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Filmmaker Alejandro Amenabar

28-year-old Spanish filmmaker Alejandro Amenabar's new film, a horror film called The Others, stars Nicole Kidman. It his first English language feature. His first film Tesis (Thesis) won seven Goyas, the Spanish equivalent of the Oscars, in 1997. His second movie, Abre los Ojos (Open Your Eyes) has been remade in the US. The film, Vanilla Sky, was made by Cameron Crowe and stars Tom Cruise.

21:10

Other segments from the episode on August 14, 2001

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 14, 2001: Interview with Alejandro Amenabar; Review of two music albums “Time The Revelator,” and “Everybody Got their Something;” Interview with Allen Kurzweil;…

Transcript

DATE August 14, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Alejandro Amenabar discusses his new film "The Others"
and his film career
NEAL CONAN, host:

This is FRESH AIR. Terry Gross is on vacation. I'm Neal Conan.

Alejandro Amenabar's new film, "The Others," opened in theaters around this
country last weekend. It's a horror movie about a mother and her two children
who live in a big, creepy house on the British island of Jersey, just off the
coast of France at the end of the Second World War.

Amenabar is a Spanish director making his first English language movie with
Nicole Kidman as his star. He also wrote "The Others" and composed the music,
which sets the Gothic tone at the very beginning of the film.

(Soundbite from "The Others")

Ms. NICOLE KIDMAN: (As Grace) Now, children, are you sitting comfortably?
Then I'll begin. This story started many thousands of years ago, but it was
all over in just seven days. All that long, long time ago, none of the things
we can see now--the sun, the moon, the stars, the Earth, the animals, and
plants--not a single one existed. Only God existed. And so only he could
have made them. And he did.

CONAN: The opening sequence for the new movie, "The Others." Director
Alejandro Amenabar joins us now on the line from Madrid.

Welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. ALEJANDRO AMENABAR (Director, "The Others"): Hi. Hi, Terry.

CONAN: Why did you decide to introduce this film to us as a fairy tale?
That's `once upon a time' we just heard there.

Mr. AMENABAR: Oh, I think it was just inspiring to me. But I think there is
also a homage to "The Night of the Hunter," which starts in a very naive way.
And since I was brought up in Catholicism when I was a kid, and I use to hear
all these stories about the Bible and the way they tried to tell them to us
was like trying to make them really, really entertaining.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. AMENABAR: I thought that could be interesting. And I wanted to put the
audience in the role of a child--trying to feel themselves as children.

CONAN: There are a lot of contradictions in Grace, the mother, the Nicole
Kidman character. I mean, for one thing, she is a very devout Catholic with a
very firm idea of what the afterlife is suppose to be. And we're going to
hear a scene here where she drills her children, who are played by Alakina
Mann and James Bentley, on their Bible lessons.

(Soundbite from "The Others")

Ms. KIDMAN: I see. So you both would've lied to the point of denying
Christ? Oh, you would've saved your heads being chopped off by the Romans,
that's true, but what would've happened afterwards?

JAMES BENTLEY: (As Nicholas) When?

Ms. KIDMAN: In the next life. The one that's waiting for us after we die.
Where would you have gone?

BENTLEY: Oh, no.

Ms. KIDMAN: Where, Nicholas?

BENTLEY: To the children's Limbo.

Ms. KIDMAN: What is the children's Limbo, Anne?

ALAKINA MANN: (As Anne) One of the four hells.

Ms. KIDMAN: Which are?

MANN: Me, me, me!

Ms. KIDMAN: No, no, no. Let him answer. Which are?

BENTLEY: There's the hell where the damned go, then there's purgatory...

Ms. KIDMAN: Yeah.

BENTLEY: ...and the bosom of Abraham...

Ms. KIDMAN: Yeah.

BENTLEY: ...where the judged go, and Limbo where children go.

Ms. KIDMAN: At the center of the Earth, where it's very, very hot. That's
where children go who tell lies, but they don't just go there for a few days.
Oh, no. No. They're damned forever. Think about it. Try to imagine the end
of eternity. Close your eyes. Close your eyes and try to imagine it.
Forever. Pain forever.

CONAN: That was scene from "The Others." My guest is director Alejandro
Amenabar. At the same time, though, that she's going through this fire and
brimstone theology in "The Others" there's nothing in her faith that will
explain the creepy things that are going on around her.

