Geoffrey Rush Interview on AI, John Lithgow, Groucho Marx Film: KVIFF 5

Geoffrey Rush (The King’s SpeechQuillsShine) is back at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (KVIFF) and having a blast.

In 2022, the big festival in the scenic Czech spa town honored the Australian star and Oscar winner with its Crystal Globe for Outstanding Artistic Contribution to World Cinema, its lifetime achievement award.

For this year’s 58th edition of KVIFF, Rush serves as a member of the main competition jury, along with the likes of indie film industry veteran Christine Vachon.

In between seeing competition films, Rush talked to The Hollywood Reporter about current projects, his experiences with AI, his love of animation and his connections with Czech art and culture.

You have appeared in so many films and seen movies all over the globe. What is it like being a juror here at the Karlovy Vary festival?

It takes us to a very definite place in the Eastern European landscape and is very supportive of filmmaking around this kind of neighborhood in Europe. So, I know a hell of a lot more about the Second World War from the last few films I have seen here, from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, etc. It’s an immersion in a different heritage.

But it’s not totally unfamiliar to me, because when I was at university in the early ’70s, when the Academy Awards were on, I was a young actor and just started working professionally in a theater company, we’d always watch. And we knew it would be the Czech animated short film that would always win. I had that connection, because there was the National Black Light Theatre of Prague with ultraviolet lighting, and I’d seen it, maybe in my teens in Brisbane. And I’ve always been a big fan of animation. If I go on [game show] Mastermind, the animation of Warner Bros., Chuck Jones and Michael Maltese would be my special subject.

And then I became aware of the work of Jan Svankmajer. And the brothers Quay wanted me to be in something at one point that I couldn’t do, sadly. So, when I came here with my kids, we went to the Black Theatre of Prague in ’98. You’d go and see Yellow Submarine; they would do The Beatles, and you’d go, “This is insane. This is great.” And then I did a workshop with [mime legends Bolek] Polivka and [Ctibor] Turba. And they were telling me how, during the [communist] regime here, the censors would come in and say, “You can do your show for us but with all the lights on.”

When I was in amateur theater in Brisbane, while I was still at university, there were great [Czech] plays to do, such as the [satirical Karel and Josef] Capek play The Insect Play. I was in that, and I felt that was my first entree into Eastern European writing.

The Czechs also invented the word robot. And the concept of a robot as the mechanical man is different. Before that, people were trying to humanize machinery. It’s just that I have all these various connections with things Czech.

Since you mention robots, I want to ask you about AI, which is such a hot topic in Hollywood. Do you see it as a threat, opportunity, or what’s your take?

From the point of view of my generation, creativity from the human mind is something that’s always intrigued me. Now that it’s been made into a very sophisticated algorithm, I don’t know yet. I went to the Moser factory here in Karlovy Vary yesterday, and it was fantastic. This is truly ancient masterful work. I think it might be one of the few glass companies in the world left that is totally human. And the guys I met there, you can tell the way they engrave the glass with artistic figures or something by hand. It’s not being done by a buzzsaw that’s programmed to just make it look authentic. They are constantly nuancing with every movement.

When AI all came out, and it’s all been in the last 18 months, there was a headline in a Rupert Murdoch newspaper in the Northern Territory, which is our most extreme up at the top part of Australia. It was a story about a young boy who had been in heavy rain water, and a crocodile had bitten him on his bum. The headline was: “A croc bit my crack.” So it was vulgar tabloid journalism.

I went onto ChatGPT or whatever it is called and said, “Write a Shakespearean sonnet containing this as the theme.” Now, if I’d been clever, I would have said, “I want a balance of language, I want patterns, I want wordplay. I want rhymes and everything you need to do.” But it just started spewing out stuff. And what it spewed out was what someone in year 8 might write as a poetry exercise. It wasn’t terribly impressive.

It just feels like it’s just rapid-fire collating. But we’ll see. You never know. Everyone’s sort of speculated about the mechanical aspect of post-, post-, post-industrial society.

Because you mentioned newspapers, I want to ask you about a tricky subject. There was this period where you faced horrible allegations of “inappropriate behavior.” You sued the newspaper company and won a payout for defamation. You also got the Karlovy Vary award here at the fest two years ago and now you are here as a juror. Do you feel you have put this all in the past and can focus on your career again?

I had faith in the justice system. I had a reason to sue. The court acknowledged the result. But it was a chunk out of my life. Up until then, I had a, I suppose, a very satisfying momentum of a 45-year career where I was regularly working. And that came to a bit of an abrupt halt. But now I can move forward.

I heard you might be doing a film called Raised Eyebrows, based on Steve Stoliar’s book Raised Eyebrows: My Years Inside Groucho’s House, in which you would play Groucho Marx. Is that still happening?

I mentioned that two years ago. I first read that script in the middle of 2020. It’s a very, very good script from Oren Moverman, the American director and writer. But COVID got in the way; Brexit got in the way; streaming got in the way. It’s still there. But I’ve heard from the creatives behind it that the independent industry in America is still hurting. Or, it’s swung around to large, bigger-scale films, more commercially-oriented. Particularly with COVID, people are trying to get the big cinema experience back.

That’s what’s great about this festival. The Hotel Thermal has this great room to screen films. When you watch a film with 2,500 other people it makes a big difference. You don’t pause it and you don’t go out and make a toasted cheese sandwich.

Geoffrey Rush at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.

Courtesy of Film Servis Festival Karlovy Vary

What’s the status of a thriller set in a care home that I heard you did with John Lithgow? That is completed, right? Anything else you can tell us?

That is from director-writer James Ashcroft and his partner Eli Kent. James had been an actor. He’s of half-Maori, half-Anglo heritage. He really likes the short stories of a New Zealand writer, Owen Marshall. And he optioned two of these stories. He’s also very much into dark mystery thriller, horror-ish genres, but maybe not in a paranormal activity kind of way but closer to The Shining. It’s a big imagination that he has. He made about six or seven short films with a team, because he was from the theater world and wanted to prove himself and wanted to learn the language of film.

Then, a few years ago, he made a film that got accepted into [Sundance] straight away called Coming Home in the Dark. For a very first film, it’s just so visceral and powerful. The short story is 10 pages, but this is a film that explores another whole subtext, a cultural background in the horror genre.

But he was always keen to do The Rule of Jenny Pen, which is set in an aged care facility. It moves into some very, very disturbing zeitgeist stuff. Everyone is pretty much in their 70s or 80s, so it’s an unusual shift to have that, but it feels that being a septuagenarian or an octogenarian is very much in the news. So it will be interesting, I don’t think this is going to be niche because there’s a darkness and a philosophical profundity to it about the end of days. When you’re in an aged care facility, chances are it’s your final place.

The metaphor of it is quite powerful. He offered me this part, and it was really the kind of part that I was hoping for in my 70s. Suddenly my 60s went, and I’m in my 70s now. This is an amazing role. And John Lithgow, who’s an old mate from the Peter Sellers film, is the co-star. And George Henare, a Maori actor from New Zealand of great repute with a classical background, is in it as well. We had the most creative time. The crew was generally very young and just had great representation. The camera crew was predominantly women, which is very unusual, or not as regular. I had a great time doing it. They’re waiting now to see where the distributors can get it positioned into the marketplace.

What can you tell us about your character in this film?

He ends up in the home. And he’s a man with a very strong moral compass point of view. He’s a judge. And John Lithgow’s character is potentially a psychopath. It’s a battle for how these people are going to maybe protect the home for a long-term future.

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