Monthly Archives: February 2017

‘River On Fire’ Explores Genius, Madness And The Poetry Of Robert Lowell




TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. Mood disorders can be dangerous for the people who have them and heartbreaking for the people who love them and watch them transformed by the extremes of mania and depression. Mood disorders seem to occur disproportionately in writers and other artists.

My guest, Kay Redfield Jamison, has written extensively about the connection between bipolar disorder and creativity. She’s the author of the book “Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness And The Artistic Temperament.” Her memoir, “An Unquiet Mind,” is about her own bouts with the extreme mood swings of manic depression. She’s a professor in mood disorders and psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Her new book is a study of genius and mania focusing on the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Robert Lowell, who’s considered one of the greatest poets of his generation. He died at the age of 60 in 1977. He had an extreme case of bipolar disorder and wrote about mania and depression in his poetry. Kay Redfield Jamison’s new book is called “Robert Lowell, Setting The River On Fire.”

Kay Redfield Jamison, welcome back to FRESH AIR. What did you want to learn about the connection between bipolar disorder and creativity, or as your subtitle puts it, genius and mania, by writing this book about Lowell?

KAY REDFIELD JAMISON: My primary interest wasn’t writing about Lowell, whose work I love. I love his poetry and his prose. But one of the things that I’ve been interested for a very long time is the relationship between – why is it that from ancient times to present science, the relationship between creativity and particularly mania and depression has been so emphasized? It’s controversial. People think sometimes it’s a romanticization or reductionist. But in fact, in recent years there’s been a great deal of science over very large populations of subjects looking at this.

And I’ve had a great love for Robert Lowell since I was 17 years old and I had my first very bad psychotic break. And one of my English teachers had given me a couple of volumes of Robert Lowell’s poems and said, I think you might find this – something you would like. And it’s one of those things where art really did make a difference. You know, I mean, he’s stayed with me ever since.

GROSS: He’s written great descriptions of mania and depression in his poetry and in his letters. The subtitle of your book, “Setting The River On Fire,” comes from one of his poems called “Reading Myself.” And do you want to quote those two lines?

JAMISON: He says, (reading) like thousands, I took just pride and more than just, struck matches that brought my blood to the boil. I memorized the tricks to set the river on fire – somehow never wrote something to go back to.

It’s a quite haunting and emotional poem, a short poem. And it summarizes in many ways that kind of relationship. He did set the river on fire. He was – one of the things, I think, that ties kind of a manic temperament with a particular kind of art is that determination to set the world on fire, not to just paint on a very small canvas. Lowell never painted on a small canvas. He took the world for his canvas and just went with it.

GROSS: So when he writes that he (reading) struck matches that brought my blood to a boil, I memorized the tricks to set the river on fire, it sounds like he is intentionally setting off mania, hoping to mine it for poetry. So did he have ways of bringing on mania for the purpose of writing?

JAMISON: Yes, I think he probably didn’t do it so much consciously. But what – he was very aware, and his doctors observed it and many of his friends and colleagues observed it, that his manias tended, at the beginning of his manias, to lead him into writing a fresh kind of poetry, a lot of poetry. And a lot of that was very bad poetry that he then edited and worked with sometimes when he was depressed, sometimes when he was – when he was normal.

But what he was very aware of was that when he started writing poetry a lot that he was on the edge and he was pushing it. And sometimes he pushed it. But I think it was not so much a conscious desire to, you know, set off mania as the fact that the mania it was probably coming on anyway and he just kept going, as most people will.

GROSS: So again, continuing with his writing, he described mania as, like, striking matches that brought my blood to a boil. He described depression as dust in the blood, which is a great description.

JAMISON: Yes, yes.

GROSS: You also get the sense that he knows something’s flowing through him because he uses blood imagery for both mania and depression.

JAMISON: He does.

GROSS: So it’s something within. You know, it’s his essence.

JAMISON: Yes. And I think that as you say, his letters are so extraordinarily well-written and simple, in many ways, and direct. And one of the things he writes about time and time again is how tied to his temperament and who he is are these manias and depressions. And that he wishes otherwise, but he knows that that is – you know, the fear of them is part of him. The experience of them is part of him. The repercussions to him of mania and what he did to other people when he was manic are part of him.

So he, more than most, just assumed that that experience and that possibility of experience and that possibility of getting out of control was, you know, built into his blood, as he said. You know, and as you – as you described, he used blood and he used fire throughout his poetry.

GROSS: You had access to Robert Lowell’s medical records.

JAMISON: Yes.

GROSS: Were you able to correlate his writing and his manias and depressions and see exactly when his most fertile times were and when the mania got out of control and he was just unable to function?

JAMISON: Up to a point. But, you know, if you go to manuscripts – and there are in Lowell’s cases so many versions of the same poem written and rewritten and – again, a part of that discipline of writing and rewriting and rewriting. But what was very clear was first of all, Lowell’s own writings about what he thought. He thought that he produced a lot of work that he most valued when he was beginning to get manic and then worked on it and sculpted it. You know, it was like he created this huge volcanic spewing and then he had to come back and sculpt it a bit. Not a bit, a lot.

But his friends also talked about it and his doctors. He talked to his doctors about it. And he said, I need this. I want this. But I’m terrified of it. He also had friends – a lot of friends who were writers and poets. Most of his friends were writers and poets. And many of them described this process of as he would begin to get excited, get enthusiastic – as he called them, pathological enthusiasms – he would get more and more fluent. His words would veer off more and more into associations that were just getting a little bit more out of control.

And then how he would bring this iron will and this great mind to, you know, putting them into shape, into poetry, often when he was depressed. And he felt that that was one of the functions of depression in his life, as much as it was painful to him, was that it was a time when he was obsessing over words, hypercritical, and went back and rewrote and rewrote and rewrote.

GROSS: He was hospitalized how many times over the course of his life?

JAMISON: About 20 times for mania. All of his hospitalizations except for one were for mania and very severe mania. I mean, the kind of mania where – you know, he was a big man. He was 6-feet-1. And he would be taken off to McLean Hospital by four or six Boston police officers. He just had a virulent form of what we call bipolar and what was called in his time manic-depressive illness.

GROSS: Was he aware of his mood swings, the extremeness of his mood swings as a mental disorder, as an illness?

JAMISON: Absolutely, and very articulate on it. And I think also very willing to write about it and unbelievably capable about writing about it. I mean, one of the things – if you read a lot of memoirs or writings or poetry by people who’ve experienced mania or been severely depressed, it’s often poignant and powerful, but not powerful in the sense that – Lowell’s kind of crystalline version of it. I mean, just of paring it down to the bare essentials.

So he wrote about mania a lot. And he wrote about depression a lot. He regarded himself as ill, as mad as – I mean, he used all those words of just the madness coming onto him, the pathological enthusiasm. And he was terrified of it. He told his doctors over and over again in the hospital. You know, in his medical records, you’ll see the doctor said, Mr. Lowell is talking about his terror of going mad again. You know, and he talked about it with Elizabeth Hardwick. And one of the great things about…

GROSS: Who he was married to for 20 years. And she was a great writer, too.

JAMISON: Who he was married to.

GROSS: Yeah.

JAMISON: Right. And one of the very powerful things about their marriage is that she was of course an astonishingly good writer. And she went through all of this with Lowell. And she was very honest about it and very direct. And she loved him very much. And she believed in him completely. And she was utterly loyal to him. And she saw this as a disease.

She didn’t see it as a character flaw. But she also never minimized the pain and suffering that it brought her and other people. So his accounts of his own illness and her account of his illness and the effects of his illness are some of the most powerful that I’ve ever read in psychiatry psychology.

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Kay Redfield Jamison, who has written extensively about the connection between creativity and bipolar disorder. Her new book focuses on Robert Lowell, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who had bipolar disorder. The book is called “Robert Lowell, Setting The River On Fire: A Study Of Genius, Mania And Character.” We’re going to take a short break. And then we’ll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you’re just joining us, my guest is Kay Redfield Jamison, who is a professor in mood disorders and a professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. And she has written extensively about the connection between bipolar disorder and creativity. And her new book focuses on the Poet Robert Lowell. It’s called “Robert Lowell, Setting The River On Fire: A Study Of Genius, Mania And Character.” And she, herself, has bipolar disorder and has written a memoir about that, as well. That was published a few years ago.

So Robert Lowell went through manic periods, when he’d become very obsessed with religion. He grew up in a family of Episcopalians. But at the age of 30, he converted to Catholicism. And he became kind of extreme and obsessive about it. In what ways?

JAMISON: Well, he actually converted earlier than the age of 30. I think he found in Catholicism a passionate emotional state that was consistent with what he was experiencing. And the language system of metaphors and history, that gave him what he needed to try and understand his experience, his passion, his intense calling and spirituality, and at times his religious delusions, that he found Catholicism and the theology of Catholicism. He read extensively on it. And Catholicism gave him words and a history for his experience.

GROSS: So there were times during manic periods when he had religious delusions, including thinking that he was the Messiah. Who did he think he was – did he think he was Christ, or?

JAMISON: He thought he was different people at different times. He thought he was variously Alexander the Great, Dante, Christ. In his early hospitalizations, he thought he was the Messiah. He thought he was Christ and could walk on water. He told his doctors that, you know, he walked on the Sea of Galilee. As time progressed, the people, the identification changed. You know, but he was Napoleon. At times he would be in the hospital, and he thought he was Dante or once or twice T.S. Eliot. And he would sit there revising “The Waste Land,” taking out every other line and from his point of view, both thinking he was T.S. Eliot and that he was improving Eliot.