Mr. AMENABAR: Yeah. For me that was tricky to have this juxtaposition
between religion and ghosts, because for me it was important that she would
realize, that she would accept this ghost world in a different way once she's
able to realize that she hasn't got the complete truth.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. AMENABAR: And that was tricky, because supposedly ghosts' tradition has
to do with religious tradition. So I had to set it up in the opposite way.

CONAN: I don't want to give too much away for those who haven't seen "The
Others," but on the metaphysical level, there is no religious confrontation in
the movie. There is no battle between good and evil here.

Mr. AMENABAR: Oh, yeah. That was a very important thing for me, when I
decided to do this story, which has to do a lot with a traditional Gothic
tale. Because I think that many times these Victorian stories end up with the
same battle between good and evil. And I wanted to explore something much
complexer, at least for the characters to find out at the end. So that the
ending--it's not about being good and evil, and it's not about this house
burning or exploding. It's something much more quieter and subtle.

CONAN: There are very few, if any, special effects in this movie. And when
creepy stuff happens you tend to show us not the action--what's happening--you
show us people's reaction.

Mr. AMENABAR: Yeah. Actually, that's in my three films. I--for instance,
if I did a film about violence and I try the audience to be aware of it and
try to mean or to tell them something, I think I would put the camera on the
faces of the actors. I find that much more interesting. And the whole thing
about mystery, for instance, in this movie, is about not showing--not showing
the monster.

That's something that many, even producers, would agree about. But, in the
end, many times I think that horror films--and I'm very fond of this
genre--end up being a parade of special effects. So that's what I prefer to
play with--with heat and things. And also because I always try to look for a
subjective point of view. I try to adopt a point of view of one of the
characters and try to put the audience with them--the audience go with them.
And that has to do with not seeing--with discovering things with the movie.

CONAN: You are not only the director of this movie and the writer of the
movie, but also the composer of the music. And at the same time a lot of
people in speaking about this movie talk about how quiet it is.

Mr. AMENABAR: Yeah, it's--for me, silence is a very important element, even
to create suspense. And when we are talking about a film about ghosts and we
could think about all this special effects, and ghosts flying around, ghosts
walking through walls. We also could think about sound effects. And I think
that sometimes, in many movies, it's just becoming insane--the level of the
mixes. So I wanted...

CONAN: By that you mean how loud they are.

Mr. AMENABAR: Yeah, exactly. And it's like sometimes it seems like you need
to have ear plugs when you go to the movies. And I think it's important to
have the audience and have them really paying attention to what the characters
are saying. And sometimes the characters are in silence and they are
listening things, so I wanted the audience to be in the same position--a very,
very natural and quiet level. And I think that's not against suspense, that's
not against horror, that's not against emotions. It's just setting a movie in
its natural place.

CONAN: You've written the music to all of your movies. Did you start as a
musician or as a filmmaker?

Mr. AMENABAR: I think, actually, I started as a musician. I never studied
music. But I started to be interested on soundtracks when I was a child. And
so I use to listen to soundtracks. And then I started to write my little
tales, and to compose the music for those tales, without knowing what that
actually meant. And I also did the drawing for the tales. So I think all
that ended up being director, writer and composer. But it was, actually, the
three aspects of it, composing is--it was really for fun, at the beginning. I
did it in my short films, and then my producers asked me to try in my first
feature film.

CONAN: But this is the work of very accomplished musician.

Mr. AMENABAR: Oh, thank you. As I said, I never studied music. I've been
told to, but I think, at this point, it would really delay me when I'm
writing. I have to be focused on writing, then I have to be focused on
directing, and then I have to be focused on composing, so I never have time to
really learn music. And I help myself with computers. I always worked with
keyboards...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. AMENABAR: And, now, with a computer with a multi-track, and so I
can--with samples--so that I can really play very close, similar sounds to the
final performance of the orchestra. And, of course, I work with--in this I
work with three orchestrators.

CONAN: My guest is Alejandro Amenabar, composer, writer and director of the
new movie, "The Others." We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH
AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: Our guest is director Alejandro Amenabar. His new film is "The
Others."

Now you wrote "The Others" originally in Spanish?

Mr. AMENABAR: Yeah. I did.

CONAN: And you are now in Madrid. As I understand it, you're dubbing the
film from English into Spanish.

Mr. AMENABAR: Exactly.

CONAN: Are you using your original script?

Mr. AMENABAR: Yeah, well, actually, that's one of my intentions. Of course
no, you have to be based on the English version, because, of course, there
were changes because When we translated into English we didn't want it to
sound like a translation. So we had to change things. And, of course, when
you shoot a film you do changes during shooting. But now I'm trying to get
back some of the freshness of the original Spanish version for the dubbing
version. But it's very close to the English version.

