I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
“You’re looking at the human inverse of a technological idea.”
When I first learned that Adam Green—perhaps best known as the lead singer of the on-hiatus, indie stalwart band The Moldy Peaches—had made Aladdin, I thought the obvious: Macaulay Culkin should interview Green for BOMB. Reason? Culkin has a key role in this new film, and the Green-Culkin connection has already birthed several exasperating collaborations, plus it’s not often that the ex-star of Home Alone gets the space he deserves. But alas, it was not to be.
Miraculously, Francesco Clemente—who needs no introduction, and happens to play Aladdin’s Genie (WTF?)—was available. Even more surprising was the addition of another member of the cast, Alia Shawkat, who, among other things, is the actress who played the essential Maeby Fünke on Arrested Development. She turned the proposed one-on-one into a free-associative three-way.
— Chris Chang
Francesco Clemente Who is Aladdin?
Alia Shawkat We all have different answers.
Adam Green The original Arabian Nights story that I read was over a thousand years old. It’s ostensibly told by Scheherazade and set in China, since Aladdin was actually Chinese, but all the fictional elements were more Arabian. It was told by an Arabian storyteller, who had never been to China, who’s talking about the Sultan of China.
FC Did China influence your costume design?
AG I had different ideas about where to shoot the movie, but they would change. I travelled a lot on tour, and wherever I was, that would influence things. So, at first, I was in Italy, and I was looking at that big federal court building in Rome [the Palace of Justice]. And I thought, oh my god, this is the Sultan’s palace.
FC It’s one of the ugliest buildings ever built. It’s a fascist-era building—or just pre-fascist. …Actually, fascist architecture is sometimes quite good.
AG Yeah, you can see that kind of architecture in South America. I was just in Argentina. They think they’re Italian there…
FC That’s what they say about Argentina: It’s a country of Italians, run by the British.
AS Makes sense.
AG Buenos Aires is almost like Paris if somebody kneed it in the balls. It has that disorienting feeling because, culturally, people are like, Why am I eating lasagna in the jungle?
AS You shot Wrong Ferrari while you were on tour, which also had a lot of different locations.
AG That was my approach. It was shot on an iPhone, and while traveling we would shoot in a parking lot in Germany, and then on a gondola in Venice—you know, wherever we were—and it was fun to improvise the scenes. For this film, I originally thought of the inside of the Genie’s lamp—which we ended up making a rather serene place—would be set in Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library in Florence, which is a very tomb-like structure.
AS And then you realized it was too expensive.
AG I went to Thailand, and the people there said, “You should bring Aladdin to Thailand.” So I pictured it—knowing that the original story was supposedly set in Asia. I thought it would be fun to have a Thai Aladdin.
FC You would have closed the circle.
AG Yasmin, my wife, who produced Aladdin, said, “You should make it all look like you drew it.” I said, “Maybe I’ll make one scene like that.” And then, “I’ll make two scenes like that.” Eventually, I made it all like that. I still thought I was going to shoot the street scenes outdoors, in Red Hook, and all the interiors were going to be papier-mâché. But eventually everything was shot on a set—kind of like old Hollywood.
AS It keeps the tone, style, and reality of the painted world.
AG Great old movies were shot on stages. Classic horror, like Dracula and Frankenstein,and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Caligari has that great German Expressionist set design. It’s amazing how much depth you can create through drawing.
AS And they were all done in your own hand?
AG I drew all the black lines. When I first sent the drawings to Francesco, he said, “Oh, this looks too neat, you have to mess it up more.”
FC I did push for a completely open set, where it wouldn’t be so naturalistic—something closer to your drawings, which are much more graphically open.
AG You wanted more white space.
FC Yes, I wanted space. But I also wanted it messier.
AG Where the Genie ended up living was ultimately a white space.
FC Thank you.
AG I don’t know if I ever got to where Francesco wanted us to go, but I actually do like that idea: making it seem as if the whole movie was drawn on a sketchbook. One thing I got from your advice, and I don’t know if you intended it, was trying to look for ways to make everything drawn by hand. I bought a large circular brush and drew with it, while pushing really hard on the cardboard to form a more expressive line. I was also thinking about papier-mâché as a medium, because it dries in a very unpredictable way.
FC The special effects, with all the floating elements, they break the pattern?
AG Yes. Tom Bayne did the effects. He spent a year on the effects that ultimately make the world come alive.
AS Adam, you’re a musician and an artist, and Francesco is an artist. But acting—did you even look at art as acting? How was acting for you?
FC I look at everything as acting.
AS That’s the best way to act.
