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'Changeling': Against The Odds, A Mother's Fight

Clint Eastwood's film recounts the based-on-a-true-story tale of a Los Angeles woman's struggle to find her missing son — after police return the wrong child to her. David Edelstein has a review.


Other segments from the episode on October 31, 2008

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 31, 2008: Interview with Christopher Plummer; Interview with Colin Meloy; Review of the film "Changeling."


Fresh Air
12:00-1:00 PM
Christopher Plummer, A Legend In Spite of Himself


This is Fresh Air. I'm David Bianculli, TV critic for Broadcasting and Cable Magazine and, sitting in for Terry Gross. When you say Christopher Plummer, some people automatically think Captain Von Trapp in "The Sound of Music." But that's only one of about a hundred films Plummer has made. And he's just written about his life and career in a new memoir, which comes out next week. It's called "In Spite of Myself."

Christopher Plummer's recent films include "The Insider," "A Beautiful Mind," "Syriana," and "Insde Man." Next year, he'll star opposite Johnny Depp in a new Terry Gilliam film, "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus." In addition to his movie work, Plummer has enjoyed a long and successful career on stage. He's won two Tony awards and has performed with Britain's National Theater and the Royal Shakespeare Company. Terry spoke with Christopher Plummer in 2007.


Christopher Plummer, welcome to Fresh Air. It seems to me, in your life, you just keep getting better roles. You've been in a lot of interesting movies in the past few years.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER (Actor; Author, "In Spite of Myself"): Yes, yes, I have, which is great because once I had a character actor level, scripts started to improve as they came my way.

GROSS: Is there any movie that you see as like a turn point in the latter part of your career?

Mr. PLUMMER: Yes, I think "The Insider" was. I mean, I spent my life on the stage, and I've done tons of film both in England, Europe, and here. But another level started to be reached after "The Insider," and the scripts that I was receiving are now much more intelligent, about an A level rather than a B plus.

GROSS: Oh, I'm glad that you mentioned "The Insider" because we just happen to have a clip from it.

Mr. PLUMMER: Oh, book clip.

GROSS: Yeah, and this film, for anyone who hasn't seen it. It's about - "The Insider" is played by Russell Crowe. He is a whistle blower who had worked as a scientist at a tobacco company. And he knows all the secrets about the poisonous additives and all that stuff. So he's talking to "60 Minutes" about it. But this is the very beginning of the story, in which your producer, Lowell Bergman, played by Al Pacino, has been setting up an interview for you with an Islamic extremist. And at this point, you step in as Mike Wallace to actually ask the questions, and you want to create the roles, but, of course, the Islamic group wants to create the roles. So here's how the interview gets started.

(Soundbite of movie "The Insider")

Unidentified Man #1: (Arabic spoken)

Unidentified Man #2: He says you must not sit so close.

Mr. PLUMMER (As Mike Wallace): What? I can't conduct an interview from back there.

Unidentified Man #2: (Arabic spoken)

Unidentified Man #1: (Arabic spoken)

Unidentified Man #2: You must move back your chair.

Mr. PLUMMER (As Mike Wallace): Well, you tell him that, when I conduct an interview, I sit anywhere I damn please.

Unidentified Man #2: (Arabic spoken)

Unidentified Man #1: (Arabic spoken)

Unidentified Man #2: Well, there is no interview.

Unidentified Man #1: (Arabic spoken)

Mr. PLUMMER (As Mike Wallace): You, I'm talking to you.

Unidentified Man #1: (Arabic spoken)

Mr. PLUMMER (As Mike Wallace): Who the hell do you think I am? A 78-year-old assassin? Do you think I'm going to karate him to death with this notepad?

Unidentified Man #2: (Arabic spoken)

Unidentified Man #1: (Arabic spoken)

Mr. PLUMMER (As Mike Wallace): Are you interpreting what I'm saying? We're there.

Unidentified Man #2: Yes

Mr. PLUMMER (As Mike Wallace): Good. Well, ask him if Arabic is his second language.

Unidentified Man #1: (Arabic spoken)

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's my guest, Christopher Plummer, in a scene from "The Insider." How did you get the part in "The Insider," which you say, you know, was a turning point in your film career.

Mr PLUMMER: Well, they sent me the script. I'm sure they sent it to others as well. But I got it, and I met Michael and Al, and I was in. It was just wonderful.

GROSS: And did you start watching a lot of "60 Minutes"? Did you meet Mike Wallace? Was that necessary?

Mr. PLUMMER: You know, I knew Mike Wallace. I knew Mike Wallace. And he'd interviewed me in the past. I also grew up with Mike Wallace. He was one of the early hardcore television personalities. And I've watched him continuously when I was in my 20s in the '50s, when he began, and it was always very exciting to watch that kind of television that was really probably what the medium was for, kind of exposed medium in which people got into the core, sometimes cruelly or not, of someone's persona. And Mike was an expert on that, as was John Freeman in England.

GROSS: Now, another film that you did in recent years was "Syriana," in which you're the head of the big law firm representing an oil company with interest in the Middle East. And they're looking at a power change in a small gulf country. And they want to - they want their own men in power so they can call the shots. So they're trying to help this young weaker prince who they think they can tell what to do. I want to play a scene in which you're talking with that prince.

(Soundbite of movie "Syriana")

Mr. PLUMMER (As Dean Whiting): Prince, is there anything that we can do for you?

Mr. KAYVAN NOVAK (As Arash): Americans are always happy to drill holes in other people's countries. I've heard of you, Mr. Whiting, the cat's paw of the Saudi princess.

Mr. PLUMMER (As Dean Whiting): I know your brother, the foreign minister. He's very bight. I know your father, too. He threw the second creepiest party I have ever been to in Washington. And as far as I can see, you could probably use a bit of a cat's paw yourself, second born son, so beaten down by his family he can't even tell me what he wants when he's asked straight out. A grown up baby who's afraid of his brother, and maybe he wants to be a king, maybe. Well, prince, are you a king? Can you tell me what you want?

GROSS: Well, Christopher Plummer, hearing your scenes from the "The Insider" and from "Syriana," I just started wondering, have you ever played someone in a movie who's sweet-tempered, sensitive, and shy?

Mr. PLUMMER: Yes, of course I have. Of course, I have. I've made over a 125 movies, and I think, in them, you'll find some of them, sweet, darling, sensitive, and shy. Yeah, I have done a few of those parts, of course.

GROSS: But you seem in recent years to really have kind of specialized in those really like power, assertive roles, no one is going to push me around kind of roles.

Mr. PLUMMER: Yes, I suppose, but those parts interest me. They're witty. They've got wonderful edge to them. And I think people think that I exude a sort of power, and so they keep casting me in these things.

GROSS: Well, we've got one more clip for you. And this one is inevitable. So, the movie that made you famous, "The Sound of Music," 1965, in which you are Captain Von Trapp, a widower who expects his children to behave as if they were in the military until you got a new governess, played by, of course, Julie Andrews. And this is the scene in which she comes through your door, you meet her for the first time, and you're trying to evaluate her and also give her directions on how to handle the kids.

(Soundbite of a clip from the movie "Sound Of Music")

Mr. CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER: (As Captain Baron Von Trapp): Ah, Fraulein...

Ms. JULIE ANDREWS (As Maria): Maria, sir.

Mr. PLUMMER: (As Captain Baron Von Trapp): Fraulein Maria. I don't know how much the nun at Abbey has told you...

Ms. JULIE ANDREWS (As Maria): Not much.

Mr. PLUMMER: (As Captain Baron Von Trapp): You are the 12th of the long line of governesses who have come to look after my children since their mother died. I trust that you would be an improvement over the last one. She stayed only two hours.

Ms. JULIE ANDREWS (As Maria): What's wrong with the children, sir?

Mr. PLUMMER: (As Captain Baron Von Trapp): There was nothing wrong with the children, only the governesses. They were completely unable to maintain discipline. Without it, this house cannot be properly run. Will you please remember that, Fraulein?

Ms. JULIE ANDREWS (As Maria): Yes, sir.

Mr. PLUMMER: (As Captain Baron Von Trapp): Every morning, you will drill the children in their studies. I will not permit them to dream away their summer holidays. Each afternoon, they will march about the grounds, breathing deeply. Bedtime is to be strictly observed, no exceptions.

Ms. JULIE ANDREWS (As Maria): Excuse me, sir. When do they play?

Mr. PLUMMER: (As Captain Baron Von Trapp): You will see to it that they conduct themselves at all times with the upmost orderliness and decorum. I'm placing you in command.

Ms. JULIE ANDREWS (As Maria): Yes, sir.

(Soundbite of whistle)

GROSS: Christopher Plummer and Julie Andrews in a scene from "The Sound of Music." People have such strong feelings about that movie. They either love it, or they hate it, and they think it's really insipid. Where do you stand on this issue of our time?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PLUMMER: I'm very fond of Julie. That's the nicest thing that came out of that film for me. We have a true and great friendship. She's an extraordinary woman, professional. I'm grateful to the film in many ways because it was such a success. It is not my favorite film, of course, because I do think it borders on mockishness.

But we did our damned best not to make it too mookish, and Robert Wise kept a very tight control on it, which was difficult enough, but the sound and the music is quite wonderful. The only two countries that really didn't like it were Austria, of course, and Germany. Austria was fed to the teeth of the fact that they'd seen so many documentary films about the Trapp family, that they had them up to here.

GROSS: You know, in your movies, you have such good dictions, such proper diction in some of your roles. I always thought you were from England. You're from Canada. Is the diction a result of theater training? Is it a class thing? Is it…

Mr. PLUMMER: No, it's a deal with my family, who spoke well. I mean, we speak well in Canada, as well as they do in the Great Britain, may I remind you. And my family were educated, well read, and they spoke beautiful English. So I really got a lot from them. And, of course, theater training continued to make it better.

GROSS: Now, you were a member of two very famous British theater groups, the National Theater and the Royal Shakespeare Company. What years were you in England?

Mr. PLUMMER: I lived in England from 1961, right through and to almost the mid '70s. So about 15 years, yeah.

GROSS: OK. So, I mean, you worked in a period when the method became very popular in the United States.

Mr. PLUMMER: Yeah.

GROSS: But you were also doing classical theater.


GROSS: So you were in classical theater and movies in which a lot of the actors were into the method. Did you find yourself going back and forth between more of a classical approach and more of a method approach to acting?

Mr. PLUMMER: Well, I think both. I think that one helped the other. I was so glad that - I'm so glad I was Canadian in a way because a Canadian can take the best of the British and the best of the American school. And we're rather good at that. We're kind of chameleons in that respect. That's why there's so many good Canadian comics and mimics, terrific. So that was valuable to use the method and use the classical technique together at the same time. It was very exciting.

GROSS: How would you describe the main difference between the two approaches?

Mr. PLUMMER: The method in itself has been, I think, heavily misunderstood. I've always thought that. The method is really there for an actor who is in trouble and who can't wrestle up an emotion that is trying to gather or the author requires him to get. So he uses sense memory and things that the method suggests you use, some personal experience in his primary family or some tragedy to - he uses that to infuse the lines that he's having trouble with. But if you're an actor, for God sake, the whole reason for being an actor is that you have an imagination, an intelligence, and some sort of instinct of your own, and you don't need to follow the method.

BIANCULLI: Christopher Plummer speaking to Terry Gross in 2007. More after a break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 2007 interview with actor Christopher Plummer. His memoir, "In Spite of Myself," comes out next week.

GROSS: Early in your screen career, you were actually on television. And you did a lot of the early TV shows.

Mr. PLUMMER: Yeah, golden. The golden age of television, yes, in New York.

GROSS: Like, General Electric Theater and Kraft Theater.

Mr. PLUMMER: All of them. I did them all. Yeah.

GROSS: And a lot of those were live, or all of them were live?

Mr. PLUMMER: All of them were live. Tape didn't come in until the late '50s, I don't think.

GROSS: Do you have really good stories about doing live drama on television in the '50s?

Mr. PLUMMER: Well, yeah. I can't remember the name of the show. But Martin Manulis was the producer and director. And we were doing, this time, mirroring the story of "The Crown Prince," Rudolf of Hapsburg, and his suicide attempt with Maria Vetsera, his lover. And the setting was in the hunting lodge, and on the night of the show, live, of course, Viveca Lindfors was such a beautiful Swedish actress, and she was playing Maria Vetsera, and I had an immense crush on her.

And the night came before I was supposed to make my entrance into the hunting lodge, and she is waiting for me. And the poor thing had to wait and wait because off stage, I couldn't see anything. It was all black. So finally, I saw a light at the end of this sort of long black hole. And I thought, Oh, thank God. At last, I can find an entrance and make my entrance. So I sort of bent down and came out of it. But the audience must have been very startled to see Crown Prince Rudolph with all his metals coming out through the fire place.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So, what did you do to cover it up, anything?

Mr. PLUMMER: I don't know. We just valiantly went over the hearth. But her face was something extraordinary. She didn't dream I was going to come through that thing.

GROSS: That sounds like such a nightmare, though. It's like live TV, and you can't find the entrance to the stage.

Mr. PLUMMER: Oh, it was awful, but the cameraman was so great in those days because if you were - I was on a long soap opera once, and like so - it was so bad, I can't remember its name and refuse to remember its name. But they were so great. There were only four of them, you know, four cameras. And then, we never knew our lines. So when we forgot a line, we'd wink at the camera, and then the camera man would then go and shoot a vase or something on a table or a grand piano while we quickly looked at the script and then nodded, and then he came back, and we finished the scene. That happened all the time. But it was beautiful. They mastered it so smoothly. These cameramen, they were heroes.

GROSS: You've performed Shakespeare. As a young man, you performed Shakespeare, as an older man most recently as King Lear on Broadway. Does Shakespeare read differently to you now than it did when you where younger? Are there things you see in it now that you didn't then, or interpretations that are different?

Mr. PLUMMER: Well, of course there are, but the poet himself remains as magical and as extraordinary and as simple and as human as he did when I was young. Because that's what strikes you right away is the humanity of the plays when you're - and the simplicity of them when you're a young person. That's why he's head and shoulders above all the other writers that wrote at his time particularly, because they are much more florid and grandiloquent.

And Shakespeare is so extraordinary simple. And that stays with you always. Of course, as you grow older, and you have some experience of life, you see more in to the depths of each character, King Lear for instance, which is an extraordinary play. It is so very modern in its dysfunctional family and all of the trappings of power that are disappearing from them is so modern, it's so human. You need to be much older to understand the depths of a part like that.

GROSS: I never think of Shakespeare as being simple.

Mr. PLUMMER: Oh, yes. I mean, oh no, come on. When he picks the great moment, the key moments in plays, his language becomes terribly simple, you notice now.

GROSS: Give me an example.

Mr. PLUMMER: Well. Nothing could be simpler than the rest of silence. That's as modern a statement is there ever was.

GROSS: You said that you used to drink a lot.


GROSS: And that's a very enthusiastic yes. Was this mostly like in the 1950s and '60s?

Mr. PLUMMER: Yeah, that was the good drinking era. And the '60s sort of became more of a drug era. And then the '70s were so boring, I can't remember them. But the '50s was a very communicative era. Everybody loved their drink. New York was wide open, so was Montreal. In fact, Montreal stayed open 24 hours a day. There wasn't a joint in town that closed. I used to, you know, commute shuttle back from both. It was a glorious time.

And we were - all us young actors, my friends, Jason Robards, were all big drinkers. Richard Harris, Peter O'Toole, all of us were good, hard-fisted drinkers. And our intention was that we should be if were to be called men. We must drink as much as we can. And if we can still get through Hamlet the next day without a hitch, that made you a man, my son. You weren't worth anything unless you could. You do the test of time.

GROSS: Is it harder to do "Hamlet" with a hangover?

Mr. PLUMMER: Terrible. It's just a nightmare. And I have done it when I had a hangover. It was very fast, though. We did it very fast. We got off very quickly. It was no longer a three and half hour, four hour play. It was something like two hours.

GROSS: What would you do to make yourself feel better before having to "Hamlet" or any kind of heavy lifting with a hangover?

Mr. PLUMMER: Ferna Branca was my favorite pick me up. Ferna Branc laced with a little creme de monte. It goes down like silk, and boy, does it wake you up. And if you have another one, you have two or three Ferna Brancas, you're drunk again. So just stick to one, and you'll be OK.

GROSS: And you wouldn't forget your lines with that.

Mr. PLUMMER: No, somehow, "Hamlet" remained intact in my memory. And so, it was a such a glorious played that I wouldn't insult it by forgetting it.

GROSS: Are there any roles you'd still particularly like to play? There are a lot of roles you don't know about because they haven't been written yet. But is there any particular thing you have your sights on?

Mr. PLUMMER: Oh, I hope somebody actually does write some role that really is a wonderful role. There aren't many, it's an al sompt (ph) time now. And as Nathan Lane said so succinctly, I don't do al sompt.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PLUMMER: But yeah, there's tons of stuff I want to play. I want to play some Chekhov. And yes, I want to do things like "Prospero." I want to do "Volpone." I've got tons of parts that I want to play before I croak.

GROSS: Well, Christopher Plummer, a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much.

Mr. PLUMMER: Thank you.

BIANCULLI: Christopher Plummer, speaking to Terry Gross in 2007. The actor has written a memoir entitled "In Spite of Myself," to be publish next week. I'm David Bianculli, and this is Fresh Air.
Fresh Air
12:00-1:00 PM
Colin Meloy: '10-Dollar Words' For A Cause


This is Fresh Air. I am David Bianculli in for Terry Gross. The Decemberists started out as an indie rock band from Portland, Oregon with a notable interest in both politics and history. Their songs are inspired by real-life events that are decades and centuries old and by words and musical forms even older than that. Yet, they're involved in the current political scene, too, staging a college bowl contest for voter registration. The school that gets the highest percentage of students to register to vote this fall will get a free concert on campus. And they have a new single. It's called "Valerie Plame."

(Soundbite of song "Valerie Plame")

THE DECEMBERISTS: (Singing) Oh, Valerie Plame, if that really is your name.
I would just shout the same to the world.
Dear Valerie Plame,
Ao they made a wreck of you,
but give me the rest of you,
And I'll give the world.
But you were just some silly girl
Taking in the sights of your empire's colony.
So I took you into my confidence
Without a thought of consequence to my heart or to my mind.
But Valerie Plame if that really is your name,
I would just shout the same to the world.
La da da de da la de da da,
La de da da da da dada da.
Oh Valerie Plame, if that really is your name.

BIANCULLI: That's "Valerie Plame," the new single from the Decemberists, who have just started a month-long American tour. Our guest is the band's singer and songwriter, Colin Meloy. Terry Gross spoke with Meloy in 2007 after their album "The Crane Wife" was released. She started by asking Meloy about the story the lyrics tell in his song "O Valencia!".

Mr. COLIN MELOY (Singer, Songwriter, The Decemberists): Well, I guess it's basically your traditional star-crossed lover theme about a guy and a girl who belong to two warring gangs or families and who are in love and are trying to kind of escape together, though it ends badly. The brother of the girl who has kind of a vendetta against the protagonist goes after him with a gun. The girl runs into his arms to try to save him, and the bullet that's intended for the guy, the hero, in fact kills the girl, and the song ends with them lying on the pavement, him holding her in his arms.

(Soundbite of song "O Valencia!")

THE DECEMBERISTS: (Singing) You belong to the gang, and you say you can't break away,
but I'm here with my hands on my heart.
Our families can't agree.
I'm your brother's sworn enemy, but I'll shout out my love to the stars.
So wait for the stone on your window, your window.
Wait by the car, and we'll go, we'll go.
When first we laid eyes,
I swore to no compromise
'Til I felt my caress on your skin.
Well, how soon we were betrayed.
Your sister gave us away, and your father came all unhinged.
So wait for the stone on your window, your window.
Wait by the car, and we'll go, we'll go.
Oh, Valencia, with blood still warm on the ground.
And I swear to the stars, I'll burn this whole city down.


That's the Decemberists from their CD "The Crane Wife." You've written a lot of songs that are very connected in one way or another to folk music ballads but yet aren't quite folk. What got you heading in that direction?

Mr. MELOY: It's hard to say. I think, when I was a kid, I was always really fascinated with folk music and folk tales and fairytales and have always just kind of harbored this fascination with them. It's just the fact that they are so gruesome and violent in some ways and really have this kind of beautiful span and all these uses of different characters and places, and it's always this the kind of mode of writing that seemed most interesting to me, I guess.

GROSS: You sometimes use language in your songs that is more flowery and old fashioned, almost 19th century.

Mr. MELOY: Yeah.

GROSS: Where does that come from?

Mr. MELOY: I don't know. I think that I've always had also a love of language. I mean, I - obviously, that's what drew me to songwriting and writing in general. And really, when you're writing songs, the English language is your tool, your kind of - your paintbrush, and I feel like - or your paint, I guess it would be. But I think to try not to - or to limit yourself in the sort of vocabulary or syntax and the songs would be kind of somehow limiting your palette too much. And it's exciting to me to use more, you know, pretty words that have a lot of nice alliterative and consonant qualities to them.

GROSS: Yeah. We are not going to hear the song, but quote off the first few lines from "The Landlord's Daughter," and people will get a sense of the kind of language we're talking about here.

Mr. MELOY: Oh, it goes, when I was a ramble down by the water, I spied in sable the landlord's daughter.

GROSS: And then I produced my pistol, and then saber.

Mr. MELOY: I produced my pistol and then my saber, gosh, I don't know where it goes.

GROSS: Said make no whistle or thou will be murdered.

Mr. MELOY: Thank you.

GROSS: So do you find it a stretch to use thous and, you know, a ramble and spied and sable the landlord's daughter. It's not - it's not exactly contemporary, and it's certainly not rock language.

Mr. MELOY: Yeah. Well, I think that song in particular was me really trying to literally write in the old folk song mode, and, I mean, that song of - I think more than any of our other songs really borrows from that tradition, and in the storyline, as well as the language and just felt fitting, just amazing.

GROSS: Sometimes in your songs, you take language that seems to come from another era, another century or, you know, from folk ballads and mix it with a kind of contemporary subject or a contemporary feeling, like in you song "Los Angeles." Can you talk about that?

Mr. MELOY: Oh, yeah. Well, I think, in my opinion, really successful pop-song writing does a lot playful balancing between disparate or opposite ideas. I think, for example, you know, writing, you know, dour or morose lyrics and pairing it with like an upbeat melody is kind of a tried and true pop formula, you know, from the Beatles and before.

So that "Los Angeles, I'm Yours" is my effort to do a similar thing, to write using this sort of really robust language or articulate or intricate language and then also balancing that with kind of, you know, gross body humor, essentially, you know, talking about vomiting and things like that. And for some reason, that tension between those two modes, those two ideas, is interesting to me.

GROSS: Well, let's hear it. This is "Los Angeles, I'm Yours." This is The Decemberists.

(Soundbite of song "Los Angeles, I'm Yours")

THE DECEMBERISTS: (Singing) There is a city by the sea.
A gentle company,
I don't suppose you want to,
And as it tells its sorry tale
In harrowing detail.
Its hollowness will haunt you.
Its streets and boulevards,

Orphans and oligarchs
It hears.
A plaintive melody truncated symphony,
An ocean's garbled vomit on the shore,
Los Angeles, I'm yours.

BIANCULLI: That's "Los Angeles, I'm Yours" from Her Majesty, The Decemberists. We'll hear more of Terry's 2007 interview with singer/songwriter Colin Meloy after a break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 2007 interview with Colin Meloy, singer and songwriter for The Decemberists.

GROSS: Now, I want to play another track from your latest CD, "The Crane Wife," and this is called the "Shankhill Butchers." And the song sounds like it's based on a real story or real legend. What is the story?

Mr. MELOY: Well, in the 1970s, there was a group of Protestants in Belfast who targeted the Catholics in the city, actually chose to use, as weapons, butcher knives and cleavers. Really, they weren't necessarily, you know, obviously, political or religious activists. They were really, you know, cold-blooded murders, really. And they would go out at night killing Catholics essentially and, you know, gruesomely filet them alive and things like that. And I had come across it, even though I had read quite a bit, I think, in the past about the troubles in Ireland, I had never come across a mention of the Shankhill butchers.

And I was finally reading this biography of Van Morrison, and it made mention of it. And there was a chapter on it. And the author, Johnny Rogan, described the events. The parents at the time would actually use it as a cautionary tale and would tell children, you know, if they didn't do what they were told, the Shankill butchers would come and get them. And it just seemed so bizarre and so horrific to me that it almost - it's one of those moments in history when, you know, human events actually take on the scope of fairytale, and I thought it would - so the song is essentially me imagining what sort of dialogue that would be, the mother telling the child to go to sleep or the Shankill butchers would come and get them.

GROSS: It's a great track. Let's hear it. This is "The Shankill Butchers" and this is the Decemberists.

(Soundbite of song "Shankill Butchers")

THE DECEMBERISTS: (Singing) The Shankill Butchers ride tonight.
You better shut your windows tight.
They're sharpening their cleavers and their knives.
And taking all their whiskey by the pint.
Cuz everybody knows
If you don't mind your mother's words,
A wicked wind will blow your ribbons from your curls.
Everybody moan, everybody shake.
The Shankill Butchers wanna catch you, awake.

GROSS: That's the "Shankill Butchers" from the Decemberists' CD "The Crane Wife." And my guest is the lead singer, Colin Meloy, who writes the songs for the band. This is a track that opens your new CD, it's called the "Crane Wife Number Three." And I want you to tell the story of the Japanese folktale that this song comes from.

Mr. MELOY: Yeah. It's a story about a peasant in rural Japan who finds a wounded crane on an evening walk. There's an arrow in its wing. He revives the crane, and the crane flies away. And a couple days later, a mysterious woman shows up at his door, and he takes her in. And eventually, they fallen in love and get married, but they're very poor, so she suggests that she start weaving this cloth, which she can, in turn, sell it at the market.

The condition being that, when she's weaving it, she has to do it behind closed doors, and he can't look in. So, this goes on for a while, and they actually become kind of wealthy, but eventually the - his curiosity gets the best of him, and he looks in at her while she's weaving. It turns out she is a crane, and she's been pulling feathers from her wings and putting it into the cloth, which is what it makes it so beautiful. But him having seen her breaks the spell, and she turns back into a crane and flies away, and that's the end.

GROSS: Well, let's hear your song this is - you have a few Crane Wife songs. This is the one that leads the CD "The Crane Wife," and this is the Decemberists.

(Soundbite of song "The Crane Wife")

THE DECEMBERISTS: (Singing) Each feather, it fell from skin.
'Til thread bare and she grew thin.
How were my eyes so blinded?
Each feather it fell from skin.
And I will hang my head, hang my head low.
And I will hang my head, hang my head low.

GROSS: I have to say, I really like your voice a lot. How did you start singing?

Mr. MELOY: I really started singing, I think, doing musical theater when I was in high school. I felt - I think I felt really uncomfortable with my singing voice prior to that, until I was thrown on the stage, and I knew then. I think it was in "The Music Man." I was Salesman Number 14, and I was forced to sing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MELOY: And, you know, they always taught, I was always taught to, you know, to project and sing to the back of the room, and as a consequence, I think I have one of the loudest voices of anyone I've ever met. And I always have to warn people of that if I'm in a small room with them and I'm about to sing.

GROSS: Was being in musicals considered cool when you were in high school?

Mr. MELOY: No. I grew up, you know, I grew up in Helena, Montana, so, you know, the popular kids in schools were - in the school were typically, you know, football players and, you know, sons and daughters of ranchers, and I didn't really fit in to either of those categories and - but, you know, I had a group of friends who are all involved. And there was a community theater there in Helena that I was involved in, and it was a nice pocket of, you know, artiness, I guess.

GROSS: Who were you the son of?

Mr. MELOY: I was the son of an attorney and a public health employee.

GROSS: So, when did you kind of cross the line from singing in musicals in school to being in a rock band?

Mr. MELOY: Well, I had always had a, you know, love of pop and rock music at that time. And, you know, I remember going to cast parties, and, you know, there is always the lone guy with the acoustic guitars sitting at the top of the stairs with the circle of girls around him, you know, and playing some Guns and Roses ballad or something like that. And, you know, of course, that sounded interesting to me. So, I started taking guitar lessons and started, you know, dabbling in writing songs.

GROSS: Since I have chosen the tracks so far, I'm going to give you the chance to choose what we're going to close with. What would you like to play?

Mr. MELOY: Oh, I think I'd close with the last song on "The Crane Wife," which is called "Sons and Daughters."

GROSS: And why are you choosing it?

Mr. MELOY: Well, you know, I think it's one of the first songs in a long time that I've written that really ends on a kind of a happy, hopeful, and redemptive note. And I think it was one of - I think it's my favorite closer of any record that we've done.

GROSS: I like it, too. So, let's hear it. Thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. MELOY: Yeah, thank you.

(Soundbite of song "Sons and Daughters")

THE DECEMBERISTS: (Singing) When we arrive Sons and daughters.
We'll make our homes on the water.
We'll build our walls aluminum.
We'll fill our mouths with cinnamon now.
When we arrive Sons and daughters.
We'll make our homes on the water.
We'll build our walls aluminum.
We'll fill our mouths with cinnamon now.
We'll build our walls aluminum.
We'll fill our mouths with...