CONAN: This movie is a star vehicle. You really needed Nicole Kidman or an
actress--a very good actress to carry a lot of this film. Stars, though, when
you sign a real star, that comes with an awful lot of baggage. There's an
awful lot that goes with it.

Mr. AMENABAR: Yeah. What happened in this case is that the movie was
increasing and being bigger. But in the beginning it was meant to be a very,
very simple, and very small film shot in South America. That was my first
idea. And I would say it's a weird film from the production point of view.
There are ...(unintelligible) forces from Hollywood and from Spain. But we
try to preserve the nature of the film.

CONAN: Did you ever worry about losing control?

Mr. AMENABAR: Well, that's the obsession of any director--losing control. I
think that was my first obsession when I directed my first film, when I was
23, because I thought that nobody was going to pay me attention because I was
so young. And that was my first obsessive. But then that wasn't a problem at
all. And then in the second film my obsession was the contrary. I thought
that maybe now everybody was going to say yes to anything I said and that's
scary, too. And, yeah, in this case, because you see how the project is
really getting bigger, you think that you could lose control. But it wasn't
the case at all. And I think we all had a very--an excellent relationship
actually based on respect.

CONAN: You were working with one of the most glamorous couples in the world.
Your star Nicole Kidman and her then-husband, executive producer, Tom Cruise.
Then while "The Others" is still in production, they announce their plans to
divorce. Now what was it like to work amid what must have been a media
circus?

Mr. AMENABAR: It's something inevitable.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. AMENABAR: These things happen. But the important thing to me is that
Tom as executive producers, and Nicole as the star of the film, they have been
incredibly supportive with the film with me. They were--the other day, in
Lane(ph), at the premier, given their support to the film. So I'm very proud
of them and I think they are very, very professional.

CONAN: Tom Cruise stars in a remake of your earlier film "Open Your Eyes."
It's been re-titled "Vanilla Sky," and, as I understand it, it's scheduled to
open up later this year. You were, at least informally, asked if you wanted
to direct the remake.

Mr. AMENABAR: Yeah, informally, as you say.

CONAN: You turned it down.

Mr. AMENABAR: Yeah, but I think we all realize, and Tom and I realized that
it wasn't--it shouldn't have been the project that I had to do, because it was
very close. The film--I just had done "Open Your Eyes," and I had this script
already written. And I think it's better for someone else with new energy,
with new input and with new talent to have the project with energy, basically.
And I haven't seen anything of the film at all, but they deserve to do their
film. I'm very proud of it and I'm not concerned at all.

CONAN: I'm speaking with Alejandro Amenabar. His movie is "The Others."
Now, when you were growing up, you have clearly--by looking at your
films--you've seen an awful lot of American and English movies.

Mr. AMENABAR: Well, actually, yeah. I was--I started watching Hollywood
films--American films when I was child. I was 10 years old and I started to
watch them on video. And I use to like the horror films especially. And now
I think that that's how I became interested. But yeah, I...

CONAN: You watched them on video?

Mr. AMENABAR: Yeah. I started in video. And when I was a teen-ager I
started to go to the movies, actually--to the theater. And I discovered how
wonderful it is. But, yeah, I started watching first TV.

CONAN: You were born in Chile, but grew up in Madrid.

Mr. AMENABAR: Yeah, exactly.

CONAN: And where were all these American movies?

Mr. AMENABAR: Where?

CONAN: Where...

Mr. AMENABAR: ...do you mean?

CONAN: ...who had them? Where did you...

Mr. AMENABAR: Yeah, actually, it was an American neighbor that we had--a
couple, and they had video in the '80s, at the beginning when nobody still had
in Spain. And they invited my brother and I to the house to watch these
movies. And that's how I became interested. Actually, the man--the husband,
he always appears in my films.

CONAN: Really?

Mr. AMENABAR: It's a kind of homage. Yeah. He always appears.

CONAN: He's the...

Mr. AMENABAR: In "The Others" he's one of the dead people in the book of the
dead.

CONAN: So this is your Hitchcock homage as well?

Mr. AMENABAR: Yeah. Yeah, I like that kind of cameos.

CONAN: I wanted to play a scene from your first feature film. This is a
scene in the cafeteria of a film school. Girl has just met boy, and they're
studying at separate tables, listening to music on their headphones--separate
headphones, separate music. And when you edited this, we hear his music when
the camera is shooting from his point of view, and her music when we're seeing
what she sees. And we hear the sound of the cafeteria when there's a shot of
both of them. Let's listen.

