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Prisoners Of War And Ojibwe Reservation Make Unlikely Neighbors In 'Prudence'

Native American writer David Treuer bases the World War II camp for German prisoners on a real-life one that existed near the village of Bena, Minn., on the Leech Lake Reservation where he grew up.

29:46

Other segments from the episode on February 23, 2015

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 23, 2015: Interview with David Treuer; Interview with Mark Woollen; Review of Daisy Hay's new biography "Mr. and Mrs. Disraeli: A Strange Romance."

Transcript

February 23, 2015

Guests: David Treuer - Mark Woollen

DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. Our guest, Native American writer David Treuer, is a member of Ojibwe tribe in northern Minnesota, but he spent his life and career straddling different worlds. His mother is Ojibwe, but his father was an Austrian Jew and Holocaust survivor who immigrated to the states. Treuer has lived and still lives part of the year on the Leech Lake Reservation, but he also teaches literature and creative writing at the University of Southern California.

His latest novel, called "Prudence," is set in the 1940s on an Ojibwe reservation where whites and Indians have complex relationships and where a prison camp for Germans captured in the war has appeared. David Treuer is the author of three previous novels and two books of nonfiction, as well as essays and articles published in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Esquire, Slate and other media. He last appeared on FRESH AIR with his brother, Anton, in 2008 to talk about their project to preserve the Ojibwe language.

David Treuer, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I thought we might begin by having you describe the setting of this place, the Pines, in 1942. What kind of place is it?

DAVID TREUER: The Pines is a vacation home/resort owned by a Chicago couple. And the resort is in the middle of a reservation in northern Minnesota, and it resembles Leech Lake to a large degree. The reservation I'm from, Leech Lake, is a very large reservation with many native communities within the boundaries of the reservation, but there are also many resorts and non-native people who live there, too. So I was always captured by the ways in which native and non-native people mix and mingle and build lives together, which runs counter to a lot of our thinking about native and white relations.

DAVIES: And one of the first characters we meet is Emma Washburn. She's this woman who comes every summer to open up the little resort that has all these guesthouses. She hires a lot of the locals. I mean, it's sort of kind of like the downstairs staff in "Downton Abbey." She hires folks from the reservation. And there's a moment you describe when she's going to hire Felix, this - you know, this man from the tribe, as the handyman who will help her take care of the place, and she says, well, is he reliable? Will he whiskey up after we pay him and disappear?

TREUER: Yeah, she's very skeptical. She thinks that, you know, to be shrewd is the important thing when running a business, and so she doesn't even know how to treat the people around her. And so the person she's asking is a businessperson about town, and he said, well, you know, Felix is an important person. He's a big man in these parts. And she doesn't really take the hint, and she persists in seeing him as she wants to see him, as a simpleminded, quiet, stoic Indian, maybe from the movies.

DAVIES: And it turns out Felix is a wonderful employee. He gets so much done (laughter)...

TREUER: Yeah, he's very good.

DAVIES: ...Efficiently and quietly. You want to just tell us a little bit about him?

TREUER: Sure. Felix comes across, early on, as something very close to the stoic, closed-mouthed Indian of stereotype. And as we get to know him, we see beyond and behind that surface, and we see a wildly emotional man, a very deep feeling man, who's suffered some tremendous setbacks in life, and who, yet, tries to live a life that, to him, is a life of dignity and caring. He's doing the absolute best he can, and he does very, very well most of the time.

DAVIES: This is in 1942. World War II is underway. And Felix fought in World War I, as did a lot of Indians, right?

TREUER: Yes, especially Ojibwe and other border Indians who would walk across - travel across to the Canadian side and enlist in the Canadian army. And so there were Native Americans fighting in World War I as early as the beginning of the war, 1914. And America itself didn't join until, what, 1917.

DAVIES: I want to read a passage, here. And this is a moment when Felix is watching as Emma, the woman who owns the resort, is greeting her son who is away in Air Force training. And Felix sort of takes in their greeting, and we hear some of his reflections. You want to read this passage for us?

