunately, some can do super nice pictures but can be heartless and without feelings, and some can tell stories but are, sorry, crap artists, right? So our [cinematographer] came from still photography, and the minute I saw his work, I said, “Okay. He doesn’t care about techniques, but he really, really has something fantastic aesthetic-wise.”
So I told him, “Okay. You want to shoot a movie with Kim Basinger? You can bring one lamp. And you can only have three lenses. We will do this with the guide-pulling focus and you just have to follow what kind of state we’re in.” Another thing that is really important – and this is very technical – usually when you shoot movies you shoot it with a C-lock, so it’s open for [color] grading later. This is a typical, digital thing. What I insisted on was that we shoot it with the finished look. The settings in the camera [would be the final look] and it’s done to keep the expenses down and to not have too many choices. That’s why when Kim says we’re super invasive is that we are here [Anders places his hand close to Kim’s face] all of the time. We invented [shots] all the time where the light is good, where the feeling is and where the connection to the character is.
To give you an example of [how] we did it as a group as Kim describes, [the scene at the beginning of the film] inside the womb with the fetus could have been a super expensive CGI, but we didn’t have money for that, so what we did was we took a glass vase and we put rubber fetus that we dropped into this can and I was holding it with a string around a chopstick, then we shot it with a macro lens. We had two bike lights on each side of this. It was only me and Strola [the cinematographer].
Kim Basinger: It was so cool.
Anders Morgenthaler: We took a tea bag, and we found out that the best tea bag was mango because it has a lot of fragments in it. When you put that into the water, and you spin it a little slow, it looks like you’re inside this womb where all these bubbles would appear that would never have been there if you’d done CGI. I knew if I put the right sounds on this, this would end up looking amazing, and [I’m happy] to point out what you’re seeing and what you’re experiencing as a beautiful movie is people inventing out of creativity because they don’t have any money.
Kim Basinger: Free association is interesting. When you’d submerge yourself in the scene and it was going a little different way, you didn’t neglect it. Nobody had such grips on their thought that they kept them, we just put our hands behind our back and said, “Let’s just go with what’s in the air.” And I loved that way of shooting. It was fascinating because many actors would never go there. They want to know. They want to come in, they want to memorize, and there are some people who really like to improvise, but this was way over improvising. This was creating. This was creating atmosphere and everything right there on the spot. Everybody was so joined at the hip on this movie because we were shooting on a shoestring budget and we were all in it for that one purpose … to make the movie that we hopefully made here. That’s the only reason. Nobody had any other agenda. Not a lot of ego around.
Anders Morgenthaler: That also shows how much trust Kim gave me on the movie. Normally you’re being judged on what’s on the paper. How do you communicate what’s on paper? But I said to Kim, “You may prepare what’s on paper, but you have to be willing to just go with what I say and if you feel something, bring it in.” Being an actor is really hard, and being an actor that is willing to fail in front of the camera…
Kim Basinger: You have to be willing to fail.
Anders Morgenthaler: This is also super-exhausting for Kim as an actor because we did 10- to 20-minute takes, with the camera just following her around, [and I’d yell] “Redo, redo. Go this direction, do this,” and then suddenly I’d shock you [by] saying, “Hey, now you’re angry and …” And Kim would follow up…
Kim Basinger: [smiles] “Batty, go nuts!”
Anders Morgenthaler: She did fantastically.
Kim Basinger: It was fun to keep up with all of it. It was a wild ride.
“The 11th Hour” opens on June 12th in Los Angeles and New York. It is also available on VOD.