So he thought he was many different people. I think what they have in common, which tends to be the case with manic delusions, is that they are people writ on a large page. You know, these are people who are larger than life, who have inordinate power, inordinate capacity to see and do and write and be things that most people will never be. And that’s not at all uncommon in manic delusions. It’s just in the case of Lowell, he wrote about it so extraordinarily well.

GROSS: Lowell was first hospitalized for bipolar disorder in 1949. What were the available treatments then? What was he initially given?

JAMISON: The treatments at that time were, as you can imagine, limited. They included hospitalization, which was actually effective in the sense it protects people. And Lowell felt protected when he went into the hospital. He didn’t like going to the hospital, not very many people do. But he felt he at least was protecting himself from the damage that he would do to other people. They also had electroshock therapy, which was then and remains a very effective treatment for acute mania.

The problem with electroshock therapy is that it doesn’t prevent future episodes. It treats the acute episode. So it was only when he was put on lithium many, many years later, that he was able to be in a situation where he thought he would not have more episodes.

GROSS: And electroshock therapy then was not what it is now.

JAMISON: No. It was not as safe as it is now. And it was not as effective in the way that now as, you know, people just know a lot more about how to use it, how much to use, for – under what circumstances. And people at that time were not protected in the same way that people are now in terms of, you know, possible damage to bones and everything. I mean, that doesn’t come up now. And memory difficulties are much less severe now than they were in some people earlier on.

So it’s an improved version. But even at that time, it was the thing that really turned his mania around the first time he was hospitalized in 1949. When he went in, he was ravingly (ph) mad. And the shock treatment worked. And, you know, through the next 10 years or so, when he got shock treatment, it worked. And he thought it worked. His doctors thought it worked. His wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, thought it worked. It just wasn’t ideal in terms of being able to prevent him from getting sick again.

GROSS: Lowell was married three times. The longest marriage was to Elizabeth Hardwick, his second wife. And that marriage lasted 20 years. And when his third marriage broke up, he went back and lived with Elizabeth Hardwick, not as husband and wife, but just as close friends. She wrote a wonderful memoir that had a lot to do about being married to him and the difficulties of that marriage. Did she have a mood disorder, too?

JAMISON: I don’t think so, but I don’t know. I didn’t – you know, I didn’t look at her. She drank too much, certainly, on occasion. It was not uncommon in that day and age, but I don’t know so much her psychiatric history. I sort of deliberately avoided that. What she did do, from my point of view, that was remarkable as I said was her ability to see his illness, which was highly personal because, like people who’ve had mania that have been observed over the last 2,000 or 3,000 years, people, when they get manic, often have affairs. I mean, not everyone, but it’s actually one of the symptoms of mania. They spend a lot of money. They can be physically violent. They can be unbelievably verbally cruel and go after people. And these – this is in people who would no more ordinarily do that thing, that kind of thing.

And in fact, Lowell was a soft-spoken man, kind to people. People loved him. His friends loved him deeply. But when he got sick, he did some pretty terrible things. And one of the things that I think Hardwick was able to do was sort that out to a remarkable degree and stand by him as long as she could. And then he actually left her for another woman, Caroline Blackwood. But, you know, it was a remarkable marriage and relationship, and it was a relationship between two terrific writers, you know? He’s a great, great poet, and she was a really extraordinary writer, you know. So they had a very lively social life with other writers. They had a personal life that was very meaningful, a daughter that was deeply meaningful to them both. So they had this very rich life. And then this tragedy, you know, would come back and back and back and back again.

GROSS: What are some of the things she had to put up with as Robert Lowell’s wife?

JAMISON: Well, I think that perhaps most embarrassingly to her was that when he began to get manic, he typically would get involved with a woman, fall in love with somebody, decide that he was going to divorce Hardwick, sometimes would get an apartment, buy an apartment for this woman, and this would be all very, very public. And when he came out of the hospital and was well, he had no interest in the woman. It was just a, you know, literally a manic relationship. And she had to deal with that, you know, and it’s one thing you can say, well, of course, it is a clinical symptom of mania in many people, and it is. And if you treat and study mania, you see it all the time. That doesn’t make that easy to live with.

You know, it’s a very public humiliation and a betrayal and a great hurt. And you know, so that was one thing. And he was, as I say, verbally abusive, you know, say – he was incredibly articulate obviously and he could say withering things to friends, to other poets, to her. And he – after he was well, he just said over and over again I can’t stand the fact that I did that. He would be deeply remorseful. It’s like being inhabited by another creature.

GROSS: My guest is Kay Redfield Jamison, author of the new book Robert Lowell, Setting The River On Fire. We’ll talk more after a break. Also Lloyd Schwartz will review the new DVD and Blu-ray release of the Orson Welles film “Chimes At Midnight,” and Kevin Whitehead will review a new CD by alto saxophonist Miguel Zenon. I’m Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross back with Kay Redfield Jamison who has written extensively about the connection between bipolar disorder and creativity. She’s best known for her books “Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness And The Artistic Temperament” and “An Unquiet Mind,” her memoir about her own manic depression. Her new book, “Robert Lowell, Setting The River On Fire,” is about the poet Robert Lowell and how bipolar disorder affected his life and work. Lowell died in 1977 at the age of 60.

Robert Lowell taught at Harvard. And you reprint a poem by Anne Sexton about…

JAMISON: Yes.

GROSS: …What it was like to be his student during one of his manic periods. I’m going to just read a few lines from that. (Reading) In the thin classroom where your face was noble and your words were all things, I find this boily (ph) creature in your place, find your disarranged, squatting on the window sill, irrefutably placed up there like a hunk of some big frog watching us through the V of your woolen legs. Even so, I must admire your skill. You are so gracefully insane.

We fidget in our plain chairs and pretend to catalog our facts for your burly sorcery or ignore your fat, blind eyes or the prince you ate yesterday who was wise, wise, wise. It must have been just amazing to be his student and be able to learn from his brilliance and then watch him through these manic periods when he was really, you know, out of control and difficult to relate to.

JAMISON: If you read Anne Sexton and what she says about Robert Lowell, she says what many women writers say is how – and certainly, obviously in his relationship with the great poet Elizabeth Bishop – he was enormously supportive of them, you know? He helped them a lot. So on the one hand, you have this kind of series of relationships when he’s manic with people that – with women that are destructive, sometimes to the women, always to his marriage. But on the other hand, you have these women writers who say to the person, you know, what an extraordinarily supportive person he was of their work and of their poetry, often getting grants for them, often lining up fellowships for them and so forth.

And I think one of the things that Anne Sexton addresses is you see how terrifying it is to see someone who is fundamentally kind and soft spoken and gentle and concerned about people, to see that person change into something you don’t recognize, it’s terrifying. And I think too that the question for me is from the point of view of character is, yes, those things happen to students, yes, it was traumatic. But what did it take Lowell to show up after he came back from a hospital and show up and teach again? You know, what does that feel like?

You know, what kind of will and character does that take to show up when he was usually depressed, always deeply remorseful, humiliated? I mean, the word humiliation and shame come up in his records over and over again just how humiliated that he could have treated people like that, said the things that he did. And somehow, he had to get back into life again.

GROSS: Lowell was eventually put on lithium. I mean, he was treated for manic depressive disorder for, you know, several decades, for over three decades. So the treatment changed over time. But he spent many years on various doses of lithium. Do you know how the lithium affected his ability to write?

JAMISON: It’s very complicated, and it’s hard to say. I think his friends had very mixed feelings. I think, by and large, they thought the lithium helped him stay out of hospitals and stay better. And several of his friends thought that it helped his work or at least sort of stabilized his work. Others felt differently. Other people felt that he was just not writing as clearly or was just writing too much. You know, there’s a little bit of a controversy about whether his work deteriorated toward the end of his life.

I think a lot of people, including myself, feel that his last book of poems, “Day By Day,” was just a heartbreakingly beautiful, compassionate, deeply human book that looked at death and love and madness in a way that – well, it’s just heartbreaking. Other people felt like this – it was not the same kind of poetry as his hugely original, just bursting onto the scene with his lightning bolt of “Lord Weary’s Castle” and “Life Studies.” So, you know, there’s always – controversy follows around Lowell and, I suppose, any poet about, you know, what’s good, what’s bad.

But certainly, at the end of his life, as his friend and great poet Frank Bidart points out, you know, the last two poems that he wrote just before he died in the summer before he died are staggeringly beautiful. So it’s hard to say.

GROSS: Bipolar disorder often comes on in a person’s teenage years. So you’ve been speaking a lot on college campuses in addition to teaching at Johns Hopkins because students are among the people who might be starting to experience the effects of bipolar disorder and not really understand what’s going on.

JAMISON: Right.

GROSS: So what do you tell students when you speak?

JAMISON: Well, I tell them a lot and I try and listen. I tell them, you know, if I’m talking to kids who have bipolar illness and it is the age when it’s likely to first occur, I tell them, look, it’s a bad illness and it’s a great time to get it. You know, that you – there’s no easy way to get through this illness. And anybody who tells you otherwise doesn’t know what he or she’s talking about. And, you know, it’s going to be really, really hard. And if you start from the supposition that it’s going to be hard, it’s very different from just thinking it’s going to be one more thing, you know, that you’ve gotten through school on.

