Angels and monsters 

Director Marc Forster dances with his demons

Marc Forster seems incessantly drawn to tragedy. Before turning to fiction filmmaking, the Swiss-born New York University film school graduate made two documentaries for European television. One, Silent Windows, was about teenage suicide, while another, Our Story, was about child burn victims. Forster's first feature Everything Put Together -- which was shown at Sundance two years ago and earned him an Independent Spirit Award -- is equally invested in tragedy as theme and ambiance. Radha Mitchell stars in Everything as a new mother who loses her baby to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and is shunned by her friends, who seem to fear contamination by her misfortune.

Forster's latest film, Monster's Ball, which opens Feb. 8, is in keeping with the director's somber fixations. The story, in part, concerns the viciously loveless relationship between three generations of Georgia men: big, mean Granddaddy Buck (Peter Boyle), Daddy Hank (Billy Bob Thornton) and Sonny (Heath Ledger), the gentler, conflicted son who appears to have fallen far from the diseased family tree. As if seeking some outlet for their festering ill will, all three work as corrections officers who walk doomed men down the lonely path to the electric chair. After the execution of one such murderer, Lawrence Musgrove (played by Sean Combs), Hank becomes involved in an interracial love affair with his widow, Leticia Musgrove (Halle Berry), who is contending with her own streak of morbidly bad luck.

Monster's Ball is a profoundly subtle film about racism, family violence, capital punishment, callous masculinity and child abuse. Moments of escape and joy tend to carry echoes of all the darkness and desperation that surrounds the characters. "I was just intoxicated by the incredible power of the script," says Forster of his decision to make the film. "It touched on so many different themes."

At 31, Forster carries an astounding amount of personal baggage, which explains some of the gnawing angst that infects his characters and films so consistently focused on death and its emotional ramifications. Forster lost three family members over a cruelly compact span of six months in 1998, including his grandmother, his father and a brother who committed suicide. That avalanche of grief has certainly marked Forster's choice in scripts. But as testament to his deeper, more intellectual sensibility, he is not inclined to milk it as some martyr's millstone around his neck.

Instead, the candid, sensitive Forster says, "I think when you live through a lot of death, or you have death very close in your family, it sort of changes you a little bit. My personal experience was that, on one hand, I was grieving and very sad and I missed them tremendously, but on the other hand, it was incredibly enlightening and it sort of gave me a feeling of a higher consciousness."

It's not only Forster's unique life experiences that have informed his work. Despite the sense of absolute authenticity to Monster's Ball's Southern setting, there are telltale shades of the director's Swiss origin even within this consummately Dixie tale. In this world of zombie-like relationships, the town hooker services both Hank and Sonny with the same impersonal, blow-up doll lethargy, a grieving mother uses sex to soothe her psychological pain, and a son mechanically dumps his father in an old folks' home like a sack of dirty laundry. To sum up the emotional paralysis of the film's characters, Hank delivers a line that would make even Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry cringe with its sheer brutality. Appraising yet another corpse about to enter the enveloping chill of the grave, Hank answers a minister's offer of some words of comfort with, "All I want to hear is that dirt hit that box."

"In Switzerland, repressed emotions are very common," says Forster. "I come from a culture where my father, as much as I knew he loved me, never said in his life that he loved me. So I'm very familiar with people who have repressed emotions. And you don't talk about things, you just know them. And that's definitely a sort of parallel to the movie."

Monster's Ball is a gorgeously photographed film that demonstrates Forster's love of visually oriented, slightly aloof directors like Michelangelo Antonioni and Roman Polanski. But the unmistakable stamp of definitive '70s films like Five Easy Pieces and Badlands is also evident in its picture of human estrangement.

Though the story is set in Georgia, filming was done in Louisiana and that state's notoriously harsh Angola prison. Forster matched the accuracy and insight into characters found in Will Rokos and Milo Addica's script with a technical honesty he captured in a four-month research stint at Angola. There Forster observed the behavior of a corrections officer responsible for 26 electrocutions.

"He walked me through step by step. Whatever you see is exactly how it's done. And I was very particular about that because this adviser, and several people I talked with, said that Dead Man Walking, for instance, is not totally accurate. And so I wanted to make sure whatever we're doing is absolutely by the book."

That unnamed adviser also gave Forster enormous insight into the strange element of respect and dignity that even unrepentant racist Hank doles out to death row inmate Lawrence Musgrove. "He said to me that every person he executed, all the 26, they all thanked him before for how he treated them," notes Forster.

In this uncannily honest film about the wall of ignorance that allows hatred to thrive, even as one small brush with the "Other" can unleash the floodgates of compassion, Hank's involvement with Lawrence on death row is a brilliantly insightful exegesis on the subtleties of Southern race relations.

"Once the man is on the electric chair, Billy Bob touches his hand before he walks out. It's just these little tiny gestures they do," says Forster of the behavioral ticks he observed at Angola that set the tone for the relationship between Hank and his prisoner. "They really try to calm him and try to give him the most respect in his last 24 hours before he dies."

Though the film is an unpleasantly frank glimpse of the operations behind capital punishment, Forster (who says he is personally against it) was attracted by the ambiguity of its operations. "That's what I thought was great about the script, that it wasn't preachy in that sense," he says. "It wasn't preachy about saying what's right or what's wrong. It's just to show you the story and consequences. I think people should make up their minds on their own."

Though Monster's Ball is well acquainted with the dark side of life, it also reflects some of Forster's inherent romanticism. "Often when you read that sort of dark script, they have a dark ending as well. And I felt there was a light at the end of the tunnel that was really important for me."

So while Forster laughs about his next film, Neverland, a bio-picture of Peter Pan author James Barrie ("Of course, someone has to die in it!"), he is clearly touched by the spiritual side of dark subjects. For Forster, death is only part of that higher consciousness, a way to finally see the world in its full honesty.

"I'm a very happy person," he says. "And I think that life is great."



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