AG Francesco is Aladdin’s breakout star. I remember, we were acting together the first day, and he said to me, “You’re the actor!” and I said, “I’m not the actor. I’ve never acted before either!”
AS There aren’t a lot of professional actors in Aladdin, considering how big the cast is.
AG There are definitely actors people will recognize: like you, like Macaulay Culkin and Natasha Lyonne. Jack Dishel is a real actor, and Nicole LaLiberte too.
AS All the performances are great because they’re kind of odd, but everything is said with straightforward simplicity.
FC And the movie is dubbed.
AG I feel like it’s a foreign film. There’s something slightly unnerving about seeing an entire movie dubbed. It takes you a step into another dimension. As an artist, I want to try to simulate the feeling of going into another dimension as much as possible. One thing that’s great about doing a movie that’s entirely set in a hand-painted world is you can’t even picture the outside world when you’re in it.
FC That’s actually one of the elements that won me over: I am a genie, so that was pleasant. It was pleasant to be acknowledged as such.
AG For posterity.
FC Another element: I’m not in favor of naturalism. When I watched the Wrong Ferrari and realized it was all dubbed, I thought that was a good way to approach things that I can relate to.
AG I’m glad you felt that way.
FC I don’t believe that reality is as it is. Anything that displaces you from your habits I look at with favor. But do you think Aladdin is, in some way, an unusual film?
AG Yeah, it’s kind of the opposite of the Dogme 95 movies. The Lars Von Trier doctrine, that filmmaking movement where the idea is you’re supposed to take a digital camera, go to your locations, and you’re not allowed to bring any props. You’re not allowed to have any music or special effects. It’s a formalist movement; and it’s supposed to make a revitalized cinema. They’re great movies, but Aladdin is the opposite. It’s the inverse. Nothing is allowed not to be made by hand; nothing’s allowed not to be a drawing. Actually, even the sculptures are drawing, because of the black lines. The sculptures are three-dimensional drawings more than sculptures in that sense.
AS They have a clear shape to them. Aladdin, for me, gets across big ideas of technology, or power, in a much clearer way.
FC Is power the theme of the movie?
AG I think so. Essentially we’re dissecting the myth. There’s a famous Rimbaud poem about how the Genie is the Prince and the Prince is the Genie. It’s one of the Illuminations. It resonates with me. I was talking with my mom, who’s a psychiatrist, long before I made the movie, and she said, “Oh, Aladdin gets a Genie, but they’re the same guy. He needs the Genie; it’s a part of him. It’s the part of him that will make something.” And then I realized that the symbolism of the lamp felt very phallic, and I thought: The boy goes into a cave, and he finds a penis, and the penis enables him to become a grownup. It solves some kind of mystery, which gets him to where he ultimately needs to go.
AS Did you add that from the original? Do they talk about the family as much there? In Disney’s Aladdin, they don’t talk about his family.
AG He has a family.
FC Is another idea here the quest for the father—whatever that means?
AG Definitely. I transposed the idea of Mustafa. In the original Aladdin, his father, who had died, was named Mustafa. So I reincarnated the dead father of Aladdin as the Genie. I felt that Aladdin was missing a father figure in the original, so he goes into a cave and finds one in the Genie. If you look at Assyrian art, they call it a genius. They also have genesis—and all the words derived from the gen-prefix. It’s a creative supernova—part of a clockwork—that just makes infinity happen for whoever possesses a magical orb.
FC Do you see it as unusual, or do you think this is just a regular film?
AG It’s a regular film to me.
AS It’s a little different.
AG Macaulay Culkin said the dialogue is written in the equivalent of iambic pentameter. It feels like it’s written in some weird language—and that people don’t speak like that. But people do think like that, including me.
FC That’s the third element that won me over: the fact that, in your head, you were making the most average and simple movie that anyone could make. But, as it happens, not everyone will realize that because not everyone thinks the way you think, or sees the way you see.
AG For me, this is a normal movie, based on things that I like, such as Jodorowsky and Pasolini. I like Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast. I’m trying to make the kind of movie I would watch. I like UHF by Weird Al. I like Space Balls. I like Mel Brooks and Woody Allen’s Bananas.
FC What genre is it?
AG It’s a little bit of a screwball comedy, like Police Academy.
AS I love telling people that it’s only a screwball comedy.
AG It ends with a wedding, so apparently it’s a comedy. That’s what they say.
FC No, that’s a tragedy.
AS The tragedy starts with the wedding. But what you said about the dialogue makes sense. It was hard for me to memorize because the patterns are not normal speech. But it is the way you think.