BIANCULLI: Terry Gross spoke with Colin Meloy in 2007. His group, The Decemberists, is on tour next month, and their latest single is called "Valerie Plame." Coming up, film critic David Edelstein reviews the new Clint Eastwood movie, "Changeling." This is Fresh Air.
Fresh Air
12:00-1:00 PM
'Changeling': Against The Odds, A Mother's Fight


Clint Eastwood has a new film, his 28th feature as director. It's called "Changeling," and it's a period piece set in the late 1920s. Angelina Jolie stars as the protagonist, a woman whose son disappears. Her antagonists are the L.A. Police department. Film critic David Edelstein has a review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: Clint Eastwood's "Changeling" is billed as a true story, and at least some of the facts are accurate. Christine Collins, played by Angelina Jolie, was a single mother whose young son disappeared in 1928 and was found six months later, at least the L.A. Police said it was her son. She didn't recognize him, which irritated the police captain, Jones, played by Jeffrey Donovan, to such a degree that when she protested, he threw her into a mental hospital.

It would be a horrific story even if underplayed, but Eastwood shoots it like a horror movie. The boy is lit to resemble the anti-Christ Damian in "The Omen." While in the psychiatric ward, pasty women with wild hair bang their heads against bars and shriek. Ugly nurses leer, and a creepy head doctor plots to throw Christine on a gurney and give her jolts of electricity unless she signs a paper declaring the sinister impostor is, in fact, her son.

The script by J. Michael Straczynski is not just ham handed, it purges all nuance. In reality, it's hard to fathom what Captain Jones was thinking. The challenge to a dramatist would be to give the man reasons we could understand. The film gives us nothing but a chauvinist monster.

(Soundbite of movie "Changeling")

Mr. JEFFREY DONOVAN: (As Captain J.J. Jones) Why are you doing this, Mrs. Collins? Why are you doing this? You seem perfectly capable of taking care of the boy. The job pays you enough to attend to his personal needs. So I don't understand why you're running away from your responsibilities as a mother.

Ms. ANGELINA JOLIE: (As Christine Collins) I'm not running away from anything, least of all my responsibilities! I am even taking care of that boy right now because I am all he has. What worries me is that you have stopped looking for my son, and that is your responsibility.

Mr. DONOVAN: (As Captain Jones) Why should we be looking for someone we've already found?

Ms. JOLIE: (As Christine Collins) You have not found him.

EDELSTEIN: You can hear that Jolie is acting with all her heart, and her normally low voice as she pleads is high and raspy, although I couldn't tell if that was her characterization or her lack of vocal training. She wears a cloche hat that sometimes looks like a veil, and her eyes are rimmed in black. She's an object of suffering.

Eastwood, as is his want, shoots her straight on while she emotes. It's one of the most transparent Oscar bait turns I've ever seen, and yet, her character has nothing to do but wait and yell and weep and bond with a fellow inmate, played by Amy Ryan, and endure abuse from demonic male authority figures. The exception is John Malkovich in a ridiculous toupee as a minister who takes up Christine's cause. He's effective when cast against type, but he's such a clammy actor, I kept thinking he had some ulterior motive.

"Changeling" finally turns on an out and out psycho played by Jason Butler Harner, and Eastwood, to his credit, handles the dreadful details of his crimes with tact. But because the movie is shaped around Christine's martyrdom, the sensational atrocity that becomes the focus of the last 40 minutes feels bizarrely beside the point.

It's worth dwelling on one key change in the story's path to the screen. In the movie, Captain Jones tries to suppress the truth about the boy impostor, and it's another detective, played by Michael Kelly, who takes it upon himself to interrogate the kid. In reality, it was Jones himself who decided to interrogate the boy after he'd incarcerated Christine. He got the boy's confession, and he had her released. Someone connected with the film must have thought this would have undercut Jones' villainy, and, of course, it would have. Then you'd have a real drama instead of a one-dimensional melodrama.

In the last two decades, Clint Eastwood has gone from action star to a critic's darling whose later work is seen as revisionist, thus "Unforgiven" was supposedly about the damnation that comes from blowing away bad guys, although in the context of the movie, there was nothing else to do with the bad guys but blow them away.

Some drama, "Changeling" poses as revisionist, too. It was developed as a vehicle for Jolie, but it's easy to see why Eastwood fell on it. For Eastwood, often accused of misogyny and proto-fascism for his early films, the prospect of making a heroic feminist melodrama with a corrupt police force must have been irresistible. The problem is that his touch is nearly as course and bludgeoning as in his "Dirty Harry" days. This gruesomely unpleasant movie takes a fascinating true story and drains it of mystery and of life.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine.
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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