TREUER: Sure, yeah. I'd love to. So here we go. (Reading) And he'd watched as Emma came striding from behind the house, her arms open wide to receive Frankie. No one had greeted Felix that way when he returned in 1919. The shack where his wife and child had died did not open its arms to him. He had left for the war and walked into death, and death was what he'd come home to. His mother and father still lived in their wigwam on the trapping grounds. His father shook his hand. His mother made him sit and fed him. Later, they went to the drum dance where Felix was expected to tell the story of his kills. The old men who remembered 1862 and 1876 and 1891 listened and nodded. And when he was done, they heaped blankets on his lap and pressed tobacco plugs into his palm and shook his hand. One old man gave him a knife and three silver dollars, but no one - not one person - had clutched him and held him close as Emma had hugged Frankie. My son, my boy, Emma had said, trying to cup Frankie's face in her hands. But Frankie had reared back and taken her hands in his and said, mother, good - mother, good. That was when he'd looked up and nodded at Felix. Old Felix - old Felix, it's good to see you - really good. Mr. Frankie, Felix had answered. He felt like saying more, but he couldn't act like they did. It wouldn't feel natural. And he could see that Frankie was trying so hard to be a man, or to be thought of as one, so he'd left it at that.

DAVIES: And that's our guest, David Treuer, reading from his new novel, "Prudence," which is set on a Native American reservation in the 1940s. That is just such a powerful description of this man, Felix. Is he based on someone in your life?

TREUER: No, he's not. Growing up in the '70s, when I was a little kid, I knew old guys who had been World War I veterans. I think one of my namesakes, Clem Boleo (ph), himself was a World War I veteran. And I grew up around a lot of World War II veterans. My grandfather, and I think all of his brothers, served in some capacity. I know my grandfather did, for sure. He was an infantryman in the 2nd Infantry Division and fought in Normandy and then also in Belgium. So I knew a lot of older people. They were always around, and we were always around them. But no, Felix is - he's unique to the book.

DAVIES: The other fascinating thing about this setting - we have a reservation. We have this couple from Chicago that have this little resort which they invite family and friends to and hire some locals from the tribe. And there is a prisoner of war camp...

TREUER: Yeah.

DAVIES: ...This is 1942 - with German prisoners. Did that actually happen in the Leech Lake Reservation?

TREUER: It absolutely did happen. The village that my family's from is Bena, Minn., and within sight of the village, on the shores of Lake Winnie, there was a German prisoner of war camp. It was there for a long time, and the German prisoners would go out in the woods and cut trees and lay corduroy, as they say, to making roads. And it was a work camp, basically. And it was there all through the war. And it always struck me as so ironic that during the war, all these Germans showed up, and all the Indian men were gone fighting. And all these displacements were going on.

And also, it struck me as ironic, too because most people think of reservations as places where nothing really happens and are really just places of eternal suffering. It doesn't really matter when or where the reservation is, but for the past, say, 150 years, it's just a place where Indians suffer continuously. And so I wanted to - I was fascinated by the existence of this prisoner of war camp 'cause it shows that time and place matter, that there's more happening on reservations and in Indian lives than simply ongoing trauma.

DAVIES: You have an interesting background. You want to tell us about your parents?

TREUER: (Laughter) Sure, yeah. So my father's Jewish, and he's a European Jew. He's from Vienna, Austria, and - born in 1926 - and he fled in 1938 and - after a lot of difficulty and loss - and made it to the states. His mother survived as well, and also his father, which was something of a miracle, so they settled in the states. And then he wound up in Minnesota. At a certain point in his life, he was teaching high school on the reservation, and he made his life among native people, among Ojibwe people, and became a very, very important part of the community. My mother is from the reservation where my father taught high school and was actually, at one point, one of his high school students. They didn't date then - not to worry. And that's where we made our lives.

DAVIES: Was the Ojibwe language spoken at all in your house? Did your mom speak it?

TREUER: She didn't speak it very much. The government had done a very good job of eradicating the language in our family. But she did give us our Ojibwe culture and life ways as best she could. And so we were a ceremonial family. I've never been baptized. I'd never been to church except when I was stuck at a friend's house and my friend had to go to church, and so I had to go with him. A very non-Christian - and non-Jewish family, for that matter.

DAVIES: What kinds of ceremonies did you practice?

TREUER: Well, you know, those are things that we try to - you know, we keep close.

DAVIES: OK.

TREUER: But, you know, everything from small things to sort of rites of passage - making sure we had our names, making sure that we, you know, sort of advanced into adulthood, making sure that we had a kind of a faith and a religion to guide us through our lives and then to help us in the decisions we made. But that's about as specific as I can probably get with that stuff.

DAVIES: You said when you were growing up that your mom conveyed the importance of the Ojibwe culture to you in some ways. Can you - I wonder if you can think of any particular ways that you remember her making that important - food or, you know...

TREUER: Oh, yeah.

DAVIES: ...Songs.