(Soundbite from "Thesis")

(Soundbite of classical music)

(Soundbite of cafeteria)

(Soundbite of heavy metal music)

(Soundbite of cafeteria)

(Soundbite of heavy metal music)

(Soundbite of classical music)

(Soundbite of heavy metal music)

(Soundbite of classical music)

(Soundbite of heavy metal music)

(Soundbite of classical music)

(Soundbite of cafeteria)

CONAN: Boy meets girl on the soundtrack of the film "Thesis." And Alejandro
Amenabar, that film is titled "Thesis." Are we listening to the work of the
diligent film student there?

Mr. AMENABAR: Of the--sorry--of the diligent?

CONAN: Diligent. Hard working film student.

Mr. AMENABAR: No, I wasn't at all. I was a very bad student, actually. I
used to be a very good student because I wanted to study film. I thought that
that would be the less boring studies when I go to the university. And,
unfortunately, I--to me, it was a disaster. I got really, really bored. And
I started, then, to be a very bad student. But I did short films instead.

CONAN: You failed the directing courses then.

Mr. AMENABAR: Yeah. But this things happen. I mean, it just--I understand
that, and as I said, I wasn't a very good student because I--to me, I had the
feeling that I wasn't really studying anything that could help me in this
profession. And, naturally, the real learning started when I did my first
film.

CONAN: What was the purpose of that cross-cutting in the cafeteria scene?
You're establishing the idea, it seems to me, that there's going to be point
of view of camera work.

Mr. AMENABAR: Yeah. Actually, it's a crazy thing that it was in the script
originally. And when I shot it and I mixed it, my producer was completely
against it. He actually didn't like it. But to me it was important because
it has to do with subjective point of view, which is always, for me, very,
very important. And in this case, associated to sound, to music, and how
reality can change--the perception of reality changes with the sound. And
sound is so important in my films, and especially in that first one. So
that's why I thought it was very, very important playing with that change of
music.

CONAN: There are a lot of jokes in that first movie about the movie business
and about film school. At one point in the movie, the class of film students
is told that their professor has died while watching a movie in a screening
room. And one of your characters then says the wisecrack, `Well, it must
have been Spanish.'

Mr. AMENABAR: Yeah. Well, yeah. When people use to ask about that in
Spain, I always said, `That was what the character would have said,' because
actually that character was based in a very close friend of mine who use to
hate Spanish movies. And yeah, it's a--I like that kind of joke. But for me,
the whole theme about setting this plot off of snuff movies in a university--I
think it was a kind of joke there.

CONAN: What are you working on next? What's your next project?

Mr. AMENABAR: Going to Venice to present a film; and then come back to
Spain, release, at last, the film in Spain; and then have long holidays.
Honestly, I haven't thought about my next film yet. I always need to get rid
of my previous work in order to think about the next one. Always.

CONAN: Alejandro Amenabar, thank you very much.

Mr. AMENABAR: Thank you. Thank you very much.

CONAN: Alejandro Amenabar's new movie is "The Others." His previous film,
"Open Your Eyes," has been remade in English as "Vanilla Sky." That picture
is due out later this year. I'm Neal Conan. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music from "The Others")

Unidentified Child: La, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la. La, la, la, la, la,
la, la. Hmm, hmm, hmm, hmm, hmm, hmm, hmm, hmm, hmm. Hmm, hmm, hmm, hmm,
hmm, hmm, hmm.

(Announcements)

CONAN: We're listening to The Chicago Underground Quartet. Coming up, Kevin
Whitehead has a review. Also Ken Tucker on new albums from Gillian Welch and
Nikka Costa. And we'll met Allen Kurzweil. His long-awaited new novel is
"The Grand Complication."

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Gillian Welch's "Time (The Revelator)" album and Nikka
Costa's "Everybody Got Their Something" album
NEAL CONAN, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Neal Conan, sitting in for Terry Gross.

In rock 'n' roll, image can be nearly as important as the music it decorates.
Rock critic Ken Tucker thinks two very different musicians, Gillian Welch, an
emulator of simple folk music, and Nikka Costa, a rocker who happens to be
Frank Sinatra's goddaughter, have taken similar approaches to the construction
of their images, yet have come up with opposite results.

(Soundbite of "Like a Feather")

Ms. NIKKA COSTA (Singer): (Singing) Coming out of my wishing well, only
echoes want to hear my prayers. I'm coming around the bend, and my resistance
says I'm too persistent.