AG People’s language affects me. If somebody says something, it might be nothing to them—I’m sure this happens with you guys too, because you’re sensitive people. But people scar me with their language. People can say just four words, and it can haunt me for the rest of my life. I can keep on repeating them. I can be traumatized by the way someone says a few words.
AS Me too.
AG And then I write them down and they become a lines of dialogue, and someone will have to say them exactly that way.
FC Could that be because language is fundamentally a lie? Could this unease happen because there is a flaw in everything we hear, that there is a lie in everything that we hear? Particularly in the so-called arts now, given that so much is produced industrially, using a language that is very hard to connect with emotionally?
AG Why is that okay? A lot people seem very happy with that being the status quo for art. It reflects a sort of dystopian industrial world. I always thought that the Andy Warhol stuff was actually a parody—or that he was being satirical.
FC He was a great satirical artist. But he would have never admitted it.
AG It’s crazy. He illustrated a satirical thing that’s kind of a William S. Burroughs narrative. And he showed it to people like a science fiction dystopian future and laughed about it, then people in the advertising world actually use Warhol to validate their field.
AS Maybe that’s what advertising is: the cleanest joking lie? It’s something easy for people to connect to, its colors, its pop—but it’s not based on a feeling.
FC Is there a spiritual quality to humor? Is humor a way to connect to a mystical sense of things?
AG I looked up the definition of humor. It said it was the reaction of a sensitive and powerless soul to a powerful authority.
AS That’s what humor is?
AG There are artists, like Max Ernst, who paint people as landscapes. I feel that people are landscapes. When you meet people you feel that they have a certain amount of mountains that they lug around with them. And you feel that when they leave.
FC That’s definitely true of life in New York, where the only landscape is the bodies of the people around us.
AG I was thinking about the Abstract Expressionist movement—that the most valid thing about it is people painting what people’s souls look like, and feel like, in a landscape way. People have these amorphous parts of their soul. They’re shifting around. The soul is so fluid. I also picture Joan Miró, where the ego is floating into this sort of superego, and the egos are always changing and negotiating with each other in a weird fluid cloud. You can see how a painter could paint an abstraction of that feeling in the moment.
FC The smoke of the Genie. Counterculture means to be counter something. Does Aladdin [the film] act against someone or something?
AG It’s the opposite of everything—in its own little way.
AS Film has gotten to a point where it’s as simple as it can be: the more money, the more comfortable people feel watching a movie. It’s not about the stories. Everybody relates to these Superman/Batman stories. It’s the visual effects. You expect, and you’re comforted by, a huge explosion followed by a romance. The way the story is told is so sleek. And when something’s homemade, when you see actors you don’t recognize, you feel it differently. For me, I can create subtleties in moments, and I crave to do that. The person, the character I’m playing, has to have realistic challenges. And that’s harder—that feels like counterculture.
FC So you’re interested in vulnerability.
AS Definitely. And to surprise myself. We can only be as self aware of our vulnerabilities as we can.
AG There’s a scene in Aladdin, when you’re talking to Ralph [Macaulay Culkin] and he’s telling you about all the big ideas he has…
AS And he gets carried away.
AG And you have this facial expression. His speech is your facial reaction. You don’t say anything, but your face is really expressive. I noticed that you were always in it, in every shot of the movie, you’re in it. You give a lot of information without saying anything.
AS That’s my favorite kind of performance. The actress, who we talked about, who was married to Fellini…
FC Giulietta Masina.
AS So amazing.
AG Like in Nights of Cabiria, right?
AS One of the best films ever. That film is her heart just being ripped apart and dragged around the whole time. And for most of it, obviously she’s speaking, but it’s all just her.
AG It’s all in her facial information.
FC Speaking of Italian directors, Rosellini said that movies are made at the kitchen table with one’s friends. Is that how you made Aladdin? I mean, how did you cast the film? Did you think of your friends first or what?
AG Yeah, well, obviously with Alia, Mac, and Jack Dishel. Jack is performing a bunch of characters that I’d seen him do rough versions of already. We traveled around in a van for a long time, on tour with the Moldy Peaches, and he’s always doing characters. I knew who was going to be in it. But the Genie was a challenge. Francesco was one of the people that I really didn’t know at all before the movie, and you [Alia] were the one that introduced me to him. This is funny: I was on the plane with Yasmin, flying back from LA, and she said, “Francesco Clemente is kind of a Genie.” And I said, “Is that crazy? Doesn’t Alia actually know him? He looks like a Genie. He seems like a Genie.”