And, yes, it was hard but not really hard. This is going to be really hard. But when you get through it, and you will, and it is treatable – and you need to get treated because if you don’t get treated, it’s going to very likely be disastrous. But once you get to the other side of it, you can use it. You know, you can use it in your life and in your work and how you approach the world. And you can use it to help other people. And that’s a good thing, you know? It’s not to say this is very much good to say about these illnesses, depression or bipolar illness, but it is to say that on the other side, you know, you can pull back into that memory and pull back into that experience and use it for life.

But that you’ve really got to get treated and you’ve got to get treated by somebody who knows what he or she is doing.

GROSS: So you’re treated. You haven’t had an incident in a long time, as the way I understand it. You tell students to, like, to use it, to use the disorder. So do you feel like you do that yourself? I mean, obviously you use it as subject matter. It’s the subject that you teach. It’s a subject that you write about. But do you use it experientially, I mean, in addition to drawing on your bipolar experiences of the past? I guess what I’m asking is now that you’re treated, do you have any of the benefits of the mania because if mania helps kind of unleash some of the creativity that’s there before – you know, before it gets to the point of being, like, dangerous to the person and to others, do you still get any of the benefit of that?

JAMISON: Well, you know, I think it’s a very interesting question, and I think, yes, probably so. I mean, and it’s always intrigued me. Does it take – can you get the benefits if you have only one episode of mania, say? Well, I don’t know. I mean, I didn’t get very many benefits from my manias. I mean, I got in a lot of trouble and a lot of difficulty.

I may have gotten a lot of work done, but one of the things I think in this day and age people are kept at much lower lithium levels than when I first was on lithium. When I was first on lithium, I was pretty gorked and was getting a lot done. But now I feel like I sort of zip around with the same level of enthusiasm that I used to have when, you know, I was adolescent before I ever got psychotic. So – and I think that’s true for a lot of people on medication that, you know, you get accommodated to the medication and in this day and age lower levels of it. You don’t have to sacrifice – I don’t think it’s an either/or sort of thing. I think every person has to learn the limits of how far they can push their mind, of how far they can risk, you know, sleep – losing sleep, risk doing this, that and the other thing.

And I think most people at some point just say it’s simply not worth it to me to get manic again. I mean, I would be terrified to get manic again. I don’t see that kind of benefit from it. I do think that, perhaps, along the way, you know, my thinking bubbles a little bit more than it used to. And that still happens. I mean, it’s not like that – it’s not like you just sort of sink into a swamp once you get medicated. You know, your brain still is out there, you know, bubbling along and coming up with things.

GROSS: Kay Redfield Jamison, thank you so much for talking with us.

JAMISON: Well, thank you. Delighted to.

GROSS: Kay Redfield Jamison’s new book is called “Robert Lowell, Setting The River On Fire.” After we take a short break, Lloyd Schwartz will review the new DVD Blu-ray release of the 1965 Orson Welles film “Chimes At Midnight.” This is FRESH AIR.

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New ‘Chimes At Midnight’ DVD Recalls Orson Welles’ Autobiographical Turn As Falstaff




TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Our classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz is also a professor of English, and he’s really excited about a newly restored version of Orson Welles’ 1965 film “Chimes At Midnight.” Welles stars as Falstaff, and Lloyd says Welles gives one of the all time great Shakespeare performances.

LLOYD SCHWARTZ, BYLINE: Orson Welles was obsessed with Shakespeare from the very beginning of his career. One of his first successes came in 1937 when at the age of 21, he directed for the Federal Theatre Project, a production of “Macbeth” set in a mythical Haiti with an all black cast. In his controversial movie versions of Macbeth and Othello, he cast himself in the title roles, but his greatest screen performance was surely as Shakespeare’s irrepressible and incorrigibles Sir John Falstaff in “Chimes At Midnight” with a script Welles assembled himself from at least five Shakespeare plays.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT”)

ALAN WEBB: (As Master Shallow) Jesus, the days that we have seen. Ah, Sir John, said I well?

ORSON WELLES: (As Falstaff) We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Robert Shallow.

WEBB: (As Master Shallow) That we have. That we have. That we have. In faith, Sir John, we have. Jesus, the days that we have seen.

SCHWARTZ: Falstaff is Shakespeare’s most inspired comic invention, a life force, even if his name comically suggests impotence. He first appears as the earthy drinking buddy of Prince Hal, the son of Henry the IV, a king who didn’t take the most honorable path to the throne. But when Hal eventually becomes Henry the V, the story takes a much darker turn.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT”)

WELLES: (As Falstaff) God, save thee. God, save thee my sweet boy.

JOHN GIELGUD: (As King Henry IV) Have you your wits? Know you what ’tis you say?

WELLES: (As Falstaff) My king, my Jove, I speak to thee, my heart.

GIELGUD: (As King Henry IV) I know thee not old man. Fall to thy prayers.

SCHWARTZ: In the close-up of Falstaff’s puffy, bearded face, Welles conveys not just the pain of Falstaff’s rejection, but even more heartbreaking an uncanny flicker of pride in the young man who has learned more from him about kingship than from his real father. It may be the most profound moment of Welles’ entire film career.

There’s something almost autobiographical in Welles’ Falstaff.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT”)

WELLES: (As Falstaff) Men of all sorts take a pride to gird at me, the brain of this foolish compounded clay man is not able to invent anything that tends to laughter more than I invent or is invented on me. I am not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in another man.

SCHWARTZ: Wasn’t Falstaff a kind of showman, fallen on hard times, having to beg, borrow or steal to survive? One reason fans of “Citizen Kane” might not be familiar with “Chimes At Midnight” is the painful story of Welles’ producer selling the distribution rights which resulted in legal chaos. The film nearly disappeared only to resurface occasionally in bad prints with terrible sound.

But now the Criterion Collection which is responsible for many great film restorations has turned to “Chimes At Midnight” with masterful results. Welles’ wintry black-and-white images are crisp and haunting and countless touching or comic details – sometimes both at once spring vibrantly to life. During the filming, for example, the wind blew off the helmet of a ragtag soldier. And the actor, actually a waiter at one of Welles’ favorite restaurants in Madrid near where the film was made, fell out of line trying to retrieve it. Instead of reshooting the scene, Welles kept it in the film under the titles. The movie’s visceral battle sequence, breathtakingly assembled from thousands of cuts, has never looked grittier or more vivid.

Welles also assembled an astonishing cast. There’s so much affection between him and Keith Baxter, who also played Hal in an earlier stage version with Welles. They almost seem like father and son. The legendary John Gielgud is the incarnation of a king whose sense of guilt is as palpable as his ruthlessness. French film icon Jeanne Moreau is a sensual and mercenary Doll Tearsheet. And Margaret Rutherford, best known as Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, is infinitely touching as Mistress Quickly, who delivers the slightly but poignantly off-color narration of Falstaff’s death.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT”)

MARGARET RUTHERFORD: (As Mistress Quickly) He parted even just between 12 and 1, even at the turning of the tide. For after I saw him fumble with the sheets and play with flowers and smile upon his fingers’ ends, I knew there was but one way, for his nose was a sharp as a pen, and he babbled of green fields. How now, Sir John, quoth I. What, man, be of good cheer. So I cried out, God, God, God three or four times. Now I, to comfort him, bid him he should not think of God. I hoped there was no need to trouble himself with any such thoughts yet. So he bade me lay more clothes on his feet. I put my hand into the bed and felt them, and they were as cold as any stone. Then I felt to his knees, and they were cold as any stone, and so upward and upward, and all was cold as any stone.

SCHWARTZ: The greatest screen adaptations of Shakespeare may actually be the least literally faithful. Akira Kurosawa’s “Throne Of Blood” doesn’t include a syllable of “Macbeth” but comes closer to the spirit of Shakespearean tragedy than any other movie. In “Chimes At Midnight,” Welles moves Shakespeare’s memorable but mostly peripheral character to the center of the film and captures not only Shakespeare’s high spirits, but also his melancholy vision of aging, lost honor and the betrayal of friendship.

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz teaches in the creative writing MFA program at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He reviewed the DVD and Blu-ray release of Orson Welles’ film “Chimes At Midnight” on the Criterion label. Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews Miguel Zenon’s new album “Tipico.” This is FRESH AIR.

Copyright © 2017 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

‘To Be A Machine’ Digs Into The Meaning Of Humanity


To Be a Machine

Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death

by Mark O’Connell

Hardcover, 241 pages |

purchase

“Flesh is a dead format,” writes Mark O’Connell in To Be a Machine, his new nonfiction book about the contemporary transhumanist movement. It’s an alarming statement, but don’t kill the messenger: As he’s eager to explain early in the book, the author is not a transhumanist himself. Instead, he’s used To Be a Machine as a vehicle to dive into this loosely knit movement, which he sums up as “a rebellion against human existence as it has been given.” In other words, transhumanists believe that technology — specifically, a direct interface between humans and machines — is the only way our species can progress from its current, far-than-ideal state. Evolution is now in our hands, they claim, and if that means shedding the evolutionary training wheels of flesh itself, so be it.