TREUER: Yeah, well, she took us to ceremonies, which was not something that a lot of parents at that time were doing. But she just took us whether we wanted to go or not, so we were just around traditional people. And so we were comfortable around traditional people. So there was that. And that's about as much as I probably want to say about Ojibwe ceremonies. But...

DAVIES: Sure.

TREUER: ...But she also made us do all sorts of stuff which I loathed. Dave, I loathed this stuff when I was a kid. She made us go ricing - harvesting wild rice...

DAVIES: Oh, right.

TREUER: ...In canoes. I hated it. It was itchy and hot, and there were rice worms which bit you and spiders. And I just wanted to be playing army with my friends or whatever. And then we had to go do this, and I just hated it. And then, in the fall, we'd go hunting. And I didn't care much about hunting. My older brother was more into it than - I became much more interested in it later on. I said, this is boring. And I said, I'm sitting in a swamp, watching more swamp. I don't want to do this. I don't want to be here. And in the spring, we'd tap maple trees and boil the sap down and make maple syrup and maple sugar. I couldn't stand it. The smell gave me headaches. And you know, but she made us do this all the time.

And I would - I teased her about it later. I think I must have been in college, I said, oh, mom, you know, you used to make us do all this stuff, and it used to annoy me so much. She said, well, I always felt that you should grow up and be and do anything that you want to do, any place in the world. But push come to shove, if you came back here, you could live off the land, and you would know how our people have done it for centuries. You will have it. You'll never have to looking for it because you'll already have it. That's my gift to you as a parent. I know you didn't like it, but I think that you do now. And she was absolutely right. I long to do all those things. I love doing those things, and I love doing them with my kids.

DAVIES: We're speaking with David Treuer. His new novel is called "Prudence." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, we're speaking with novelist David Treuer. His new book is called "Prudence."

You have a book - a nonfiction book - called "Rez Life" about life on the reservation, not just Leech Lake where you grew up, but on reservations across the country. You tell about the history of the Ojibwe tribe. Give us a bit of that.

TREUER: Yeah, my book "Rez Life" is really just an answer to a set of questions. What are reservations? Why do they exist? Where are they going? What do they mean? What can they tell us, all of us, about native people, but also about America? Those were the questions that gave rise to the book.

In it, of course, being Ojibwe, I focus a fair amount on Ojibwe lives and Ojibwe reservations. I feel very lucky to be Ojibwe. We're a very large tribe. We're scattered all over the United States all the way from Michigan to North Dakota and all points in between and from as far south as almost Chicago to as far north as Hudson Bay. I mean, I think the land area that comprises Ojibwe country is probably the largest cultural area - you know, native cultural area - in North America. And...

DAVIES: And, for context, they're also referred to as Chippewa by some, right?

TREUER: Right, by some. Ojibwes, Ojibwa, Chippewa - those are, you know, three different ways of referring to us. We refer to ourselves as Ojibwe. And it's great being a part of a big tribe like that. There's so much diversity in our tribe - people who grew up on these remote fly-in reserves in Northern Ontario - reachable only by float plane - to people who grew up at Mille Lacs Reservation in Minnesota, an hour and a half from Minneapolis, going to Vikings games. We have lawyers and trappers and homemakers. I mean, there's so much diversity just in my tribe. I just - I revel in that. I love that.

DAVIES: You write that the Ojibwe - I think they came from the Eastern part of the United States and actually drove out the Sioux, who end up becoming - how did you put it? - cornering the market on Indian cool.

TREUER: Oh, yeah, yeah. Those plains tribes, you know, Lakota, Dakota, Nakota, Crow, Cheyenne, Blackfeet, Arikara. Those are really cool tribes (laughter). And, you know, they're sort of - when people close their eyes and imagine an Indian, well, they tend to imagine some Plains Indian on the back of a horse. And they don't tend to imagine, you know, stocky Ojibwe people living in swamps, trapping beavers and eating rabbits, you know? So, yeah, I will say that some of our neighboring tribes are in some ways cooler than we are, but in some ways, you know, of course - course not.

DAVIES: Right, well, you talk about the names, for example.

TREUER: Oh, yeah. Those Plains tribes have great names. And - like Crazy Horse, you know, Sitting Bull, those are awesome, you know? And some of our famous Ojibwe chiefs have names like Moose Dung, Little French Man, Bad Boy, Curly Head, Flat Mouth. And, I mean, those are interesting, but not quite as cool as Sitting Bull.

DAVIES: Your grandfather has quite a story. Do you feel like telling us a bit about this when you write in the book how you went through in 2007 after his death?

