Film School: 11 Questions With Washington Post Critic Ann Hornaday

Ann Hornaday

Ann Hornaday

By Daniel Ford

I started listening to “The Tony Kornheiser Show” on ESPN980 when I was graduate student in New York City.

I was working full-time and going to school every night. It was a backbreaking schedule that gave me just enough time to eat and sleep before the process started all over again the next day.

Tony Kornheiser and his gang of rotating radio show guests became more than just a distraction from the never-ending bus and subway rides to and from Queens College. They became friends I could count on to make me laugh until I cried and ponder the important questions of the day (for example: How will the weather report in Washington D.C. affect Tony’s ability to play golf?). It was also comforting knowing that the show’s fan base—lovingly called Loyal Littles—was as much a part of the show as any of Mr. Kornheiser’s high profile guests.

One of his most endearing and exuberant recurring guests is Ann Hornaday, film critic for The Washington Post. I don’t know how I watched or thought about movies before I started listening to her reviews, but I imagine my mind was like a scene from Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” The best part is she usually brings to light movies that I necessarily wouldn’t have found on my own—“Mud” is one great example.

As Loyal Little luck would have it, Hornaday excitedly agreed to answer some of my questions about her writing career and the movies she’s reviewed over the years.

Daniel Ford: Did you always know you wanted to be a writer, or is it something that you discovered or grew into over time?

Ann Hornaday: My wanting to be a writer has its roots in the simple fact that writing was one of the things I received praise for from an early age. It's a matter of tender ego, pure and simple! I remember a little poem I wrote earned a coveted spot on the bulletin board in my second grade classroom, and I think I was hooked after that—like a precocious little stage moppet hearing applause for the first time. Obnoxious, but true.

DF: According to your bio, you started out in the magazine world and eventually became a freelance writer in New York City. What were those years like and what lessons and skills did you learn about writing?

AH: My very first job upon landing in New York after college was being a fact-checker at Ms. Magazine, which taught me just about everything I needed to know about writing, from my beloved boss Della Rowland, from an enormously gifted copy editor named Cathy O'Haire and from Gloria Steinem, who role modeled the best ways to procrastinate. I wound up being Gloria's assistant for two years that probably still qualify as the most disorganized of her life; but she was an invaluable mentor, and she's the one who urged me to go freelance. That's how she started, and she said it's the best way to hone your skills vis-à-vis reporting and writing on deadline.

I supported myself during those years by freelance fact-checking (which you'd never guess from the number of unconscionably sloppy mistakes I still make); it was hugely valuable for making contacts at magazines I ended up writing for. Those years taught me perseverance, self-preservation, the importance of internalizing the voice of the outlet you're writing for (you're not there to indulge your muse, you're there to advance that magazine or newspaper's mission) and simple professionalism, i.e. never blowing deadlines, and balancing several stories simultaneously without letting editors know that they're not the only ones you're working for.

DF: What led you to reviewing movies for The New York Times, and eventually The Baltimore Sun and The Washington Post?

AH: I didn't review movies for the Times, although I did do occasional book reviews; I wrote features for the Sunday Arts & Leisure section. That gig led directly to my first staff job as a film critic, with the Austin American-Statesman. They were looking for a critic who could also report on the burgeoning film industry and culture down in Austin at the time, which was the mid-1990s. I loved Austin and still can't believe I ever left. I went to The Baltimore Sun at the height of that newspaper's commitment to enterprise journalism and deep, literary storytelling, and I'm very grateful that I got to work there when I did. I still live in Baltimore, even though I've now been at the Post for 10 years!

DF: What's your process like for writing a movie review? Do you take a lot of notes while you watch a film? After seeing a movie and finally sitting down with your notes to write a review, what helps you get into the writing groove? Do you need it to be dead silent, or do you listen to music?

AH: I do jot down notes in a notebook, mostly words that will help bring back the sensory experience of watching a film—or, if it's a comedy, maybe a joke or two. My aim is to help the reader get a sense of what the movie's like (of course, with a minimum of spoilers), and whether or not they may want to give it a shot. Any examples I can give them – again, without spoiling the movie – are helpful. This is going to sound pretentious but, since I really try not to fall into the trap of over-synopsizing (one of my pet peeves in movie reviews), I almost think my job is more like a poet's, in terms of using language to convey a feeling and a vibe more than "what happens" in the movie.