O’Connell, who comes from a literary rather than a scientific background, plays up his fish-out-of-water status, which is one of the book’s great strengths. To Be a Machine isn’t written as an insider-baseball account of transhumanism; instead, it’s framed as an investigation. With a winning mix of awestruck fascination and well-chilled skepticism, he tracks down various high-profile transhumanists on their own turf, immerses himself in their worlds, and delivers dispatches — wryly humorous, cogently insightful — that breathe life into this almost mystical circle of thinkers and doers.

Big names in the tech field such as Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, Bill Gates, and Ray Kurzweil are part of the story, but O’Connell digs deeper. His quest takes him to Anders Sandberg, a monklike proponent of cognitive enhancement; Max More, founder of the world’s foremost cryonics company, who freezes the heads of deceased clients in the hopes they can one day be revived; and Arati Prabhakar, former director of the Pentagon’s DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), whose competitive development of robotics has fostered everything from killer robots to those designed, eerily enough, to hug people.

Not only does O’Connell apply a healthy curiosity to his subjects, he places them in illuminating context. Amid vivid firsthand reportage, he dwells on the history and ramifications of transhumanism: economically, anthropologically, sociologically, theologically and culturally. He deftly probes the existential risk to humans in regard to the rapid advancement of artificial intelligence. He balances the impulse for self-betterment with the potential recklessness of runaway innovation. And he uses the transhumanists’ current efforts to transfer the human mind to a digital vessel as a way of rephrasing the age-old philosophical question, “What is consciousness?”

Unexpectedly, faith becomes a large component of his query — he cites the writings of Saint Augustine and the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas alongside the physicist John von Neumann and the science fiction visionary Philip K. Dick, and a conversation with a Buddhist transhumanist reveals a profound unity in how ancient religions and modern futurists view suffering.

To Be a Machine packs in a lot, but it never feels overstuffed. O’Connell lays the book out like a travelogue, going from one tech conference to another and never failing to tap into his own mix of awe and incredulity in the face of what he calls the “metaphysical weirdness” and “magical rationalism” of the transhumanist scene. He injects just enough personal background and anecdotes into his story to help humanize it — up to and including some beautifully funny and poignant insights into his own everyday struggle with technology, fatherhood, and mortality.

In one of the book’s most shocking chapters, he visits a collective of biohackers, or “grinders,” in Pittsburgh who surgically implant sensors into their flesh in order to more intimately interface with the machine world. The details are both horrifying and strangely noble, and O’Connell depicts them with sensitivity, sympathy, and a novelist’s eye for narrative. Rather than a dry treatise on science, To Be a Machine is a lucid, soulful pilgrimage into the heart of what humanity means to us now — and how science may redefine it tomorrow, for better and for worse.

Jason Heller is a senior writer at The A.V. Club, a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the novel Taft 2012.

PHOTOS: In Sri Lanka’s Tea Paradise, A Social Enterprise Is Brewing


Amba Estate, a 26-acre tea plantation in Sri Lanka, shares 10 percent of its revenue with its workers.

Victoria Milko for NPR


hide caption

toggle caption

Victoria Milko for NPR

Amba Estate, a 26-acre tea plantation in Sri Lanka, shares 10 percent of its revenue with its workers.

Victoria Milko for NPR

In 1890, Sir Thomas Lipton arrived on the island of Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, to purchase a plot of land that would become the first tea estate in his global tea empire. These days, in the Ambadandegama Valley located just a few miles from Lipton’s original estate, another experiment in tea production is unfolding.

Tucked into the side of a precipitous mountain, Amba Estate is a tea operation that shares 10 percent of its revenues with its workers. That’s a novel approach here in Sri Lanka, a country that’s one of the world’s largest exporters of tea — an industry that employs more than 1 million of its 22 million residents.

“What makes us different is our 10 percent revenue share — not profit share. We decided to do revenue share because even when we’re not making a profit, we felt it was only right that workers and management receives recognition,” says Simon Bell.

Tamil and Sinhalese workers pick tea on Amba Estate in the early morning.

Victoria Milko for NPR


hide caption

toggle caption

Victoria Milko for NPR

Tamil and Sinhalese workers pick tea on Amba Estate in the early morning.

Victoria Milko for NPR

Bell purchased the 26-acre Amba Estate in 2006 with three partners – all of whom had previously worked in international development. Their goal, he says, was to create a for-profit social enterprise that could create long-term employment in the region. “It’s thanks to the hard work and innovation [of the workers] that we’ve grown revenue 20 fold over the last few years.”

The estate employs 30 full-time workers from the local village. One elderly Tamil couple resides on the property itself. They had lived in an old line house, a structure built to house tea workers during the days of British rule, since long before Bell and his partners purchased the land. “We didn’t know if they had anywhere else to go,” says Bell. “They asked to stay and we were happy to let them.”

The old line homes are now primarily used for storage, break and work rooms. But one Tamil family has decided to continue living in one of these homes. “They asked to stay and we were happy to let them,” says Bell.

Victoria Milko for NPR


hide caption

toggle caption

Victoria Milko for NPR

The old line homes are now primarily used for storage, break and work rooms. But one Tamil family has decided to continue living in one of these homes. “They asked to stay and we were happy to let them,” says Bell.

Victoria Milko for NPR

Workers rise early in the morning, strolling or motor-biking down the winding road that links the village to the estate, and head into fields of tea bushes to fill bags of tea leaves plucked by hand.

After about two hours of careful plucking, the workers leave the thick fields and head to the measuring room, a former line house converted into sunny work rooms. The tea bags are weighed, and workers make note of which section of the estate each bag came from, so that they can monitor flavor profiles.

Workers have their tea weighed and recorded in a repurposed line home before continuing their work day.

Victoria Milko for NPR


hide caption

toggle caption

Victoria Milko for NPR

Workers have their tea weighed and recorded in a repurposed line home before continuing their work day.

Victoria Milko for NPR

Then, they head back out to pluck again. The staff gets paid overtime if they work outside of their usual 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. day or during the weekend. Workers also receive bonuses from a portion of the sales made in the estate’s gift shop.

The tea leaves are spread out on racks that get placed inside dryers like this one – basically, it’s a metal contraption with a heating bulb and ventilation holes. The design is deliberately simple: Both the racks and the dryers are locally made.

A locally made and designed dryer uses simple technology — a heating bulb and ventilation holes — to dry tea. The machine was designed to be easily replicated by other local farmers.

Victoria Milko for NPR


hide caption

toggle caption

Victoria Milko for NPR

A locally made and designed dryer uses simple technology — a heating bulb and ventilation holes — to dry tea. The machine was designed to be easily replicated by other local farmers.

Victoria Milko for NPR

Bell and his partners had custom drying racks designed and made locally. The estate sells its tea in a gift shop on site. The workers receive bonuses from a portion of the sales.

Victoria Milko for NPR


hide caption

toggle caption

Victoria Milko for NPR

Bell and his partners had custom drying racks designed and made locally. The estate sells its tea in a gift shop on site. The workers receive bonuses from a portion of the sales.

Victoria Milko for NPR

Bell and his partners worked with Sri Lanka-based engineers to design the technology – they wanted to make it easy for other local, small farmers to replicate. “From Day 1 we wanted to be a model to show co-ops and small farmers that you don’t need to be a big factory. You can produce tea with local technology,” says Bell. “Our hope is to create simple, affordable machinery for other farmers and to help a small industry in itself with these equipment firms.”

It’s that kind of attitude that has helped make Amba successful, says Rohan Pethiyagoda, the chairman of the Sri Lanka Tea Board. “They work with the village rather than agitate against them,” says Pethiyagoda. “They don’t complain about dogs barking at night or the radio in the village being a little louder that it perhaps should be. They haven’t tried to socially engineer the village to their way of thinking.”

In a country where ethnic tensions fueled a 25-year civil war that ended in 2009, Amba Estate boasts another rare distinction: The staff is nearly equally split between Sinhalese and Tamil workers.

Tamil and Sinhalese workers relax in a former line home that’s been converted to a break room while waiting to receive their revenue bonus. After their break they will return to plucking tea.

Victoria Milko for NPR


hide caption

toggle caption

Victoria Milko for NPR

Tamil and Sinhalese workers relax in a former line home that’s been converted to a break room while waiting to receive their revenue bonus. After their break they will return to plucking tea.

Victoria Milko for NPR

“Most of the harmony has been because of the history of the place,” Bells says. The estate was first purchased in 1890 by Thamba Arunasalam Pillai, a former Tamil plantation laborer who turned it into a successful tea enterprise. For years, the original Tamil owners and local Sinhalese and Tamil villagers have held joint celebrations for weddings and religious holidays. (Tamils are Hindus, Sinhalese are Buddhist.) “We can’t take credit for the history of the region, but we certainly maintain and benefit from it,” Bell says.

Indeed, the Pillai legacy lives on at Amba. Pilla’s great-grandson, Karuna Mohan Raj, joined the team as estate manager in 2009. He also leads tours of the grounds.

Karuna Mohan Raj, the great-grandson of Thamba Arunasalam Pillai, the estate’s original owner, is now the estate manager. He leads tours of the grounds and gives tea tastings to around 2,000 visitors a year.

Victoria Milko for NPR


hide caption

toggle caption

Victoria Milko for NPR

Karuna Mohan Raj, the great-grandson of Thamba Arunasalam Pillai, the estate’s original owner, is now the estate manager. He leads tours of the grounds and gives tea tastings to around 2,000 visitors a year.

