Famke Janssen first came to audiences' attention as bond girl "Xenia Onatopp" in GoldenEye and then as Jean Grey in X-Men. She'll reprise her role as Liam Neeson's wife in Taken 2 this fall and star as Muriel the witch in Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunter next year. In her directorial debut Bringing Up Bobby, she tells the story of a Ukrainian grifter trying to give her son a better life in America. The film stars Milla Jovovich as Bobby's mother, Olive, in her most poignant role yet. She's a con-artist with a heart of gold who has to make some serious choices and sacrifices for her son. Bringing Up Bobby calls to mind Peter Bogdanovich's Paper Moon as the mother and son pair hustle the good people of Oklahoma. Janssen shares her thoughts on the compelling film and the long road to bringing Bobby to life.
Nicki Richesin: I found Bringing Up Bobby a very charming and inspiring film. Bobby's mother Olive makes a complete transformation by the end of the movie. How did you first envision her journey from con-artist to someone trying to make a better life for herself on the straight and narrow?
Famke Janssen: Thank you very much for the lovely compliment. My boyfriend, Cole Frates, is from Oklahoma and after my first visit there to meet his family, I was struck by how much Oklahoma reminded me of some of my favorite movies from the 1930s and 1970s. I also felt remarkably more foreign than I had in years. As a European I had fit in almost seamlessly in New York for the last 25 years, but in Oklahoma I stood out like a sore thumb. We then started talking about the differences between America and Europe and how much films had played a role in my perception of the United States. Out of this conversation grew the idea of Bringing Up Bobby. The story of a foreigner who comes to America to live out her very skewed version of the American Dream: one that is inspired by films rather than by reality. Olive imagines herself to be Bonnie from Bonnie and Clyde or another fictional character in a movie, but life catches up (as it did for Bonnie).
NR: Throughout the film and Olive's wild plans, she plots to build a better future for Bobby. Her goal as she says is "to do everything for Bobby." Do you think in the end she realized her goal by finding a stable and wealthy home for her son?
FJ: The story is set up specifically to show from the beginning that there is a big discrepancy between Olive's ideas about what is best for Bobby and the reality of that. She truly believes that she is giving him better opportunities than she ever had growing up in the Ukraine, but as an audience member you realize from the opening scene that raising a child the way she does is going to have terrible repercussions. In essence it's like watching a time bomb, waiting for it to go off. That idea was very much inspired by movies like Bonnie and Clyde, Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, Thelma and Louise, etc. I love stories about two people who are doing illegal things, who we really enjoy watching despite the fact that we know they are doomed in some way. So at the end of the story, Olive's realization is that she is incapable, at the moment, to provide a stable home for Bobby. By leaving him with the rich couple she doesn't fulfill her goal, however, to give Bobby what he really needs. By no means did I want to suggest that money solves problems. It's a very challenging ending in that sense -- one that hopefully would raise questions about what is really the best decision to make. I assume people would have very different opinions about that. Olive loves her son, but she needs to grow up. Like many people she is flawed and immature. She is unable to face herself, and her reality, until the end of the film. The major step is her realization of that. The notion that if she stays, she will ruin her son's chances in life. She makes a humongous sacrifice by leaving. What follows next, we won't know. I set it up with hope for the future though.
NR: There's a great deal of humor and poking fun at religious zealots in small town America. It must have been fun writing the dialogue for these particular scenes. Why did you decide to have Olive quote biblical passages?
FJ: The humor was inspired by some of my favorite movies from the 1930s. I know it gets broad at times, but that is intentional and very much my sensibility, what I think is funny. A line like, "but do you raise the American flag?" some guy in Oklahoma actually said to me when he heard I was a foreigner. The film does not intend to poke fun at religion in general, however. Olive, as you said, quotes from the Bible. She, herself, comes from a religious background. During my first visit, I was really struck by how deeply religious many Oklahomans are. It is a very conservative state and as somebody who grew up in a very liberal country, it was jarring to me at first. I felt I had to censor myself in ways I never had to in the past. But once I started spending more time in Oklahoma, I realized that it is not a simple place by any stretch of the imagination, nor are the people simplistic who live there. I wanted to make that Olive's journey to a certain extent. We see Oklahoma through her eyes. She mistakenly confuses kindness and openness with simplicity and stupidity. She pokes fun at people, she manipulates them, she underestimates the complexity of the place she is in and the people she is dealing with. It is not until after her arrest that she starts realizing what is at stake, what she is really dealing with. But writing the dialogue for the funnier scenes was definitely enjoyable, especially doing it with Rory Cochrane playing Walt in mind. Rory and I have been friends since our first movie 20 years ago. I wrote the part of Walt for him.
NR: I especially appreciated the fashion -- Olive looks remarkably like an old movie star heroine from the 30s or even a bit like Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde. How distinct was your artistic vision for the film when you first began filming in terms of music, setting, and costume design?
FJ: Doesn't Milla look amazing? I had her watch many different movies to understand who her heroines were. And because Olive is so much inspired by films and movie stars (especially from the 1930s) Hala Bahmet, my amazing costume designer, and I worked on a look that had different eras as inspirations, but yet was never meant to make her look as though she was in a period movie. Timeless is what I was going for in general, for the movie as a whole. I had a very specific artistic vision for the film on every front. That was one of the positives things that came out of having to wait years to get to make the movie off the ground. Of course being the writer made me think through all of these details all along. I had made a director's book with photographs of Eggleston, Diane Arbus, Sally Mann, Robert Frank, etc. that functioned as a guide for every department. I had also made a digital version of it with "Proud Mary" playing over it. The fact that we got Milla Jovovich to record "Proud Mary" for us in Ukrainian for the opening credits is not only a testament to her, but also one of those beautiful moments when your vision becomes a reality. My editor, Job Terburg, and our music supervisor, Chad Brown, and I wanted to play around with Americana music on the one hand and Russian/Ukrainian music on the other. The only place where the two separate worlds of music get married in a way, is over the opening credits with Milla singing "Proud Mary" in Ukrainian and over the closing credits when the Flaming Lips sing "Amazing Grace" phonetically in Ukrainian. I still can't believe they actually agreed to do it! The songs are amazing. They are amazing.
NR: What was the most challenging part of making Bringing Up Bobby?
FJ: Oh, where to begin? There were so many challenges! Getting the film off the ground during an economic recession and taking off three years from acting to get the film made were definitely high on the list. The wonderful thing is that film is a collaboration. I could never have done, or survived, any of this without the help of all the amazing people who were part of the process. My producing partner, Sofia Sondervan, was instrumental in helping to get the film made. Cole and his mom helped tremendously. Dina Goldman, the production designer, Guido Van Gennep, the DP, my editor, Job Terburg, etc. were all amazing. We had a great team and I am extremely grateful for the experience. It was the biggest learning curve of my life.
NR: Your film reminded me a bit of Peter Bogdanovich's Paper Moon. Were you influenced at all by his movie or any others when you first began writing the script?
FJ: Thank you! I love that movie, and him. The Last Picture Show was actually one of my inspirations for specific shots and looks that we went for. There were many, many films that functioned as inspirations for Bringing Up Bobby. In addition to the movies I mentioned before, I would add Harold and Maude, Murmur of The Heart, Diva, Paris/Texas, The Awful Truth, Gone With The Wind and I can go on and on. Mainly movies from the 1930s and 1970s. Film has played such a big part in my life, in my impressions of the United States. I still feel like I live in a Sidney Lumet movie when I walk around NYC.
NR: The relationship between the mother (Olive) and her son (Bobby) is incredibly close and sweet. She has committed her life in a sense to ensuring he has a bright future as "a doctor, lawyer, or even president of the United States." As a Dutch immigrant to the U.S., how much have you invested in this idea of the American dream?
FJ: I am a perfect example of the American Dream. Ironically I didn't come to the United States initially pursuing the Dream. I came here as a model and ended up falling in love with New York and decided to stay. But because of my life in America, I have dared to dream bigger, take risks that I otherwise might never have taken, just generally been bolder in my choices. And that is part of the American Dream. It is an amazing country. It's complicated and it can be an extremely tough place, but it's unique and inspiring and I feel blessed to live here.
The relationship between Olive and Bobby is the crucial part of the story. If that doesn't work, the film doesn't work. I asked Milla to look at Murmur of The Heart (by Louis Malle) specifically for the tenderness and love between the mother and son in that movie. (Although that movie has a very different spin on their relationship. BUB has nothing to do with that part of their relationship).
NR: You were appointed a Goodwill Ambassador for Integrity for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime at a United Nations anti-corruption conference held in Bali. What have you learned in your role as an ambassador?
FJ: I worked briefly for the UN as a Goodwill Ambassador and it was a fascinating time. I learned a lot, but the topic was very broad and I didn't feel I could be as effective as I wanted to be. I have since become a Water Ambassador for Green Cross International, Mikhail Gorbachev's environmental organization. I am extremely passionate about the topic of water. It is a sin that in today's world, more than 800 million people live without access to safe drinking water and that 2.5 billion people have no access to appropriate sanitation and that young girls and women spend hours out of their day trying to fetch water. Green Cross International and the UN are doing wonderful things to help bring attention to the topic of water and change the horrific statistics. We need all the help we can get. They say that by 2012 two thirds of the population will be living under water-stressed conditions.
NR: You just completed Hansel and Gretel and Taken 2. Do you pay close attention to how other directors (like Tommy Wirkola and Olivier Megaton) work when you're on the set?
FJ: I have always paid attention to the way directors work. I've been lucky enough to work with directors like Woody Allen and Robert Altman. I feel as though I've been in the best film school my entire career as an actress. Hansel and Gretel was my first movie back as an actress. I unfortunately spent too much time in the makeup trailer getting my prosthetic make up applied and my lenses put in to notice how Tommy directed. I can't wait to see the end result. It comes out in January 2013. Olivier was great to observe as a director. Making action movies is such a different animal.
NR: Are you working on another screenplay right now? Which projects would you like to tackle next?
FJ: I kept writing during the time that we tried to get Bringing Up Bobby off the ground. There were so many false starts and so many disappointments that I continued writing (silly) scripts in order to keep my sanity. I've put all those scripts on the back burner and have since written a screenplay called Rio Rojo. The story is set in Mexico and the topic, which won't come as a surprise to you, is water scarcity. It has a bit more of a thriller aspect to it. I'm really excited about it and I am currently looking for financing to direct it in my hiatus of Hemlock Grove (which I will be shooting in Toronto until Christmas).
The opening for Bringing Up Bobby is on Friday, September 28 at the Beekman Theatre in New York City. Famke Janssen and Spencer List will be participating in a Q&A following the evening showing. The Digital DVD/VOD release date is November 20, 2012.
-- Nicki Richesin is the author and editor of Crush, What I Would Tell Her, Because I Love Her, and The May Queen. She is the San Francisco correspondent for Du Jour and a frequent contributor to Sunset, The Huffington Post, Daily Candy, and The Horn Book. Find her online at www.nickirichesin.com.