TREUER: Yeah, "Rez Life" - I start the book by talking about how I was - I returned to my family's village on the day that my grandfather committed suicide. He was an 83-year-old veteran of World War II and he'd endured and survived so much. And it came as such a shock that he would kill himself, he would shoot himself in the head. It's so painful. What I don't talk about in the book is that in the last decade or so of his life, he and I had become very, very close. This was an unexpected blooming of our relationship. I'd never thought that would happen while I was growing up. It wouldn't have seemed possible. So when I lost him, it was incredibly painful.

My grandmother asked me to eulogize him at his funeral and that was easy to agree to. And then she also asked me to go up to his house into his bedroom and clean it up - clean up the mess that he made when he shot himself. And I agreed to do that too, and that proved, you know, both liberating and difficult in ways I couldn't have imagined. No one - nothing prepared me in life really to clean up my grandfather's blood and his - you know, his brain. I don't know how else to put it.

DAVIES: How was it liberating?

TREUER: Well, you come face to face with what your lives mean. I had to think really hard about what his life meant. I was challenged right - cleaning up after his suicide pushed me in ways I didn't expect. So cleaning out his room and removing his furniture and his clothes and ripping out the carpet and - I had to - it was as though I was digging for something else. I was trying to dig past his death. I was trying to dig past the tragedy of his death and trying to find something else, and I found something else down there. And what I found was that I was able to reject - reject the version of his life that told - that told it as a tragedy. I rejected the temptation to define his life by the split second it took for that bullet to travel through his head, to put it very literally. That he'd - I found it possible to remember that he lived 83 years in the only place that mattered to him, surrounded by the only people that mattered to him, that when I really tried, I could see that his life was a life of surplus and beauty and bounty. And I don't think I would've gotten there if I'd not been face to face with his end. The end was brief. There were 83 years before that and those were not easy years, but those were good years, and he got to spend them with us.

DAVIES: Why do you think your grandmother asked you to clean up the house rather than, you know, hiring somebody or finding somebody else? Or...

TREUER: (Laughter) Yes, she asked me to clean up the house, and I don't think it occurred to her to hire somebody. It's not - no one's ever probably hired anyone to clean anything in my grandmother's family. It's just you do it yourself. Even the grave, we dig the graves ourselves typically. And we don't hire that out. It's just not done.

DAVIES: David Treuer is the author of "Rez Life." His new novel is called "Prudence." He'll be back in the second half of the show. And we'll learn about making movie trailers from Mark Woollen, who's made trailers for many Oscar-nominated films, including "Boyhood," "The Theory Of Everything," and "Birdman," which last night picked up the award for best picture. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. We're speaking with Native American writer David Treuer. He's a member of the Ojibwe tribe in northern Minnesota, but he spends part of every year teaching literature and creative writing at the University of Southern California. His latest novel, called "Prudence," is set in the 1940s on an Ojibwe reservation where a camp for German prisoners of war has appeared.

The new novel is named "Prudence" after a woman who was a character - there's an interesting story behind your picking this name.

TREUER: Yeah. She's based on a real person of that name. In a biography of Ernest Hemingway, the biographer quotes - I forget the title of the biography - but the biographer quotes Hemingway as saying "the first woman I ever pleasured was an Ojibwe half-breed girl named Prudence Bolton," end quote. Now of course (laughter) this is Hemingway, so you have to take it with a grain of salt. And I think we could probably assume that Hemingway's never pleasured anybody.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

TREUER: You think Hemingway, you don't think pleasure. You think other things. And the biographer did some due diligence to see if this were true, if this were possibly true. And he found that in fact there was a woman - a girl - named Prudence Bolton, who lived near and around Traverse, Mich., and her path would have crossed Hemingway's. The only other thing he was able to find out was that she and her lover, Richard Castle, committed suicide when they were 19 by drinking strychnine and that Prudence had been pregnant at that time. And I thought, I came across this nugget - I don't know - 20 years ago, maybe? And it always stayed with me, and it stayed with me because it betrayed a kind of systemic unfairness that we live in a society that will give us thousands and thousands of pages about Ernest Hemingway and about people like Ernest Hemingway, but that people like Prudence get one sentence. That's all she gets. That's it. And I was really curious about her. What was her life like? Why would she do something like that?

DAVIES: And when people read the book, they will see how this Prudence came to encounter the other characters that we've been talking about in the book - the people who lived on this reservation, the woman who had the family who ran the small resort, and Felix, the handyman. And the encounter is - well, there are hard times. There's, you know, hunger. There is abuse. You know, I've read that you are troubled by writing about Native Americans which uses trauma narratives to, you know, as a way of understanding Indian lives. Prudence's story is pretty traumatic here, isn't it?