I don't listen to music while I work, but I probably should! (I used to in college, why did I stop?!) I usually try to write first thing in the morning, ideally the day after I've seen a movie—soon enough for my sieve-like memory to function, but after enough time has gone by for the film to "settle." It's amazing how films kind of wax and wane as they burrow their way into your consciousness. I'm having that experience today with a film I saw yesterday, "Under the Skin," by Jonathan Glazer.

DF: What's the best movie you've ever reviewed and what's the worst? And what would you consider your least favorite movies of all time and your top five most rewatchable movies?

AH: Oh boy, this is the toughest one…The list always changes depending on the day.

The best movie I've ever reviewed: It's got to be "The Hurt Locker." A stone cold masterpiece. Full stop. Least favorite movie of all time: “The Hobbit.” Bored me to tears (Hated “Lord of the Rings” even more, but I didn't review any of those!).

Most rewatchable movies: "Goodfellas," "All the President's Men," "Apocalypse Now," "Sweet Smell of Success," and "This Is Spinal Tap."

DF: You seemed to have loved "Inside Llewyn Davis" as much as I did. It told a universal story about reaching the limits of potential in such a refreshing and real way, so I was surprised that it didn't get more awards love/buzz. Why do you think that was the case?

AH: Stay strong, brother! I was just thinking about my beloved "Llewyn" this morning…What a great film. Judging from my email inbox, a lot of viewers found the main character too unsympathetic, too misanthropic, and sour to relate to. And a lot of people found the film's Coen-esque structure off-putting. I find that astonishing since, like you, I saw his journey as such a poignant evocation of self-awareness and failure…It still gets to me. There was absolutely nothing about that film that wasn't perfect, in my opinion. Glad you're helping me fight the good fight on that one!

DF: What is one movie that no one saw last year that they need to see immediately, and what's one that you're excited for coming up in 2014.

AH: Last year was such a stunner…So many great ones that were probably overlooked. I could say "Short Term 12," or "Mud" or "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" or a wonderful documentary called "Medora," but I'll go with "All Is Lost," JC Chandor's film starring Robert Redford. It's just an amazing film, with an astonishing performance from Redford. I was heartbroken that he wasn't nominated for an Oscar for that one. Robbed, I tell you! Robbed! (He's good in the new "Captain America" movie, too).

As for this year…Of course I can't wait for Paul Thomas Anderson's adaptation of "Inherent Vice"! I admit to my shame that "The Master" kind of left me cold—but I adore PTA and can't wait to see what he does next.

DF: You were named a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in criticism in 2008. What was that experience like?

AH: That was one of the greatest days of my professional life, hands down. Our then-publisher, Don Graham, walked over to my desk, told me how proud he was of me, took me by the elbow, and walked me through the newsroom, beaming. Keep in mind, that day the Post won six Pulitzers—so, technically, I was the chick who lost the seventh one. Don treated me as if I was the day's biggest winner. I'll never forget it, and I'll be forever grateful to him for treating me so kindly.

DF: I consider myself a Loyal Little of the Tony Kornheiser Radio Show on ESPN 980 based out of Washington D.C. I remember hearing on a podcast a couple of years ago that you two have actually never met in person. Is that true? And what's your favorite Tony Kornheiser moment since you became a regular guest on the show?

AH: Well, for a long time I hadn't met Tony—but we did finally meet in person, at a screening a couple of years ago. Still, I have yet to do the show in the studio with him and Jeanne and Gary and the gang—something I dearly want to do one day. I kind of inherited that gig when my predecessor, Stephen Hunter, left the Post, and I think there was some wariness on both sides—demographically and temperamentally, I'm not exactly in the TK show's wheelhouse. But it's turned out to be the highlight of my week. And he has the best fans. Every time I speak or appear in public, a Little comes up and says hello, and he (sometimes she) is always the nicest person there!

As for moments…That's a tough one. The shows go by so fast! Probably me and Jeanne swooning over Mark Ruffalo. Le sigh.

DF: What's your best advice for young and up-and-coming writers?

AH: Although it's important to develop your own voice, it's just as important to come to your work in the spirit of service: How can I be a useful part of the conversation I'm either starting or diving into? Give yourself time to think before you start to type. Oh, and outline! I still do it, with Roman numerals, capital letters and everything.

DF: Name one random fact about yourself.

AH: I play the ukulele (sorry, John Goodman).

You can learn more about Ann Hornaday by following her work with The Washington Post or by following her on Twitter @AnnHornaday.

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