It's like speed-dating: eleven introductions, each no longer than eight minutes. That's Emmanuel Benbihy's second collective full feature, New York I Love You, which was released on Friday. Three years coming since Paris Je T'aime, which inaugerated the Cities of Love series, New York I Love You is a collaboration between a small entourage of writers and directors. Last month, I talked to the producer about the future, pretty people, and balding Natalie Portman's head.
FRANCESCA MARI: How were the segments selected?
EMMANUEL BENBIHY: We tried to have people who are very different...Diversity is crucial to art and crucial to cinema. That's a very strong European statement: All people should be able to have images of themselves.
MARI: Facebook photos don't do?
BENBIHY: It's important to make sure that people who have a strong local culture can grow up with characters starring in these films and programs that they can identify with. Otherwise, they can't assess consequences.
MARI: Did anyone get away?
BENBIHY: I was hoping that the black community would be more represented. It's not a big deal, because if you quote me on this, I'm killing my own self [laughs]. Woody Allen doesn't have black characters and it's okay. No one's criticizing him for that. It's an unfair trial, but we tried.
MARI: Were the segments intended to be open to interpretation? I'm thinking of the segment in the hotel with the former singer and the deformed concierge.
BENBIHY: All segments are subject to interpretation, of course. But that's the last script written by Anthony Minghella. He was supposed to direct it. Unfortunately he passed away pre-production. There's definitely someone dying in that segment. We understand she's about to jump out the window, and that servant is saving her. We don't know if the servant actually exists.
MARI: I didn't realize she was planning to kill herself.
BENBIHY: That's okay. I didn't realize until really late in the process. Anthony was someone who would never tell you the interpretation. Some filmmakers don't want to just entertain, to play with the audience like a little ball and then dump them. They want you to be imaginative, and if you're intrigued, the work will grow on you and you're going to build your own interpretation. But after seeing this segment 200 times, I can tell you that the original intention is not far from [suicide].
MARI: When you take a city as iconic as New York, how do you make it yours? How you own the Brooklyn Bridge?
BENBIHY: Everybody sees things their own way, but putting it onscreen is a different story–you have to deal with production crews. That's what differentiates a good director.
MARI: Have you ever seen Gossip Girl?
BENBIHY: Yeah. I mean I'm not like, a follower, but yes I know what it is. [Blake Lively] is a great actress, I think.
MARI: Is Blake Lively...lively? Sorry, I promised someone I'd say that.
BENBIHY: It was a last-minute request on our side, and she made it happen. The condition was that it had to be two or three hours and nothing more, because she's on contract for that show, and she had to go to bed and work the next day for them. I think this actress has a big potential because she seems very true.
MARI: Did you want her because she's a new New York icon?
BENBIHY: Brett chose her. All the directors choose their actors. Maybe he has plans for her.
MARI: What moved you to do a film of vignettes?
BENBIHY: Being able to go to different directors and proposing them the game rule, which gives them complete freedom inside the parameters: it has to be some kind of love encounter; it cannot be over six or seven minutes; it has to take place today.
MARI: Do you think the film anthology form has a future beyond yourself?
BENBIHY: I think it has a huge future. And you know why it has a huge future? Because people don't see that it has a huge future.
MARI: How's that?
BENBIHY: Any format that is flexible has a future. With New York, I Love You, we prove that you can feel like you have the feature film experience. The characters reappear, and you lose the vision of the structure and go for the overall experience. At the same time, we could have a TV network program one segment every night, with a 20 minute "Making Of" interview with the director. We could do that for ten working days.
MARI: What's your outlet of choice?
BENBIHY: Our goal is to create a filmmaker community online. It will be a city-driven distribution platform. It will start with Shanghai, Rio, and Jerusalem. People will be able to post their work, according to our game rules, on our platform, and we will be able to put our segments on as well.
MARI: So anyone can submit?
BENBIHY: Yeah, it will be open to the general public first semester 2010.
MARI: What's the platform called?
BENBIHY: Cities of Love.
MARI: I read a statement of yours in which you said all the segments are supposed to speak to universal love. Why attach them to cities? Wouldn't the love be more universal if it sparked up, like, in Hoboken or Portsmouth, Ohio, or on Plymouth Rock?
BENBIHY: We used cities originally to bring people to the theaters, to drag them. But, at the same time, to sustain them. It's what you do with a genre. It's the same with a filmmaker who is a good filmmaker and decides suddenly to do a thriller. If he's ambitious and he's a real filmmaker, he will want to do his thriller in a way that has not been done. This is what we do. We tell everybody, come to see Rio, I Love You! Come to see Shanghai, I Love You! Then people are surprised. We get the cities differently–not by giving them what they expected, but by giving them something richer, which is reality.
MARI: And why New York?
BENBIHY: New York has this romantic comedy culture. It's wistful. Also, I felt comfortable here. Now I can go further.
MARI: Further being?
BENBIHY: Rio de Janeiro...When you think of Rio, you have images coming up–physical love, and it's a cliché. We're not exactly building on nothing; we're building on something that belongs to the patrimony of humanity. Of what people think of the culture, of the images people already have in mind.
MARI: Did you guys really shave Natalie Portman's head for the film?
MARI: Whoa! How'd you do that? It was so striking!
BENBIHY: Some people are really expert at putting something on your head! They put something that really sticks to her skull, and already it looks really good, almost like she's bald. And then with special effects, we make sure it's invisible.
MARI: I was trying to think of two ugly actresses in "New York, I Love You," and I couldn't think of any. But there are ugly people in New York–what does this mean for them?
BENBIHY: People build fame because they're pretty sometimes. Most of the time. This is what the audience wants, apparently. I don't necessarily agree, but I cannot go against it. In the end, I think it's really how you fit the part. But it's true that our industry is just full of people who actually really look good. It's the criteria of our generation.
MARI: The criteria of our generation?
BENBIHY: We like people who look good, we like people who elevate our standards, who have things we do not have, it's all about our fantasies. Yes, you can make millions of people dream about somebody who's not good looking, and that's the beauty of cinema, but people don't take the chance that often.
MARI: Would you ever take a chance on an ugly actress? It is a recession, after all. Gotta cut costs.
BENBIHY: [Laughs] That's awful. Yes, of course.