AS Remember the e-mail? All it said was, Do you want to play a genie in a movie?
FC I was like: Who? What? Yes.
AS You wrote, I have always considered myself a genie. And I forwarded that to Adam.
FC Through the movie, I discovered I’m a very contemptuous genie too, which I had never noticed.
AS I think that’s how every real genie is. You can’t always pinpoint them, and you don’t know whether to trust them or not.
AG In another example, with Bip Ling [who plays Princess Barbara], I was zeroing in on the fact that the Kardashians seem like they’re princesses. Especially relating to Aladdin, I thought it was perfect. I’ll have the princess be kind of a Kardashian. And Bip Ling was somebody I was friends with, someone who was really living that kind of life. She actually goes out and gets photographed all the time. She looks like a princess.
AS She was so perfect. You sent me her Instagram account.
AG Alia and I were talking about casting a better-known person as the princess—not as if Bip is not known, but she’s not known as an actress. This is really her first role. There’s really no match for her in this role. She’s obviously the one.
AS Also, her online presence, which seems like her main presence, is…
AS It’s crazy. I have a hard time with the Internet, or at least having a version of myself on it. Bip Ling’s presence is a really chaotic, weird, noisy sound that is really short and fast. You hear it, look at it, and you’re like, “Oh, it’s giving me a seizure.”
AG We talked about the satirical line that Warhol was walking in his work, and with somebody like Bip it’s always hard to tell whether or not she is serious.
AS It doesn’t matter. People don’t care.
AG Like a Warhol superstar, I feel Bip has her own kind of funny, glamorous, and also guttery persona. She dares you to basically steep in her semi-delusion. And you’re like, “Oh, it’s kind of nice in here. I might want to stay for a while.”
AG You know what? (gesturing at paintings on view in Clemente’s New York studio) These paintings remind me a little bit of the Venetian doges, you know, in the National Gallery. What is a doge anyway?
FC Like the Donald Trump of Venice.
AG Yeah, these are a bunch of Trump people.
AS Are they new?
FC Relatively, yes.
AG What do you think about the pastel palette? I was looking at some of the older Rubens, some of his mock-ups, and some by Tiepolo. And they were very pastel. I’ve always associated pastels with something that feels—during the last ten or fifteen years—as a kind of revival, including the aesthetics of how people dress. American Apparel was very much putting forth pastel colors as stylish and cutting edge.
FC The palette of Aladdin is not pastel. It’s very straightforward.
AG No. It’s totally not pastel. It’s very straightforward. If anything, I was looking for the most yellow yellow and the reddest red. It’s the Ferrari red and the golden yellow yellow. Everything was the most singular version of that color.
AS Did you use filters for everything?
AG No, though I ended up dialing up the saturation, a lot, to give it the most color I could without turning people’s faces red. The colorist advised me that if people’s faces were red, then the audience would read that information as if the characters were sick, unhealthy.
FC Which brings us back to Trump.
AS Exactly! A most unhealthy guy.
FC I think the only thing we haven’t touched on is your relationship with technology. A lot of Aladdin is satire, and I was interested to hear that you think that Bip Ling’s public persona is almost psychedelic—that this totally technologically announced persona can be viewed as psychedelic.
AG Well, you know, I’m a human embodiment…
FC I told Bip, “Do you realize that in a different age you would have been a legendary beauty, rather than an emoji?”
AS Her emoji would be so mysterious.
FC But what’s easier is informational technology.
AG I do have a dualistic relationship with technology, because I spent so much of my life finding it abhorrent. I have a lot of negative feelings about it.
FC Is it possible to make a distinction between technology and the use of technology?
AS When you feel like you have more control over it—right?
AG Yeah. It’s like people turning into cyborgs. I actually deal with the concept in the scene where we’re inside the lamp. It was a way to romanticize technology. You could look at it as a joke, but I was using it as an example: we have neat classical ideas, like columns, tablets, mosaics, the Greco-Roman canon. Then, in our devices, they’re re-appropriated. The columns are now columns of data. The tablets are the tablets of our phones. The mosaics are the pixels on our screens. And we’re going into a Second Life, like a video game reality, where we’re creating a coliseum out of data, together, as a network. And so, I’m hoping, in some way, that it means something—that we’re going into this video game, and that it’s beautiful in there.
FC Somebody once memorably wrote that the ancient Greeks could have developed technology but chose not to. That is a paradoxical thing to say, but also, in a sense, true.
AS They set up the framework, but decided not to get lost in it. In the film, you seem to have an aversion to technology. Aladdin does.