TREUER: Sure. I mean, her story is. She has her fair share of hardship. Of course, you know, characters in novels need to experience hardship. There needs to be conflict or there's no novel, there's no story. So yes, I suppose in some ways Prudence's life is traumatic. But I like to think at least - and this maybe is a question for critics down the road - that I avoid falling into what I think of as writing trauma porn, which is basically trotting out hardship which provides a kind of catharsis, right? There's a cathartic reaction on the part of the reader to it, this sort of - this unleashing and this unburdening of emotion, like, oh, my God - of pity and fear. And then once unburdened, you know, the reader is - their burden is lightened. They've expiated whatever guilt they have, right? That's the kind of emotional math of reading a kind of book which I try not to write.

So in Prudence's life, yes, there's lots of hardship on one hand. On the other, I don't think I let the reader off the hook. I don't think that I provided cheap or easy catharsis. And it's all leading up toward - the book is leading up toward Prudence's attempt at self-possession and recovery, and how she does that is not how you'd think. But I hope I haven't done what I...

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: No, no.

TREUER: ...Been so fond of accusing other people of doing...

DAVIES: Yeah, no.

TREUER: ...Of having done.

DAVIES: Right. I don't feel expiation and catharsis...

TREUER: Oh, good. Oh, good.

DAVIES: ...When I read about Prudence's way of dealing with this. One more thing - terminology. You use the term Indian often. A lot of people will, you know, prefer Native American. Do these words have any particular meaning to you? I mean, are there any particular ways that you think they should or should not be used?

TREUER: I think they should be used in the way that whoever you're talking to feels appropriate. Personally, and I'm only speaking for myself and this is not the final word on anything - I want to make that clear to anyone listening - I personally don't care whether it's Indian, American Indian or Native American. The important term to me is Ojibwe. You know, that's the name of my tribe. So to me they're interchangeable, and I use them interchangeably. And it's just easier to say Indian. It's fewer syllables. And I'm all for fewer syllables. To some people it matters a great deal and they've put a lot of thought into it, and they have very compelling reasons why they prefer Native American or American Indian, what have you. And they should be respected and listened to. But for me, that terminology is used interchangeably. That's just me, though.

DAVIES: And, as a writer, more than one term is always good. Well, David Treuer, thanks so much for speaking with us.

TREUER: Thank you.

DAVIES: David Treuer is a member of the Ojibwe tribe in northern Minnesota, and he teaches literature and creative writing at the University of Southern California. His new novel is called "Prudence." Coming up, Mark Woollen tells us about making movie trailers. This is FRESH AIR.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. There's no category at the Oscars for movie trailers, but our guest Mark Woollen has created trailers for many Oscar-nominated films. This year alone, he made the trailers for "Boyhood," "The Theory Of Everything" and "Birdman," which last night picked up the award for best picture.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAILER)

MICHAEL KEATON: (As Riggan) How did we end up here? This place is horrible. It smells like [expletive]. We had it all.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) You were a movie star, remember?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Who is this guy?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) He used to be Birdman.

KEATON: (As Riggan) I like that poster.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) You wrote this adaptation?

KEATON: (As Riggan) I did, yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) And you're directing and starring in your adaptation? That's ambitious.

DAVIES: Mark Woollen selects images, bits of dialogue, and music to create the trailers that, when shown months before a film's release, will plant the urge to see that film when it opens. He's been professionally editing film and video since he was in high school. In the past few years, he made the trailers for "12 Years A Slave," "Dallas Buyers Club," "Nebraska" and "Her." One of his first trailers was for the film "Schindler's List." Terry Gross spoke to him about his work, and how he crafts an audience first glimpse of a film.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: (Laughter) Mark Woollen, welcome to FRESH AIR. One of the frustrations that I have when I'm in a movie theater watching trailers is that some trailers basically tell me the entire movie. They're showing me the last scene of the film. And I'm thinking, like, OK, I don't really like the story they're showing me plus I know the whole thing. Like, why would I even bother to go now? Why do they do that?

MARK WOOLLEN: I know, I know. I really hate when that happens, when I see, Terry, trailers do that. And it's something that we avoid in the films that we're working on. I mean, I think last year, certainly as an example, we worked on David Fincher's "Gone Girl." And that was a film where we were in the whole campaign really only working with the first hour of the movie because there was a lot for the audience to discover once they go to the film, and we didn't want to spoil that. So we were very careful through that campaign.

But yeah, I know what you mean. I do see examples of that happening in trailers, and that comes down to the business of it all. There is, you know, compelling data that the big studios often use that, point them in that direction - that the more audiences know, the more likely they are to go. I don't necessarily prescribe to that, and that's not something that we do in our work, but it does happen.

GROSS: You did a great trailer for a film I really love. It's the Coen brothers' movie "A Serious Man" which is about, you know, a guy who's - is he a college professor? - and he's just having this kind of crisis of faith along with a kind of midlife crisis and a crisis in his marriage and, you know, he doesn't know who to seek for help. Maybe a rabbi, but the rabbi's busy. It's not - you know, he's not getting the help he's looking for from the rabbi. And so you did the trailer for that. You want to tell the story behind the trailer?

WOOLLEN: Sure. I've made trailers for the Coen brothers for a number of their films over the years, going back to "The Big Lebowski," I'd say. And they're usually always wanting - you know, their films are so unique and the characters that they create always deserve something different.

And I remember with the "Serious Man," them saying, you know, we've made it kind of an unconventional film, you know, we want an unconventional trailer. And there was this moment in the film that's probably about - well, I think the shot is maybe about five or six seconds long of the main character's head being bashed against a chalkboard. And we kind of - it was always a moment that stuck with us. And we kind of wondered, you know, is there a way to - could you ever build a trailer around that moment, which is only, you know, a few seconds long?

And so we started playing with the concept of this character is - you know, he's in this kind of cycle of desperation and frustration that's happening. It felt like he was kind of - that hitting of the head was really kind of a perfect metaphor for that. So we used that basically to - you know, I talked about how trailers are a lot about rhythm and so that sound of this man's skull throbbing against a chalkboard really became kind of the baseline for the trailer and kind of set the trailer's rhythm. We also started looking for other interesting sounds.

You know, sound can play such an amazing - be an amazing tool for trailers. And so there was a moment where there was a secretary who was coughing up some phlegm. And so then, you know, it started first as kind of a boom, boom of the board and then it was a boom, ah (ph), boom, ah (ph). Then he crashes his car and that gets added into the mix. And we're again cycling and kind of remixing these sounds so it was a boom, ah, crash, and so - and so on. And that kind of built as he's telling his story. And it felt like the right fit.

GROSS: Very effective. Why don't we hear how that trailer sounds, and we'll hear how the head being hit against the chalkboard becomes the soundtrack for the trailer.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAILER)

MICHAEL STUHLBARG: (As Larry Gopnik) Please, I need help. I've had marital problems.

SARI LENNICK: (As Judith Gopnik) Honey, I think it's time that we start talking about a divorce.

FRED MELAMED: (As Sy Ableman) Mary, we're going to be fine.

STUHLBARG: (As Larry Gopnik) Professional, you name it.

ARI HOPTMAN: (As Arlen Finkle) Larry, we've received a number of letters denigrating you and urging us not to grant you tenure.

STUHLBARG: (As Larry Gopnik) I need help.

MELAMED: (As Sy Ableman) We're going to be fine.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR CRASH)

STUHLBARG: (As Larry Gopnik) I've tried to be a serious man.

ALAN MANDELL: (As Rabbi Marshak) Uh-huh.

MELAMED: (As Sy Ableman) We're going to be fine.

STUHLBARG: (As Larry Gopnik) I've tried to do right, be a member of the community.

MANDELL: (As Rabbi Marshak) Uh-huh.

MELAMED: (As Sy Ableman) We're going to be fine.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR CRASH)

STUHLBARG: (As Larry Gopnik) Please, just tell him I need help.

MANDELL: (As Rabbi Marshak) Uh-huh.

STUHLBARG: (As Larry Gopnik) Please.

MELAMED: (As Sy Ableman) We're going to be fine.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR CRASH)

STUHLBARG: (As Larry Gopnik) I need help.

MANDELL: (As Rabbi Marshak) Uh-huh.

MELAMED: (As Sy Ableman) We're going to be fine.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR CRASH)

STUHLBARG: (As Larry Gopnik) (Sighs).

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR CLOSING)

CLAUDIA WILKENS: (As Marshak's Secretary) The rabbi is busy.

STUHLBARG: (As Larry Gopnik) He didn't look busy.

WILKENS: (As Marshak's Secretary) He's thinking.

GROSS: That's the trailer for the Coen brothers' film "A Serious Man," and the trailer was produced by my guest, Mark Woollen.

So we talked about giving away the whole story, and you explained you don't like that and you don't do that. And then, like, there's the action film trailer, and I know you mostly do, like, the Indian art-house stuff, but the action film trailer, there's usually like a lot of explosions and crashes and guns and then a percussion sound that seems to have replaced the whoosh that used to be in action movies. And now it's this kind of like percussion sound.

I was at a multiplex recently and saw four trailers in a row that had the same sound effect. And so I'm going to play one of the trailers, and this is a trailer for a forthcoming movie called "Chappie." And it seems to be about a robot that's able to think and feel like a human, but some people want this robot destroyed, afraid that he will actually turn against people and become really dangerous. So here's the trailer. And it starts with the voice of Anderson Cooper on TV. And listen for the opening sound effect which, is, like, repeated through the trailer.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAILER)

ANDERSON COOPER: (As Anderson Cooper) The deployment of the planet's first robotic police units became the focus of the world in 2016.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: (As character) Drop your weapons. You are under arrest.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHOOSH SOUND)

COOPER: (As Anderson Cooper) Vincent Moore is a former soldier.

HUGH JACKMAN: (As Vincent Moore) The problem with artificial intelligence is it's way too unpredictable.

COOPER: (As Anderson Cooper) The scouts' creator, Deon Wilson, sees a rich future.

DEV PATEL: (As Deon Wilson) What interests me is a machine that can think and feel.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHOOSH SOUND)

GROSS: Now I'm going to skip to the end of the trailer, so you hear, like, the climactic version of the whooshes and the percussion.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAILER)

SHARLTO COPLEY: (As Chappie) I am consciousness. I am alive. I am Chappie.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHOOSH SOUND)

GROSS: OK. Mark Woollen (laughter) can you explain why so many trailers use the same kind of sound?

WOOLLEN: I don't know. It's kind of difficult for me to speak about other...

GROSS: I thought you might feel that way.

WOOLLEN: ...Other people's work. It's playing like a morning zoo program for you and saying, you know, Terry, tell me why are they doing this?

GROSS: (Laughter).

WOOLLEN: I don't know. It's foreign to me.

GROSS: (Laughter) The closest you've come of the trailers that you did that I know of is in the film adaptation of "Sweeney Todd." There's a little bit of that sound, but it's because Sweeney, like, Sweeney's - he's like a demon barber and his razor is what he uses to kill people with, so I think you're trying to get like the razor sound but there's a little bit of that percussive, clangy (ph) thing going on in the trailer.

WOOLLEN: Yeah. I mean, I could say in general that trailers are really about rhythm and in the work that we're trying to do, it's about kind of establishing certainly a pace. Again I can't really speak to the specific choices behind some of that. It's maybe not necessarily something that's to my taste, so it's - I would've done it differently.

GROSS: In some ways, you are the wrong guy for me to interview on the radio about movie trailers because your trailers are usually so visually rich. And some of your trailers don't even have any dialogue on them. Like, for example, the first trailer you ever did was the trailer for "Schindler's List." And it was basically all images - all images of Jews being, like, put on trains and digging graves and having everything they owned confiscated, and it's just a really grim, beautifully shot and edited trailer. And the only language in it is you see - I don't know - a 12-year-old, maybe, waving to the Jews being, you know, taken off to camps and she's saying, bye-bye, Jews. And then at the end, someone says, the list is life. Can you talk about doing a trailer with, like, no dialogue?

WOOLLEN: With the trailer for "Schindler's List," it was one of the first pieces that I did that I was really proud of. I was working at Universal in their trailer department at the studio, and I was about 21 or so and had been editing trailers, I guess, for a couple of years at that point. But I had gone to one of the very first screenings of that film, I still remember distinctly, and the studio had just seen it for the first time, and then the next showing was for the marketing department. And there was about three to five of us or so in this screening.

And I remember the feeling of watching that film for the first time and the power and the emotion and coming out of it, and everyone was, you know, in different states of trying to cover up their tears, and it had such an emotional impact. And so when I was looking at the trailer, that's what I was drawn to. It was how to kind of create this feeling, give people a sense of what this emotional experience may be. So I started really looking at all the images and what were the images that really affected me and that kind of popped out and started to try to kind of see if I could tell a story just visually. And I had a piece of music that would really carry through. And that's something that I continue to do, you know? And a lot of the work over the years is really finding that perfect marriage between a piece of music and imagery, and that really can evoke more than words for me in a lot of places.

GROSS: Well, Mark Woollen, thanks so much for talking with us.

WOOLLEN: Thank you, Terry.

DAVIES: Mark Woollen makes trailers for art-house films, including three of this year's best picture nominees. Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews "Mr. And Mrs. Disraeli," a biography of the first Jewish prime minister of England and his wife. This is FRESH AIR.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST: Biographer Daisy Hay first made a name for herself with her 2010 book "Young Romantics," about the tangled relationships among Lord Byron, Percy and Mary Shelley and others in their circle. Hay's continuing fascination with the unconventional private lives of famous figures has inspired her latest book, a joint biography of 19th-century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli and his wife Mary Anne. Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: (Reading) A climb to the top of a greasy pole. Those are the immortal words coined by Benjamin Disraeli to describe his rise to political power. Disraeli was two-time prime minister under Queen Victoria, as well as a novelist and famous wit, whose way with a catchy phrase was rivaled in the 19th century only by his younger admirer, Oscar Wilde. But when he entered politics in the 1830s, Disraeli was burdened by debt, and even more seriously by his Jewish parentage. Anti-Semitism was a constant throughout Disraeli's life. The Irish leader, Daniel O'Connell, for instance, once attacked him in a newspaper diatribe, saying, (reading) Disraeli's name shows that he is of Jewish origin, and he has just the qualities of the impenitent thief on the cross. If Disraeli's climb to the top of that greasy pole was especially difficult, he largely owed his success to his gentile wife, Mary Anne, who boosted him up with her charisma and her fortune every slippery inch of the way. Their unusual marriage - think the shrewdness of the Underwoods from "House of Cards" interlaced with the genuine passion of a Napoleon and Josephine - is the subject of Daisy Hay's erudite and lively new biography called "Mr. And Mrs. Disraeli." Hay offers an intimate look at their relationship thanks to the voluminous letters and diaries kept by the Disraelis and their circle. She also tells a larger story here about how the expectations for marriage itself change during the Victorian era, transforming from a chiefly economic transaction to a union in which compatibility and even romantic love were considered essentials. Despite Benjamin Disraeli's historical prominence, Mary Anne steals the spotlight in this marital biography. Flirtatious and flashy, a lover of diamonds, lace and gossip, Mary Anne was born even lower down the 19th-century pecking order than Disraeli. Her father was a mere sailor, and so Mary Anne first got a leg up the old-fashioned way: through an early marriage to a staid, older man, whose most appealing feature was that he owned an iron works. She first forged her skills as a political spouse with this husband, who ran for a seat in Parliament. When he won, Mary Anne threw a Liberace-worthy dinner party at their home in London. On the dining table, Hay tells us, she contrived a showstopping table decoration: a windmill complete with turning sails, perched above a stream in which swam gold and silver fish.

After husband number one died, leaving Mary Anne a 47-year-old wealthy widow, she married Disraeli, then a debt-ridden dandy of 35. Among other rumors swirling about him in London society, it was said that Disraeli indulged in the pleasures of Eastern love; that is, homosexuality with, among others, fellow novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the man who gave us literature's most melodramatic opening line: it was a dark and stormy night. But what may have started out as a marriage of convenience for Disraeli soon morphed into romance, as evidenced by some excruciatingly dopey love poems. In one, a besotted Disraeli wrote to Mary Anne that he wished he were the flea that is biting your knee. Hay makes the intriguing point that Disraeli was among the first generation of politicians who needed to appeal to a middle-class electorate. And so, he understood the attraction of selling the inside story of his unlikely but happy marriage to voters. If so, we have Disraeli to thank for the subsequent century and a half of campaign trail narratives about normative wedded bliss, cute complaints about snoring and stinkyness in the bedroom and non-stop "Brady Bunch" family ecstasy.

The other big takeaway from Hay's rich dual biography is less amusing. Victorian wives, no matter how seemingly secure their positions, were at the mercy of their husbands. The aforementioned Bulwer-Lytton arranged to have his troublesome wife abducted and committed to a madhouse. Disraeli secretly made use of Mary Anne's money and property as collateral on his debts. No wonder when a rude acquaintance asked Disraeli what kept him with his much older wife, Disraeli reportedly replied, gratitude.

DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University and is the author of the new book "So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came To Be And Why It Endures." She reviewed "Mr. And Mrs. Disraeli" by Daisy Hay. On tomorrow's show, I'll be speaking with writer Philip Connors, whose funny, poignant memoir tells the story of trying to understand his younger brother's suicide. When his brother killed himself, Connors couldn't forgive himself for not calling him the night before at his mother's urging.

PHILIP CONNORS: I wanted to believe that that might have saved him. I couldn't believe, in fact, that it wouldn't have saved him.

DAVIES: Connors' memoir is "All The Wrong Places." I hope you can join us.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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