Victoria Milko for NPR

Tea tourism is big business in Sri Lanka — and a major source of revenue for Amba. The estate typically sees about 2,000 visitors a year, Bell says. Some stay the night in a 100 year-old farmhouse on the grounds, indulge in tea tastings and take tours of the property.

The partners are also working to renovate an old, abandoned tea factory on the property and turn it into an eco-friendly hotel.

An old, abandoned tea factory sits on the Amba property. The partners are renovating it to become an eco-friendly hotel, allowing them to expand their bustling tourism business.

Victoria Milko for NPR


hide caption

toggle caption

Victoria Milko for NPR

An old, abandoned tea factory sits on the Amba property. The partners are renovating it to become an eco-friendly hotel, allowing them to expand their bustling tourism business.

Victoria Milko for NPR

Amba is one of just three tea plantations in the country to be certified organic. As part of the organic conversion process, the estate uses manure from a herd of cows it adopted several years ago. “It’s a local Buddhist tradition to rescue cows destined for slaughter from the abattoir at New Year each year,” says Bell, “So we ended up with our own herd of ‘rescue cows’ to provide organic manure.”

Cows, which provide organic manure for the estate, wander the property freely and occasionally trample tea plants.

Victoria Milko for NPR


hide caption

toggle caption

Victoria Milko for NPR

Cows, which provide organic manure for the estate, wander the property freely and occasionally trample tea plants.

Victoria Milko for NPR

While it sounds idyllic, the process of converting Amba into a social enterprise hasn’t come without challenges. The region has shallow, gravelly soil that produces rich tea flavors but can make growing difficult. Swarming bees occasionally force visitors to find quick shelter inside. Cows have fallen down wells or trampled tea plants. Brush fires have spread through the estate. Generations-old village relations sometimes boil over, leading to disputes.

“There is no day something unexpected doesn’t happen due to weather, animals or the community,” says Bell. “We take it as it comes.”

Tea Tuesdays is an occasional series exploring the science, history, culture and economics of this ancient brewed beverage.

Victoria Milko is a photojournalist based in Myanmar.

Encore: Mahershala Ali Plays An Unlikely Father Figure In ‘Moonlight’




ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The first cast member of “Moonlight” to take the stage last night was Mahershala Ali. He won the Oscar for best supporting actor. In the film, he plays a man conflicted about being both a drug dealer and father figure to the story’s hero.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Our colleague Kelly McEvers spoke to Ali last fall about how he got into the business and whether he anticipated the limited number of roles Hollywood offers to young black actors.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

MAHERSHALA ALI: My dad had introduced me to indie films. So the stuff that I had a taste for, I’d certainly never saw myself in those parts. So growing up, it definitely affected my confidence or me understanding what could be accomplished because of only seeing myself in a very limited way.

It’s been really hard for me to say I want to be a leading man, like to really say that. Because when I was growing up, I didn’t see that. But I did see people helping the leading man. And the people helping the leading man always looked like me. And then when you feel it from the inside out, it’s a little frustrating, but the industry’s changing. So these young men in this movie, they’re going to have an entirely different experience than I’ve had…

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: Right.

ALI: …Being in this business now for a decade and a half. I’ve been working for 16 years.

MCEVERS: You know, in the past couple years, you have played a really diverse range of characters – of course Remy Danton…

ALI: Oh, yeah.

MCEVERS: …Ruthless power broker on “House Of Cards.”

ALI: My buddy.

MCEVERS: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

MCEVERS: Your buddy, really. And then of course there’s the complicated villain who kind of has a heart, Cottonmouth from “Luke Cage” on Netflix. I don’t know, you’re just, like, playing, like, this spectrum of, like, black maleness. Does it feel – I don’t know, do you feel a – like a weight of responsibility? You know, I mean, there’s a lot of complicated nuance in these characters.

ALI: I feel the responsibility to try to do great work. And that keeps me up at night sometime, just, you know, trying to figure out what my in is with these characters and how to really connect to them and sort of lose myself in them for that 16 hours a day. I have no interest in playing myself. I really don’t think I’m that interesting.

I think that these characters though, the ones that I say yes to, are really interesting to me. And I respond to the ones where I feel like there’s a shaft of light, like there’s a little opening there where I can power the entire person through that one little connection. So whether he’s a drug dealer or a gun runner or what have you, that if I can just make him human, then that is the goal for me right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF NATIONAL SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF DUKAS’ “THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE”)

SHAPIRO: That’s Academy Award winner Mahershala Ali talking with our co-host Kelly McEvers back in October.

(SOUNDBITE OF NATIONAL SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF DUKAS’ “THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE”)

Copyright © 2017 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

‘To Be A Machine’ Digs Into The Meaning Of Humanity


To Be a Machine

Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death

by Mark O’Connell

Hardcover, 241 pages |

purchase

“Flesh is a dead format,” writes Mark O’Connell in To Be a Machine, his new nonfiction book about the contemporary transhumanist movement. It’s an alarming statement, but don’t kill the messenger: As he’s eager to explain early in the book, the author is not a transhumanist himself. Instead, he’s used To Be a Machine as a vehicle to dive into this loosely knit movement, which he sums up as “a rebellion against human existence as it has been given.” In other words, transhumanists believe that technology — specifically, a direct interface between humans and machines — is the only way our species can progress from its current, far-than-ideal state. Evolution is now in our hands, they claim, and if that means shedding the evolutionary training wheels of flesh itself, so be it.

O’Connell, who comes from a literary rather than a scientific background, plays up his fish-out-of-water status, which is one of the book’s great strengths. To Be a Machine isn’t written as an insider-baseball account of transhumanism; instead, it’s framed as an investigation. With a winning mix of awestruck fascination and well-chilled skepticism, he tracks down various high-profile transhumanists on their own turf, immerses himself in their worlds, and delivers dispatches — wryly humorous, cogently insightful — that breathe life into this almost mystical circle of thinkers and doers.

Big names in the tech field such as Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, Bill Gates, and Ray Kurzweil are part of the story, but O’Connell digs deeper. His quest takes him to Anders Sandberg, a monklike proponent of cognitive enhancement; Max More, founder of the world’s foremost cryonics company, who freezes the heads of deceased clients in the hopes they can one day be revived; and Arati Prabhakar, former director of the Pentagon’s DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), whose competitive development of robotics has fostered everything from killer robots to those designed, eerily enough, to hug people.

Not only does O’Connell apply a healthy curiosity to his subjects, he places them in illuminating context. Amid vivid firsthand reportage, he dwells on the history and ramifications of transhumanism: economically, anthropologically, sociologically, theologically and culturally. He deftly probes the existential risk to humans in regard to the rapid advancement of artificial intelligence. He balances the impulse for self-betterment with the potential recklessness of runaway innovation. And he uses the transhumanists’ current efforts to transfer the human mind to a digital vessel as a way of rephrasing the age-old philosophical question, “What is consciousness?”

Unexpectedly, faith becomes a large component of his query — he cites the writings of Saint Augustine and the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas alongside the physicist John von Neumann and the science fiction visionary Philip K. Dick, and a conversation with a Buddhist transhumanist reveals a profound unity in how ancient religions and modern futurists view suffering.

To Be a Machine packs in a lot, but it never feels overstuffed. O’Connell lays the book out like a travelogue, going from one tech conference to another and never failing to tap into his own mix of awe and incredulity in the face of what he calls the “metaphysical weirdness” and “magical rationalism” of the transhumanist scene. He injects just enough personal background and anecdotes into his story to help humanize it — up to and including some beautifully funny and poignant insights into his own everyday struggle with technology, fatherhood, and mortality.

In one of the book’s most shocking chapters, he visits a collective of biohackers, or “grinders,” in Pittsburgh who surgically implant sensors into their flesh in order to more intimately interface with the machine world. The details are both horrifying and strangely noble, and O’Connell depicts them with sensitivity, sympathy, and a novelist’s eye for narrative. Rather than a dry treatise on science, To Be a Machine is a lucid, soulful pilgrimage into the heart of what humanity means to us now — and how science may redefine it tomorrow, for better and for worse.

Jason Heller is a senior writer at The A.V. Club, a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the novel Taft 2012.

PHOTOS: In Sri Lanka’s Tea Paradise, A Social Enterprise Is Brewing


Amba Estate, a 26-acre tea plantation in Sri Lanka, shares 10 percent of its revenue with its workers.

Victoria Milko for NPR


hide caption

toggle caption

Victoria Milko for NPR

Amba Estate, a 26-acre tea plantation in Sri Lanka, shares 10 percent of its revenue with its workers.

Victoria Milko for NPR

In 1890, Sir Thomas Lipton arrived on the island of Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, to purchase a plot of land that would become the first tea estate in his global tea empire. These days, in the Ambadandegama Valley located just a few miles from Lipton’s original estate, another experiment in tea production is unfolding.

Tucked into the side of a precipitous mountain, Amba Estate is a tea operation that shares 10 percent of its revenues with its workers. That’s a novel approach here in Sri Lanka, a country that’s one of the world’s largest exporters of tea — an industry that employs more than 1 million of its 22 million residents.

“What makes us different is our 10 percent revenue share — not profit share. We decided to do revenue share because even when we’re not making a profit, we felt it was only right that workers and management receives recognition,” says Simon Bell.

Tamil and Sinhalese workers pick tea on Amba Estate in the early morning.