AG I dislike it because it’s just repellant.
AS You’re the storyteller.
AG But at the same time, as soon as I got a smart phone, I made a movie with it. And I felt like I was becoming a video game character, because I was pushing all the buttons, and it was having a real effect on my life. And then came Twitter. I thought Twitter was so funny when it came out, and I was obsessed with tweeting, constantly tweeting the most negative things I could think of.
AS To fuck with people?
AG I would tweet about technology. I’d actually get technology magazines, and tweet about some of the products, because I thought that’s what people wanted.
AS To know more about technology?
AG The sultan in my Aladdin is obsessed with technology. The sultan in the original Aladdin is obsessed with curiosities and gadgets…
AS …from his own time.
AG It’s the equivalent of Sharper Image, and that whole thing—Sharper Image—is to me a part of technology. It’s like they keep on increasing the resolution of the pixels. In the Wrong Ferrari, I tell my mom, “Like technology, I ran away from you toward a higher resolution.” And I think that there’s something in it for the soul. It’s a light at the end of the tunnel, and we see ourselves, in a way, with technology laid upon our souls. And we kind of progress, like a beam of light into the needle of an eye of some kind of atom.
FC So if you reverse the direction of the viewing you could get something good out of it?
AG If we reverse the direction, yeah, that would be beautiful.
AS But wouldn’t that mean the absence of it? Reversing the direction?
AG Isn’t that what we’re doing with this movie? Instead of telling you what the technology would say that these objects look like, I’m going to do the inverse and tell you the average human response to these objects—and give you my papier-mâché objects.
So many people helped to make the movie. The props were made by at least twenty people—a lot of them artists. We’d say, make a table, make a chair, make an asparagus chair. Make an arcade game. They’re just making the average thing in their own heads. It’s the platonic ideal. They’re barely looking at pictures. So, you’re really looking at the human inverse of a technological idea.
AS The danger I find with technology is the apathy and laziness that it provides for your brain. Like, I can’t remember. You told me the address, and I had to have you text it to me, after we just spoke on the phone three minutes ago. My memory doesn’t absorb things as much, and therefore, visually, anything I see, as much as I think it affects me, from a quick image on my phone, is gone the next second.
AG That’s because you have an external apparatus for your memory. Your memory is part cyborg.
AS Do you have Instagram, or any of that stuff?
FC No, but I watch it.
AS I find it really strange. I don’t understand my relationship with Instagram, just like with art. There are people who post great images of art. I was just at the Reina Sofia in Spain. It was one of the best museums I’ve been to. I took photos of the Goya, the “Black Room.”
AG I can’t believe that’s there.
AS I was so affected by being in that room. I had the best time. And I’d sneak a photo, then I’d be like: What power does this have, posting it on Instagram, where someone spends two seconds with it, then flips right to the next? Or when something drawn and time is spent, and the only way to be affected by it is to be in person with it—see the lines, the crinkles of the page, brush strokes, the color, see all of it for how it actually is. Then you’re on Instagram, where it’s most accessible, with more people to see, but it kind of defeats the purpose.
AG Do you feel influenced by reproductions, Francesco? Do you work with reproductions in your studio? Do you see value in them?
FC A reproduction is not exactly the equivalent of what we have now with the exponential speed up of reproduction. It’s entirely different.
AG Right. Instagram is like a little trading card.
FC Even your movie seems, not antiquated, but from an earlier world—even in its format. To require anyone to spend an hour-and-a-half paying attention to anything seems strange.
AG Like, they’re going to have to put a lock on the movie theater.
AS People are like, “I gotta get outta here!”
AG I gotta check my phone…
AS How many people are checking their phones during films?
AG More and more every second.
AS More and more every second—compared to ten years ago, but also compared to the kind of patience people have for films. It’s crazy.
FC But if we want to be truly pessimistic…
AS Why not?
FC All of this is simply the actualization of how the mind works. I mean, it’s not that I know that no one is present because they are looking at their phone. The mind is, by habit, not present.
AS We’re adapting to ourselves.
FC Now, we can just see the physical proof, because we see everyone concerned with something that is not happening. It is not in the moment, but that does not mean that without a phone the mind would be present.
AS That’s true!
FC Things are not as bad as they seem.
AS Maybe just more honest. We’re just being honest.
Adam Green would like to thank Yana Rovner for her editorial expertise with the above.
Adam Green plays live tonight, Tuesday, April 19, 2016, at Baby’s All Right in Brooklyn, and Adam Green’s Aladdin World Tour comes to select venues across Europe through July. The film is also available on demand.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee