In Marc Forster’s Everything Put Together, a 2000 Sundance entry that’s just been released, the crib death of a newborn exposes the fissures in the Teflon surface of suburban communality as the grieving young mother (Radha Mitchell) is ostracized by her unforgiving peers. In Forster’s Monster’s Ball, due in December, a cycle of macho repression fueled by misogyny and racism embraces a Georgia death row officer (Billy Bob Thornton) and the widow (Halle Berry) of an executed man. For the Mitchell character, healing begins with a lie; for Thornton and Berry, it begins with an ardent, endless fuck.
If the formula of personal tragedy sourcing social inquiry borders on the tendentious, in Forster’s case it stems from experience. The 31-year-old Swiss-born filmmaker’s brother committed suicide in 1998, the same year his father and a grandmother died. “It changed my life,” he says. “You do, in one way or another, work things out in your work. I wrote Everything Put Together with Catherine [Lloyd Burns] before anything happened with my family. After it all happened, I found myself on a mission to get the movie made.”
He shot it on digital video in 15 days with no rehearsal. “We were all on an emotional edge,” he says, “and it became more intense as we went along. I’m not a very rational person and all my decisions are based on emotions. When you’re looking for subtle nuances, giving actors direct suggestions usually brings out clichés, so you have to give them something they can translate into an emotional language.”
Forster’s style—influenced by the likes of Five Easy Pieces and Badlands—can be described as emotive realism. A 1993 NYU film school graduate whose previous work includes documentaries about teen suicide and child burn victims, he apparently has the knack of bringing actresses to a pitch of hysteria without letting them cross the line into Sirkian melodrama. Mitchell, he says, is analytical and needed a lot of discussion, whereas Berry is more emotional and benefited from living with the single mother whose house she filmed in near the Louisiana State Pen at Angola. He took her to death row to look in the faces of the condemned men there. “When Halle didn’t give me the take I wanted,” Forster notes, “I sometimes let the camera roll and talked her right back into the scene. The three or four times we did that she was incredible.”
He hopes next to direct a script about “how drugs get approved by the FDA that actually harm people more than they help them,” he says. “It’s a real-life story, in the vein of Erin Brockovich and The Insider. I might shoot it like Trainspotting, a little more stylized. I tried to keep Monster’s Ball raw so it wouldn’t be manipulative, but I like the absurd approach as well.”