Victoria Milko for NPR


hide caption

toggle caption

Victoria Milko for NPR

Tamil and Sinhalese workers pick tea on Amba Estate in the early morning.

Victoria Milko for NPR

Bell purchased the 26-acre Amba Estate in 2006 with three partners – all of whom had previously worked in international development. Their goal, he says, was to create a for-profit social enterprise that could create long-term employment in the region. “It’s thanks to the hard work and innovation [of the workers] that we’ve grown revenue 20 fold over the last few years.”

The estate employs 30 full-time workers from the local village. One elderly Tamil couple resides on the property itself. They had lived in an old line house, a structure built to house tea workers during the days of British rule, since long before Bell and his partners purchased the land. “We didn’t know if they had anywhere else to go,” says Bell. “They asked to stay and we were happy to let them.”

The old line homes are now primarily used for storage, break and work rooms. But one Tamil family has decided to continue living in one of these homes. “They asked to stay and we were happy to let them,” says Bell.

Victoria Milko for NPR


hide caption

toggle caption

Victoria Milko for NPR

The old line homes are now primarily used for storage, break and work rooms. But one Tamil family has decided to continue living in one of these homes. “They asked to stay and we were happy to let them,” says Bell.

Victoria Milko for NPR

Workers rise early in the morning, strolling or motor-biking down the winding road that links the village to the estate, and head into fields of tea bushes to fill bags of tea leaves plucked by hand.

After about two hours of careful plucking, the workers leave the thick fields and head to the measuring room, a former line house converted into sunny work rooms. The tea bags are weighed, and workers make note of which section of the estate each bag came from, so that they can monitor flavor profiles.

Workers have their tea weighed and recorded in a repurposed line home before continuing their work day.

Victoria Milko for NPR


hide caption

toggle caption

Victoria Milko for NPR

Workers have their tea weighed and recorded in a repurposed line home before continuing their work day.

Victoria Milko for NPR

Then, they head back out to pluck again. The staff gets paid overtime if they work outside of their usual 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. day or during the weekend. Workers also receive bonuses from a portion of the sales made in the estate’s gift shop.

The tea leaves are spread out on racks that get placed inside dryers like this one – basically, it’s a metal contraption with a heating bulb and ventilation holes. The design is deliberately simple: Both the racks and the dryers are locally made.

A locally made and designed dryer uses simple technology — a heating bulb and ventilation holes — to dry tea. The machine was designed to be easily replicated by other local farmers.

Victoria Milko for NPR


hide caption

toggle caption

Victoria Milko for NPR

A locally made and designed dryer uses simple technology — a heating bulb and ventilation holes — to dry tea. The machine was designed to be easily replicated by other local farmers.

Victoria Milko for NPR

Bell and his partners had custom drying racks designed and made locally. The estate sells its tea in a gift shop on site. The workers receive bonuses from a portion of the sales.

Victoria Milko for NPR


hide caption

toggle caption

Victoria Milko for NPR

Bell and his partners had custom drying racks designed and made locally. The estate sells its tea in a gift shop on site. The workers receive bonuses from a portion of the sales.

Victoria Milko for NPR

Bell and his partners worked with Sri Lanka-based engineers to design the technology – they wanted to make it easy for other local, small farmers to replicate. “From Day 1 we wanted to be a model to show co-ops and small farmers that you don’t need to be a big factory. You can produce tea with local technology,” says Bell. “Our hope is to create simple, affordable machinery for other farmers and to help a small industry in itself with these equipment firms.”

It’s that kind of attitude that has helped make Amba successful, says Rohan Pethiyagoda, the chairman of the Sri Lanka Tea Board. “They work with the village rather than agitate against them,” says Pethiyagoda. “They don’t complain about dogs barking at night or the radio in the village being a little louder that it perhaps should be. They haven’t tried to socially engineer the village to their way of thinking.”

In a country where ethnic tensions fueled a 25-year civil war that ended in 2009, Amba Estate boasts another rare distinction: The staff is nearly equally split between Sinhalese and Tamil workers.

Tamil and Sinhalese workers relax in a former line home that’s been converted to a break room while waiting to receive their revenue bonus. After their break they will return to plucking tea.

Victoria Milko for NPR


hide caption

toggle caption

Victoria Milko for NPR

Tamil and Sinhalese workers relax in a former line home that’s been converted to a break room while waiting to receive their revenue bonus. After their break they will return to plucking tea.

Victoria Milko for NPR

“Most of the harmony has been because of the history of the place,” Bells says. The estate was first purchased in 1890 by Thamba Arunasalam Pillai, a former Tamil plantation laborer who turned it into a successful tea enterprise. For years, the original Tamil owners and local Sinhalese and Tamil villagers have held joint celebrations for weddings and religious holidays. (Tamils are Hindus, Sinhalese are Buddhist.) “We can’t take credit for the history of the region, but we certainly maintain and benefit from it,” Bell says.

Indeed, the Pillai legacy lives on at Amba. Pilla’s great-grandson, Karuna Mohan Raj, joined the team as estate manager in 2009. He also leads tours of the grounds.

Karuna Mohan Raj, the great-grandson of Thamba Arunasalam Pillai, the estate’s original owner, is now the estate manager. He leads tours of the grounds and gives tea tastings to around 2,000 visitors a year.

Victoria Milko for NPR


hide caption

toggle caption

Victoria Milko for NPR

Karuna Mohan Raj, the great-grandson of Thamba Arunasalam Pillai, the estate’s original owner, is now the estate manager. He leads tours of the grounds and gives tea tastings to around 2,000 visitors a year.

Victoria Milko for NPR

Tea tourism is big business in Sri Lanka — and a major source of revenue for Amba. The estate typically sees about 2,000 visitors a year, Bell says. Some stay the night in a 100 year-old farmhouse on the grounds, indulge in tea tastings and take tours of the property.

The partners are also working to renovate an old, abandoned tea factory on the property and turn it into an eco-friendly hotel.

An old, abandoned tea factory sits on the Amba property. The partners are renovating it to become an eco-friendly hotel, allowing them to expand their bustling tourism business.

Victoria Milko for NPR


hide caption

toggle caption

Victoria Milko for NPR

An old, abandoned tea factory sits on the Amba property. The partners are renovating it to become an eco-friendly hotel, allowing them to expand their bustling tourism business.

Victoria Milko for NPR

Amba is one of just three tea plantations in the country to be certified organic. As part of the organic conversion process, the estate uses manure from a herd of cows it adopted several years ago. “It’s a local Buddhist tradition to rescue cows destined for slaughter from the abattoir at New Year each year,” says Bell, “So we ended up with our own herd of ‘rescue cows’ to provide organic manure.”

Cows, which provide organic manure for the estate, wander the property freely and occasionally trample tea plants.

Victoria Milko for NPR


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Victoria Milko for NPR

Cows, which provide organic manure for the estate, wander the property freely and occasionally trample tea plants.

Victoria Milko for NPR

While it sounds idyllic, the process of converting Amba into a social enterprise hasn’t come without challenges. The region has shallow, gravelly soil that produces rich tea flavors but can make growing difficult. Swarming bees occasionally force visitors to find quick shelter inside. Cows have fallen down wells or trampled tea plants. Brush fires have spread through the estate. Generations-old village relations sometimes boil over, leading to disputes.

“There is no day something unexpected doesn’t happen due to weather, animals or the community,” says Bell. “We take it as it comes.”

Tea Tuesdays is an occasional series exploring the science, history, culture and economics of this ancient brewed beverage.

Victoria Milko is a photojournalist based in Myanmar.

Encore: Mahershala Ali Plays An Unlikely Father Figure In ‘Moonlight’




ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The first cast member of “Moonlight” to take the stage last night was Mahershala Ali. He won the Oscar for best supporting actor. In the film, he plays a man conflicted about being both a drug dealer and father figure to the story’s hero.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Our colleague Kelly McEvers spoke to Ali last fall about how he got into the business and whether he anticipated the limited number of roles Hollywood offers to young black actors.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

MAHERSHALA ALI: My dad had introduced me to indie films. So the stuff that I had a taste for, I’d certainly never saw myself in those parts. So growing up, it definitely affected my confidence or me understanding what could be accomplished because of only seeing myself in a very limited way.

It’s been really hard for me to say I want to be a leading man, like to really say that. Because when I was growing up, I didn’t see that. But I did see people helping the leading man. And the people helping the leading man always looked like me. And then when you feel it from the inside out, it’s a little frustrating, but the industry’s changing. So these young men in this movie, they’re going to have an entirely different experience than I’ve had…

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: Right.

ALI: …Being in this business now for a decade and a half. I’ve been working for 16 years.

MCEVERS: You know, in the past couple years, you have played a really diverse range of characters – of course Remy Danton…

ALI: Oh, yeah.

MCEVERS: …Ruthless power broker on “House Of Cards.”

ALI: My buddy.

MCEVERS: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

MCEVERS: Your buddy, really. And then of course there’s the complicated villain who kind of has a heart, Cottonmouth from “Luke Cage” on Netflix. I don’t know, you’re just, like, playing, like, this spectrum of, like, black maleness. Does it feel – I don’t know, do you feel a – like a weight of responsibility? You know, I mean, there’s a lot of complicated nuance in these characters.

ALI: I feel the responsibility to try to do great work. And that keeps me up at night sometime, just, you know, trying to figure out what my in is with these characters and how to really connect to them and sort of lose myself in them for that 16 hours a day. I have no interest in playing myself. I really don’t think I’m that interesting.

I think that these characters though, the ones that I say yes to, are really interesting to me. And I respond to the ones where I feel like there’s a shaft of light, like there’s a little opening there where I can power the entire person through that one little connection. So whether he’s a drug dealer or a gun runner or what have you, that if I can just make him human, then that is the goal for me right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF NATIONAL SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF DUKAS’ “THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE”)

SHAPIRO: That’s Academy Award winner Mahershala Ali talking with our co-host Kelly McEvers back in October.

(SOUNDBITE OF NATIONAL SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF DUKAS’ “THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE”)

Copyright © 2017 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

‘La La Land’ Producer Reacts To Best Picture Blunder




AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Actress Emma Stone summed it up nicely at the post-Academy-Awards press conference.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

EMMA STONE: Is that the craziest Oscar moment of all time?

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Unintelligible).

STONE: Cool.

(LAUGHTER)

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It was the last award of the evening – Best Picture. Presenter Warren Beatty was handed the wrong card, the one for best actress. Faye Dunaway didn’t notice and read the name she saw.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FAYE DUNAWAY: “La La Land.”

(APPLAUSE)

CORNISH: And while the cast and crew began their acceptance speeches, Oscar producers scrambled to correct what they knew to be a colossal blunder.

SHAPIRO: Out of the nearly two dozen people on stage, “La La Land” producer Jordan Horowitz had the presence of mind to call the stage the rightful winners, director Barry Jenkins and the cast of “Moonlight.”

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: You know (laughter).

JORDAN HOROWITZ: Guys, guys, I’m sorry. No.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: There’s a mistake.

HOROWITZ: There’s a mistake. “Moonlight,” you guys won Best Picture.

(APPLAUSE)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: “Moonlight” won.

CORNISH: Now, Jordan Horowitz was kind enough to join us at our studios today. And I asked him about that moment just after he’d finished his acceptance speech.

HOROWITZ: A stage manager kind of came onto the stage, and it was clear something was going on. And at a certain point, he came up to me and took the envelope I’d been given. And when he opened it, it said Emma Stone, “La La Land.” And so there was a scramble to find the correct envelope. Eventually, that envelope was found. It said Best picture on it. Opened that envelope – it said “Moonlight.” And, you know, sort of – I needed to right the wrong.

CORNISH: But in your head, is that moment – on TV, are you like, my eyes widen there? (Laughter) Or, like…

HOROWITZ: You know, there’s, like, a physical moment where I say I saw myself take three steps backwards. And that, for me, is the moment that I was like, oh, this is…

CORNISH: Yeah, ’cause you snatched that envelope out of Warren Beatty’s hand with (laughter) purpose.

HOROWITZ: Yeah. It’s funny ’cause when I went up to the mike and told everybody that “Moonlight” had won, I think there was a lot of confusion. And I think it was just needing to have sort of a physical manifestation of that. I saw it out of the corner of my…

CORNISH: So no conspiracy theories – no – none of that.

HOROWITZ: You know, just, like, that needed to end, you know? It just – it needed to be clear and decisive and clean. And he was kind of standing next to me, and I saw it out of the corner of my eye. And I just kind of – I took it and showed it. It was just kind of instinctual.

CORNISH: What does it say that people are praising you for ’cause I’ve thought about it, and I thought, well, like, kind of what else would he do, right? (Laughter) You couldn’t skip away with the award.

HOROWITZ: I’ve had – I’ve had the same thought. I did – listen…

CORNISH: Like, people are kind of being like – it’s nice of him to do a thing that probably he should have done.

HOROWITZ: I’ve been getting a lot of – a lot of that this morning, and it’s overwhelming – like, a lot of kindness, a lot of generosity…

CORNISH: Or, like, saying you gave them the award, which is weird.

HOROWITZ: That’s odd ’cause I didn’t. They won the award. The spotlight needed to be on them and needs to continue to be on them. You know, we spent a lot of time with those guys. We premiered our film during the fall festivals. They did, too. We really got to know them then over the past couple of months. So to be able to right the wrong and put the spotlight on their – on their beautiful film – you know, I was – I was grateful that I got to do that.

CORNISH: Well, Jordan Horwitz, thank you so much for taking the time out to speak with us.

HOROWITZ: Thanks for having me. I appreciate having me on.

CORNISH: That’s “La La Land” producer Jordan Horowitz. And a note – we at NPR did reach out to “Moonlight’s” director, Barry Jenkins, and writer, Tarell Alvin McCraney, as well. We have not heard back from them. Their now award-winning film “Moonlight” is this moving portrait of a young Miami boy grappling with a drug-addicted mother and his own sexuality, one that took home the Oscar for best adapted screenplay, as well. Here’s McCraney and Jenkins on stage last night. Jenkins goes first.

BARRY JENKINS: You know, I tell my students that I teach sometimes be in love with the process, not the result. But I really wanted this result ’cause a bajillion people are watching. And all you people out there who feel like there’s no mirror for you, that your life is not reflected, the Academy has your back. The ACLU has your back. We have your back. And for the next four years, we will not leave you alone. We will not forget you.

(APPLAUSE)

TARELL ALVIN MCCRANEY: Amen, brother. I just want to echo everything you just said and all those thanks, but I also want to say thank God for my mother, who proved to me through her struggles and the struggles that Naomie Harris portrayed for all of you that we can really be here and be somebody. Two boys from Liberty City up here on this stage, representing 3-0-5…

(APPLAUSE)

MCCRANEY: This goes out to all those black and brown boys and girls and non-gender-confirming who don’t see themselves. We’re trying to show you – you and us, so thank you. Thank you. This is for you.

(APPLAUSE)

Copyright © 2017 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Remembering Actor Bill Paxton, Of ‘A Simple Plan’ And ‘Twister’ Fame




TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. At the Oscar ceremony last night, when Jennifer Aniston introduced the tribute to members of the Hollywood family who had died over the past year she teared up when she said one of the people being mourned was the beloved actor and friend, Bill Paxton. His death had been announced earlier in the day in a statement by his family, which attributed the death to complications from surgery. He was 61.

Paxton appeared in many Hollywood blockbusters including “Titanic,” “Aliens,” “The Terminator” and “Apollo 13.” He also starred in smaller films like “A Simple Plan,” “One False Move” and the thriller “Frailty,” which he also directed. On the HBO series “Big Love,” Paxton played Bill Henrickson, a polygamous man trying to keep up with three wives, eight children, three homes and a small chain of home improvement stores. Paxton had just completed production on the first season of the CBS spinoff of the film “Training Day,” which began airing last month.

When I interviewed him in 2002, we talked about his early memories of going to the movies in Fort Worth, Texas, where he grew up.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

BILL PAXTON: I’m very close to my dad. And when I was a kid growing up in Fort Worth, my dad loved movies and plays. And he would take me and my older brother, Bob, to – downtown to Fort Worth where all the – that was where there were like three kind of main old movie palaces. I remember The Palace, The Worth and The Hollywood. My dad would never take us to a Disney film. If we wanted to see something like that then we had to go to a Saturday matinee.

My dad liked to see, you know, movies like the “Bond” films and different things. I remember seeing the “The Ipcress File” and “Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte.” And when we’d come out of the films, he would talk about the artifice of the films. He’d say, I really liked the lighting or the props or the camera work or Sean Connery’s tailor. And (laughter) in a way, at first we thought, what in the hell is he talking about? And then after a while, it – we started kind of digging the artifice and we would discuss it.

I guess from an early age I was aware of the illusion of filmmaking. And I’ve always loved the illusion. I’ve always loved, you know, the idea of image-makers and, you know, creating these other worlds that are fabricated.

GROSS: What did your father do for a living?

B. PAXTON: My dad worked for his father in a family-run hardwood lumber business. They were hardwood wholesalers out of the Midwest. It started in Kansas City back – oh, before the first World War. And after the – after World War II, my dad and his brothers went to work for their dad. My dad – there was a yard in Chicago. And eventually, after he married my mom, he moved down to Fort Worth, Texas, because there was a yard there as well.

And he traveled mostly calling on the trade – cabinet-makers and musical instrument-makers. He loved people, and he loved art. Over the years, he’s kind of been my greatest resource. He sent me books like “Simple Plan” and “Lords Of Discipline” when they were still in hardback and said, hey, they’re going to – they just sold this to the movies, you got to go in there and try to see if you can do this. And he’s been a great inspiration to me.

GROSS: Now, I understand that one of your father’s dreams was to act himself.

B. PAXTON: (Laughter) Yes.

GROSS: And he actually has a small part in the movie “A Simple Plan” that you starred in.

B. PAXTON: Yes, he does.

GROSS: And I thought I could play the scene.

B. PAXTON: Oh, terrific.

GROSS: Let me introduce the scene. Jump in if I don’t have any of the…

B. PAXTON: Yes.

GROSS: …Details straight. OK. In “A Simple Plan,” you, your brother and a friend – and your brother’s played by Billy Bob Thornton – the three of you stumble on – he thinks maybe he was cheated.

B. PAXTON: He’s been overcharged. Yes. Oh, yes.

GROSS: And the customer is played by your father.

B. PAXTON: It is.

GROSS: Here’s the scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “A SIMPLE PLAN”)

JOHN PAXTON: (As Mr. Schmitt) You listening to me, Hank? Every Monday I come down here and buy two bags of feed regular as clockwork – two bags a week, four times a month. That’s eight bags I’m supposed to be billed for. I don’t know how else to get through to you…

B. PAXTON: (As Hank) Well, December started on a Monday, Mr. Schmitt. So there were five Mondays in the month so you came in here five times.

J. PAXTON: (As Mr. Schmitt) Are you telling me there were five weeks last month?

B. PAXTON: (As Hank) No, sir, I’m telling you there were five Mondays.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

B. PAXTON: (As Hank) Excuse me. Oh, I got it. Yeah?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Hey, Hank. It’s me.

B. PAXTON: (As Hank) Hang on a second. Listen, check the calendar over there if you don’t believe me, sir.

GROSS: That’s Bill Paxton and his father John Paxton in a scene from “A Simple Plan.” What’s the story behind the scene?

B. PAXTON: Well, there’s a few stories. I mean, my dad sent me this book when it was a hardback, and I think it had only been out about four weeks. This is the debut novel by a great writer named Scott Smith. And he sent it to me, and he said you won’t be able to lay it down. It’s got a lot of hair on it. I don’t know what that means, but that means it’s good, especially coming from my dad. I sat down to read this book. I could not lay it down. And I called my dad after I read it, and I said, dad, I’ll never get to play this part. It’s a brilliant part, but I’ll never get to do it. I think there’ll be a lot more prominent actors who will be lining up to do this.

And over five years, I had watched other actors who were slated to do it, but for one reason or another, the film kept capitulating. And eventually, I kind of won the role by default, one of the greatest roles I ever got to play. I go up to star production – Sam Raimi directed the picture – and we started production actually in northern Wisconsin. But the production office I landed in was in Minneapolis. I walk into the production office to see Sam, and I’m looking up at the wall. And they usually put our, you know – the actors’ 8x10s on the production office wall. You know, there’s Billy Bob. There’s Bridget Fonda, Brent Briscoe. There’s my dad. There’s Chelcie. Wait a second. What’s my dad doing up there?

Now, my dad – I’ve got to back this up a little bit – my dad retired from the lumber business about 10 years ago, and basically said I really always wanted to be an actor. And I said, oh, my gosh, you mean my life’s work is just some continuation of your fantasy? And, anyway, he had written Sam Raimi a letter and said I’ve always admired your films, and I was wondering if there were any small parts that I’d possibly be right for.

GROSS: And he didn’t tell you he was doing that?

B. PAXTON: And he didn’t tell me that. And I – and Sam, a real gentleman, said, well, I liked your dad’s letter, so I thought I’d give him a chance.

GROSS: Oh, that’s great. Was it bizarre to work opposite him in a scene?

B. PAXTON: It was very bizarre, very bizarre, and I realized he was – you know, he’s an older guy. And he’s – he was kind of falling into a rhythm with his lines, and so I had to kind of shake him up a little bit. And I said, you know, come in and give me the business like you give it to me as Bill, you know?

Like, my dad will want me to send an autographed picture to some guy in an auto body shop, and, boy, he will fax me, he will call me, he will just rail me till I take care of it. And so I said this is – give me some of that. Once I thought I had him – a good froth worked up with my dad, they rolled the cameras. And he really nailed it.

GROSS: We’re listening to an interview with actor Bill Paxton recorded in 2002. He died Saturday. We’ll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let’s get back to our 2002 interview with actor Bill Paxton. He died Saturday at the age of 61.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: Now, I want to play another scene from “A Simple Plan.” And, again, in this movie you, your brother played by Billy Bob Thornton and a friend come upon this plane that’s crashed – a small plane, and there’s $4 million there. You decided to keep it, although your character knows that it’s morally the wrong thing.

B. PAXTON: Yes.

GROSS: But you do it anyways because it’s too irresistible. You have to cover up that you’re keeping the money and then you commit a murder, and you have to cover up the murder. And one bad deed leads to another bad deed.

B. PAXTON: Once you start digging that hole, the more you dig the deeper you get in.

GROSS: Right. In this scene, your brother who’s kind of a little mentally slow and socially slow, your brother played by Billy Bob Thornton has asked you to meet him at the farm that your parents used to own and…

B. PAXTON: Poignant scene.

GROSS: Yeah. You’ve already both murdered somebody. Your brother’s asked you to meet you at the farm. It’s now broken down in total disrepair. Your brother tells you that he’d actually like to buy back the farm and live there. Let’s hear the scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “A SIMPLE PLAN”)

B. PAXTON: (As Hank) Jacob, farming? Come on. You don’t just buy a farm. You got to work it. You got to know about machinery and seed.

BILLY BOB THORNTON: (As Jacob) I know that.

B. PAXTON: (As Hank) No, you don’t. Fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, drainage, irrigation, the weather – come on, you don’t know about any of that stuff. You’re going to end up just like dad.

THORNTON: (As Jacob) Why do you think he ended up like that?

B. PAXTON: (As Hank) I’ll tell you how we ended up like that. He had two mortgages riding on the place. He couldn’t make the payments.

THORNTON: (As Jacob) Where do you think the money went?

B. PAXTON: (As Hank) He was a bad businessman.

THORNTON: (As Jacob) Where do you think the money went? No, you think he spent it all on the farm. I’ll tell you exactly where the money went – four years of college, bud. Yeah. Didn’t you ever think about how he paid for that? Didn’t that ever occur to you?

B. PAXTON: (As Hank) No, my tuition was…

THORNTON: (As Jacob) Listen. I’m supposed to get the farm. What do I get? I’m supposed to get the farm.

B. PAXTON: (As Hank) Jacob, you got the whole world. You can…

THORNTON: (As Jacob) I don’t want to hear that.

B. PAXTON: (As Hank) You can go anywhere you want.

THORNTON: (As Jacob) This is what I want. This is where I want to be. It’s my home, Hank.

GROSS: That’s Billy Bob Thornton and my guest Bill Paxton in a scene from “A Simple Plan.”

B. PAXTON: That’s a very poignant scene, the idea that the brother Jacob wants to stay and fix up the old farm. That movie has – is an intensely personal film for me because my relationship with my older brother, Bob, who is a – one of the great gentle lambs of the world, but I think in his heart of hearts he wishes we still all lived on Indian Creek Drive in Fort Worth, Texas, and he’s had a tough adulthood and been through a lot of stuff. I drew off of that relationship. So for me, being in the movie was, again, it was very, very personal.

GROSS: In what other ways does he remind you of the brother in your movie?

B. PAXTON: He has the same kind of sly sense of humor, my brother, and has kind of a penchant for saying the, you know – the appropriate thing at the awkward moment. Actually, I had Billy talk to my brother on the phone several times, and he drew his character from my brother as well as kind of the innocence of his own relationship and the innocence of his own children. He was kind of playing that innocence in the role.

GROSS: Did you feel a responsibility to guide your brother in the same way that your character feels a responsibility toward his brother in the movie?

B. PAXTON: Yeah. I’ve been very involved in my brother’s life. He’s kind of my closest sibling in many ways just because physically we grew up together. We went to camps together, and after his accident when he was 24.

GROSS: What accident?

B. PAXTON: He was in a car accident and lost most of his eyesight, and he had had emotional problems before that and just compounded everything. He came up and lived with me in New York City. I was struggling. I remember I was working as a doorman at the Paramount Theater up on – up in Columbus Circle there. And we lived in a – kind of a one-room flat with my girlfriend down in the East Village. And those were kind of tough times, but we look back, and we laugh about it now. We’ve always been close, my brother and I.

GROSS: You got started in movies working on Roger Corman low-budget films. Which ones did you work on?

B. PAXTON: My first film, I was as a set dresser in the art department on a movie called “Big Bad Mama” that starred Angie Dickinson, William Shatner, Tom Skerritt and Linda Purl. I had a 20-foot van, a panel van just full of everything from phony Saguaro cactuses to all kinds of period furniture and things. This was a period film set in the early ’30s, so I had an old – I think – 1929 Sears and Roebuck catalog that I kind of used as a guide to pick out furnishings.

GROSS: What’s the coolest or most unusual thing you had to find?

B. PAXTON: Well, that’s a good question. Let me – I’d have to think back. Those Saguaro cactuses were pretty bizarre from Walter Allen Plant Rental. I remember going to places like – that are no longer – this was, you know, in the mid-’70s I remember going to Western Costume. It was a giant eight-story costume house right next to the Paramount Studios. You’d pull the shirt off the rack, and it might say made expressly for Tom Mix or John Wayne or Gary Cooper.

And the people that who had to work there – it was kind of a generational-type of job. There were people who worked there going back to silent films, and I guess I’ve always loved the history of the business I’m in, and it’s a shame that more of it hasn’t been preserved out here.

GROSS: Bill Paxton died Saturday at the age of 61. Our interview was recorded in 2002. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we’ll talk about the connection between bipolar disorder and creativity. My guest will be Kay Redfield Jamison who has written extensively on this subject. Her new book focuses on the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Robert Lowell and the connection between genius and mania in his life. Jamison is also the author of a memoir about her own experiences living with bipolar disorder. I hope you’ll join us.

FRESH AIR’s executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I’m Terry Gross.

Copyright © 2017 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.