KEN TUCKER (Critic at Large, Entertainment Weekly):

That's Nikka Costa, singing "Like a Feather." It's from her debut album, which
is called "Everybody Got Their Something." But you might be more familiar with
it from its placement in a Tommy Hilfiger commercial that, in turn, has landed
the song endless plays on MTV. Costa reeks of showbiz. Her father, Don
Costa, was Frank Sinatra's arranger and occasional producer for many years.
Sinatra was her godfather. And as a child, she launched a singing career in
Europe that her record company Bio(ph) quotes her as, saying, "Found her eight
years old and opening for The Police in Chile." Eight years old, Sting, the
home of General Augusto Pinochet. To me, that one phrase of Costa's carries
more contradictions and implications than an entire volume of surrealist
manifestos.

In her adult incarnation, Costa is, if you'll excuse the expression, a real
babe, flaunting her curves and her belter's voice with abandon. Like so many
white rockers, the ache in her voice comes from the intensity with which she
wants to be black; specifically to be Lauryn Hill or Erykah Badu, whose
producers she's hired to help in her dream. Costa is, in short, as
inauthentic as can be, but darned if the title tune, a variation on Sly
Stone's "Family Affair," doesn't have the deluded power of good phony bologna.

(Soundbite of "Everybody Got Their Something")

Ms. COSTA: (Singing) My prayers to the sky, I cannot go too high. I could
go, and if I know when I finally get there. Taking off my glasses, some folks
saw my lashes. Somehow I know there's a time for every star to shine.
Everybody got their something. Make you smile, like an itty-bitty child.
Everybody got their something. Everybody got their something. Hey, hey.
Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, hey.

TUCKER: In contrast to the overripe music-loving Nikka Costa, there's the
astringent music ambivalent Gillian Welch. Welch's two previous CDs were
lavishly praised for what reviewers invariably referred to as her timeless
compositions, which in her case means being vague and portentous. Where a
performer like Nikka Costa shakes her booty on the cover of her CD, Welch tries
in all her photographs to look as if she's just shaking, quivering
neurasthenically, as if bearing the weight of tradition is all just too much
for her.

By all accounts a child of privilege, Welch seems to have constructed her
image from looking enviously at Walker Evans photographs of women living in
rural poverty. I think I'd have a heart attack if Welch ever released a CD
whose liner notes didn't include a photo of her in big, clunky, sensible
shoes.

(Soundbite from "Time [The Revelator]" album)

Ms. GILLIAN WELCH (Singer): (Singing) Oh, I dream a highway back to you,
love. A winding river with a band of gold. They seal the vision, come and
rest my soul. I dream of highways back to you.

TUCKER: On her new CD called "Time (The Revelator)," Welch offers what may
be the worst song ever written about Elvis Presley.

(Soundbite from "Time [The Revelator]" album)

Ms. WELCH: (Singing) I was thinking that night about Elvis. Didn't he die?
Didn't he die? I was thinking that night about Elvis. Didn't he die? Didn't
he die? Just a country boy who combed his hair and put on a shirt his mother
made and went on the air. And he shook it like a chorus girl. He shook it
like a Harlem queen. He shook it like a midnight rebel, baby, like he never
seen, like he never seen, never seen. I was thinking...

TUCKER: He shook it like a chorus girl? He shook it like a Harlem queen? I
think it might fall under some obscure FBI provision that RuPaul could be
deputized to arrest Gillian Welch for perpetrating a crime against The
King. Here's a more typical Welch composition.

(Soundbite from "Time [The Revelator]" album)

Ms. WELCH: (Singing) And the great boys sang and the Okies fled and the
great emancipator took a bullet in the head, in the head, a bullet in the back
of the head. It was not December, and it was not in May. It was the 14th of
April that is ruination day. That's the day, the day that is ruination day.
They were...

TUCKER: Gillian Welch has benefitted from the popularity of the soundtrack to
the most recent Coen brothers' movie, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" Unlike
the movie, which soars on the strength of George Clooney's tremendously
energetic, open-hearted performance, the soundtrack partakes of the same kind
of consciously repressed emotionalism Welch insists upon. If you're going to
be derivative or phoney, I say, go all out. Don't hold back. When Nikka
Costa decides to rip off the black artists she loves, she doesn't just sample
a riff or emulate their phrasing. She grabs hold of an emotion and wrings its
neck. The result isn't great music, but it's certainly got some life in it.

CONAN: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Entertainment Weekly.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: Coming up, Allen Kurzweil tells us about his new literary thriller.
This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Allen Kurzweil discusses his new book, "The Grand
Complication"
NEAL CONAN, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Neal Conan, sitting in for Terry Gross.

After the great success of Allen Kurzweil's novel, "A Case of Curiosities,"
readers have anticipated his second book for almost 10 years. "The Grand
Complication" is the name of both Kurzweil's new novel and the wondrous
watch that ticks away at the heart of the plot. The timepiece is also known
as The Queen. It's a real watch, but it's been missing ever since it was
stolen from a museum in 1983. It was commissioned exactly 200 years earlier
by Marie Antoinette, who gave the greatest watchmaker in France an unlimited
budget to create a masterpiece. In Kurzweil's book, an eccentric collector
entices a naive librarian into a campaign to find The Queen. And much of the
action in this literary thriller is set in the New York Public Library. I
asked Allen Kurzweil to describe The Queen.

Mr. ALLEN KURZWEIL (Author, "The Grand Complication"): It was a
spare-no-expense commission by the greatest of 18th century watchmakers,
Abraham-Louis Breguet. The complication in the title also refers to the
gizmos in the watch. And when a watch has more than five such
gizmos--sidereal timekeeping, chronographs, which is a fancy word for a
stopwatch--when five such things exist in a watch, it's given the title grand,
and this one truly is grand. Made by Breguet, who is the same fellow, by the
way, who made watches both for Napoleon and Wellington. In fact, the Battle
of Waterloo was timed on both sides by Breguet pocket watches.

CONAN: Now this novel isn't a sequel to your first book in any sense, except
for the props. "The Grand Complication" itself is mentioned in the first
book, in the "Case of Curiosities." Why did you decide to use them again?

Mr. KURZWEIL: Well, I finished the first book back in 1991. And in the
course of an interview, I foolishly said that I might spend a year or two
trying to figure out what that final tenth compartment in the case of
curiosities contained. And the two or three years that I thought I might
spend ballooned into nine. And then there was the search for the watch
itself, which required me to travel to Jerusalem, to go to the museum where
the theft took place, to the watchmaking valleys of the Jiraud(ph), outside of
Geneva, where many of the techniques that are in "The Grand Complication"
continue to be performed by watchmakers. And I even had to go to the Isle of
Man, off the coast of England, to talk to probably the greatest living
watchmaker and heir to the talents and sensibilities of Abraham-Louis Breguet.

CONAN: Do you, like your librarian, Alexander Short, in "The Grand
Complication"--do you have a compulsion to make lists and to put things in
order?

Mr. KURZWEIL: I certainly don't have his compulsion, but I do have some of
the props that he has. I'm blessed with a wife who made me any number of the
things that appear in the novel.

CONAN: Really?

Mr. KURZWEIL: I carry a girdle book around with me occasionally, which is a
little notebook attached to my jacket with a piece of twine. And there are
any number of other items in the novel that I've actually made or had made.

CONAN: All right. His wife, in the novel, also makes erotic pop-up books.
Are you so lucky?

Mr. KURZWEIL: No. My wife is actually an anthropologist. Her expertise is
Aborigine-Australian culture. But I did take classes in pop-up design. And
although I didn't personally make a pop-up "Kama Sutra," which appears in the
novel...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KURZWEIL: ...I did make a number of other not terribly competent stabs at
the design of pop-up books.

CONAN: You also went to the trouble of actually making some of the devices
that appear in the book. In the first few pages of the book, it says `roll
player, patent pending.' This is something that comes up in the book. And
you actually made it?

Mr. KURZWEIL: Yeah. My wife rolled her eyes at that one, too. I was
reading an account of Gutas'(ph) travels down to Italy, and it was a
magnificent description of this note taker that he designed. It was a box
with a scroll, and he would crank a handle and then take notes and crank a
handle some more. So that precipitated a year-long search for patent
materials on roll players of one kind or another. And then I eventually
decided just to design my own. So the guts of the machine I got down in
Wichita, Kansas, at a roll player company that restores old player pianos.
And I went up to Buffalo and talked to people who design paper for player
pianos. A year later, the roll player was made. And its motto, which is one
that's dear to my heart is, `Volumes of higher learning operated by a crank.'

CONAN: You said you just decided that you ought to go ahead and do one of
your own. You weren't satisfied with the ones that existed, or something
about it that fascinated you?

Mr. KURZWEIL: Well, the idea of actually making the things that my
characters make was highly attractive to me. I had spent the better part of
six years on the first book, and I didn't make anything besides the book
itself. So I decided to indulge that interest in tinkering, a legacy of my
father's profession as a mechanical engineer on the second novel, which may
account for why it took as long as it did.

CONAN: You take us, in this novel, to parts of the main branch of the New
York Public Library that visitors never get to see. You actually worked in
the library for a while. What was that like?

Mr. KURZWEIL: That was paradise. Imagine if you were a Wordsworth scholar
and someone said, `Here. Here are the keys to Dove Cottage'...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KURZWEIL: ...or if you were doing a biography of Elvis Presley and they
said, `Hey, we've got a spare room at Graceland. Do you want to make use of
it for a year?' That's what happened to me. I'd been working on this book
for four or five years, maybe even more, and I suddenly got the opportunity to
have a fellowship that gave me carte blanche to the entire New York Public
Library, from the top of the rotunda to the subterranean parts where the
generators of the zip tubes are stored. And I took full, full advantage of
that opportunity.

CONAN: The zip tubes are the pneumatic tubes that send messages and call
slips throughout the library?

Mr. KURZWEIL: That's right. There was a moment when they were going to pull
those brass tubes out of the system when they renovated the library.
Fortunately some visionary figured out that the zip tubes were just as
effective, in face, better suited, to the transmission of paper than fax
machines or electronic apparatuses.

CONAN: A lot of people have said that it is a little peculiar to set,
essentially, an action novel, a thriller, with a librarian as the protagonist.

Mr. KURZWEIL: Oh, yeah. But I would disagree with them. I think that
librarians get a bum rap. They're constantly represented as these staid
do-gooders, hair in a bun, glasses on the nose. In fact, librarians have
better eyesight than most professionals. And on political lines, they tend to
be activists and renegades. They're nonconformist by nature. I mean, think
about what they have to do all day. They're pulling up incredible works of
fiction. They're handing Dostoyevsky to high school students, if they're
lucky. They're giving Merck Manuals to people with serious illnesses.
They're trying to help people crushed by taxes. They are on the front lines
of people and extremists. And I think that reference librarians need a better
representation than the ones you find in "The Music Man."

CONAN: As we were talking about earlier, though, one of the things they do
is try to bring order out of chaos. That's the nature of their job.

Mr. KURZWEIL: That's one kind of librarian. But there's another kind of a
librarian who sees his calling, or her calling, as a middle man of knowledge.
And it's those librarians that I'm particularly interested. They're the ones
who break the rules. They're the ones who sneak into the conservation lab and
take a book that requires rebinding and places it in the hands of an eager
researcher because that book needs to be read.

CONAN: And that sort of pursuit--I'm interested, because the first time that
Alexander Short, your character, sees the case of curiosities and notices 10
niches, the first thing he says, `Ah, Dewey set his system in 10 separate
groups as well.'

Mr. KURZWEIL: Well, decimal systems fascinate me for reasons I can't begin to
explain. The first novel, in addition to having 10 compartments, was also
structured around the design of a pocket watch, and particularly a pocket watch
made by Breguet that had 10 hours to the day. It was a form of revolutionary
timekeeping, an effort on the part of the Committee of Public Safety, to
reinvent time. So they eradicated royal time, with its 12-hour dial, and gave
us a completely new sense of time. They had 100-hour days, each hour having
100 minutes and each hour having 100 seconds. The vocabularies of watchmaking
and bookmaking overlap time and time again.

CONAN: In both of your books, the "Case of Curiosities" and "The Grand
Complication," there is a relationship between the main character--in this
case, Alexander Short, the librarian--and this collector, under whose tutelage
he then seeks The Queen, the Marie Antoinette watch. In the other book, it's
a young man who comes under the tutelage of the abbe. And I wonder if there's
a parallel mentor in your life. Your father died when you were rather young.

Mr. KURZWEIL: My father died when I was five, and I did have a couple of
stepfathers between then and now. Was there a particular mentor in my life?
Was there a particular abbe in my life?

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KURZWEIL: No. I think that that's one of the reasons I was drawn to
fiction. Fiction allows you to fill those empty compartments in your life
that might otherwise remind voids. Writing books is a license to inhabit
those spaces you might otherwise not have a chance to live in. I grew up with
people who read books with pencils in their hands, and that clearly had an
effect on me.

CONAN: Now your cousin is Ray Kurzweil, an inventor and, well, I'm not
exactly sure what to call him. I'm not sure futurist really covers it. But
he's a guy who's been living in the 21st century for some time now, and also
an inventor. I guess it runs in the family.

Mr. KURZWEIL: Yeah. Ray is certainly the most prominent example of Kurzweil
engineering. But as I said, my father was also an engineer. And he began by
making machines, and then he starting making machines that made machines. And
by the end of his career, he was making machines that made machines that made
machines.

CONAN: Is that machine tools? What kind of machines are we talking about?

Mr. KURZWEIL: Yeah, he went over--both he and my mother are Viennese-born
emigres. He went back to Europe under the Marshall Plan and worked for the
machine tool industry for many years. In fact, up to the time of his death.
And I inherited one thing from him when he passed away, and that was a
pocket watch, his father's.

CONAN: Do you still have it?

Mr. KURZWEIL: That is the one thing I do feel very attached to, yes. And
it's contained, actually, in a wooden case.

CONAN: Allen Kurzweil's new novel is "The Grand Complication." Thanks very
much for joining us.

Mr. KURZWEIL: Thank you.

CONAN: Coming up, rock-jazz fusion, then and now. Critic Kevin Whitehead
looks at Miles Davis and the Chicago Underground Quartet. This is FRESH
AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Chicago Underground Quartet's new untitled album
NEAL CONAN, host:

In 1970, trumpeter Miles Davis sometimes played rock venues with an electric
band that mixed the jazz and pop music of its time. These days that
description might fit the Chicago Underground Quartet, who record for a rock
label and play rock 'n' roll bars. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says the two
bands sound very different, but then jazz and pop aren't what they were 30
years ago either.

(Soundbite of music)

KEVIN WHITEHEAD (Jazz Critic):

Back in 1970, rock was deep into improvisation. Musicians like Hendrix and
Cream had ushered in the long, bluesy jam, conceptual cousin to Miles Davis'
long modal improvisations years earlier. In 1970, James Brown's choppy funk
rhythms were in vogue, too. That was the context when the quiet trumpeter
became the loudest man in jazz. There's plenty of electric Miles out, but a
newly issued concert recording from the Fillmore East in March 1970 blows much
of it away.

Saxophonist Wayne Shorter was about to leave Miles after five and a half
years. The caffeinated rhythm trio was drummer Jack DeJohnette, Chick Corea
on electric piano and bassist Dave Holland, also heard on wa-wa bass guitar.

(Soundbite of music)

WHITEHEAD: Pop music rarely tolerates improvisation for long. A slew of
endless live rock albums killed off jamming in the '70s. Nowadays, rock and
pop tend to be more disciplined and controlled. Jazz, too. So imagine the
sound of modern improvisers influenced by a pop environment where songs are
built in discrete layers. Electronics add a cool veneer, and dance rhythms
draw on hip-hop loops, old Euro disco and loping Jamaican dub records.

(Soundbite of "Thrill Jockey")

WHITEHEAD: Chicago Underground Quartet, from their untitled CD, on "Thrill
Jockey." Some call this ambient jazz, by analogy with old Brian Eno records,
like music for airports, sonic mobiles you could listen to or let blend with
the wallpaper. To make unobtrusive music that doesn't snooze is as confining
and challenging as getting dressed in an upper berth. Such music is often
bad, but there's something about the Chicago Underground I like. They show
how digital rhythms and modern recording techniques can influence how live
musicians play. But there are enough human touches or twitches to keep it
from sounding robotic.

Guitarist Jeff Parker's "Three in the Morning" is dominated by a simple
pentatonic riff. But he and cornettist Rob Mozurek and bassist Noel
Kupersmith put their stamp on it by improvising in small bursts. They leap
frog each other.

(Soundbite of "Three in the Morning")

WHITEHEAD: If electric Miles risks going too far, the Chicago Underground
doesn't always go far enough. I wish some compositions had more substance,
sending the quartet someplace besides twice around the block. There are some
dabs of free jazz to open things up, but even those episodes sound
constrained.

(Soundbite of music)

WHITEHEAD: The Chicago Underground's whole concept is deliberately ambiguous.
Even the size of the band varies, from a so-called orchestra to the duo of
horn player Mozurek and drummer and vibraphonist Chad Taylor. Their stuff
isn't quite foreground or background music, electric or acoustic, free or
programmed, jazz or whatever. That's not ambient; that's ambivalent.
Sometimes the fabric is so fragile it could tear at any time. So whenever
they lay it out without mishap, it's a small triumph, small but real.

CONAN: Kevin Whitehead is currently living in Chicago.

(Credits)

CONAN: For Terry Gross, I'm Neal Conan.
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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