Keith Gordon’s films set themselves apart through both their moral gravity and their aesthetic richness. In an age when many American independent films are marked by nihilistic attitudes, Gordon’s films are made by a man who cares intensely about the world; and when just as many are marked by careless, thoughtless moviemaking, Gordon’s display stylistic precision, coherence, and, above all, beauty. These aren’t common virtues these days. Just as remarkable is Gordon’s patience, and his staunch unwillingness to direct anything but projects he loves. Consequently, since 1988 he has made only five feature films: The Chocolate War (1989), A Midnight Clear (1992), Mother Night (1996), Waking the Dead (2000), and The Singing Detective (2003). But personal expression is Gordon’s forte, not quantity for its own sake. In all of these ways, for all of these reasons, he has gradually emerged as one of the foremost directors of his generation.
Keith Gordon and I spoke by phone on two separate occasions for this interview: December 31, 2002 and November 9, 2003. What follows is the first half of the completed interview, covering Gordon’s career from his beginnings as an actor to his third film as a director, Mother Night. Part two, in which he discusses Waking the Dead, The Singing Detective, and future projects, will be published in Senses of Cinema no. 34, January 2005.
Peter Tonguette: Where did you grow up?
Keith Gordon: Well, I grew up in New York City, mostly on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I was born and spent my first few years in South Bronx, pretty near to where Yankee Stadium is. But as that neighborhood went from working class to really kind of scary-poor, we moved into Manhattan. And both my parents still live in the same apartment, 35 years later. I moved out to L.A. in about 1982 when I filmed Christine (John Carpenter, 1983).
PT: Were your parents in show business?
KG: Both of them were and my dad still continues to be – he’s sort of semi-retired. But they were both actors and my father also directed and taught mostly in theatre, not so much in film. They were both part of the original Compass in Chicago – which became Second City. But they were part of it back when it was called Compass, with Mike Nichols and Elaine May. They were sort of part of the beginning of that whole movement. And they traveled around the country a lot doing theatre.
My dad did a lot of theatre on and off Broadway, both as a director and an actor. When I was growing up, most of his income came from doing television commercials – that was sort of what paid the rent and he did a lot of those out of New York. That became the income and theatre continued to be his passion.
PT: Did your parents encourage you to go into film or theatre?
KG: Well, I got very mixed messages. I think for anybody who has dealt with this business and the cruelties and absurdities and the ups-and-downs of it, I imagine it would be very hard to really feel completely good about having your kid go into it. And yet it was what they knew and they had great passion for it. So I got these very confusing messages saying “Please don’t do it, please don’t do it”, but then a smile and a wink when I did. And I think to this day they have mixed feelings about it. I also think my parents, much more than me, are rooted in an idea of what success is that’s very driven. So I think they worry about me all the time and how successful I’ll be and am I being successful. I don’t tend to look at it quite as they do. I think they’re always worried about the future and I’ve tried to focus on that less as I’ve spent more years doing it.
PT: Was your initial interest in acting – as a craft, as an art – or just entering the business any way you could?
KG: My initial interest goes back to being a film lover. It probably started for me when I saw 2001 (Stanley Kubrick, 1968) when I was seven years old. My dad took me opening weekend in New York, not knowing what the movie was, just kind of assuming it was a rocket-ship movie. And certainly at seven years old, I couldn’t possibly understand the movie. But I knew that I didn’t and that kind of drove me crazy in both a good and a bad way. It made me really kind of obsessed with understanding it and that sort of started at a young age an interest in movies that had complexity and were sort of challenges.
So I loved movies and really enjoyed them and that was before I ever started thinking about being professionally in the business. In high school and junior high, I made really bad Super-8 films and I would direct school plays and I would act in school plays too. But it was never clear to me what I was going to do with it because I didn’t know how anybody got to be a movie director – that didn’t seem like something I could do. I didn’t see how you could possibly get from where I was to that.
So I stumbled into the acting profession as a fluky sort of thing. I was in a school play and somebody saw me and said, “Would you want to come and audition for this professional play?” So I did and I got the job. While I was doing that, somebody saw me and said, “Would you want to come and audition for Jaws 2 [Jeannot Szwarc, 1978]?” And I was like, “Okay” – and I got that job. Suddenly I had this acting career going on.
But even then I always kept my interest more in the filmmaking/storytelling part of the process alive. During Jaws 2 I spent endless time hanging out in the editing room, which was basically all there was to do – we were in the middle of nowhere shooting that movie. So I just would go to the editing room when I wasn’t working or be on the set every day even when I wasn’t shooting, just watching and looking through the camera and asking everybody on the crew why they did what they did and how they did it. I tried to use it as sort of film school, which was wonderful. But, again, I never knew where it was going to lead me. I was working a lot as an actor in the early years and was very grateful for it, but I knew I wanted to eventually get back into producing and directing and not just being an actor. Among other things, an actor’s life is just horrible. You’re so vulnerable and the jobs last so short and it’s all based on how you look. Acting is great fun, but being an actor is just terrible. So the combination of that negative and the fact that my passion was kind of more for the whole than for the piece of it that acting represented.
I tried to use the time as an actor kind of as an apprenticeship and I was really lucky that a lot of directors – particularly Brian De Palma – but a lot of directors – John Carpenter and Fosse and people I worked with in theatre – were really nice about the fact that I wanted to do what they did and they sort of let me sit around with them for hours and ask them questions and bug them and come to the editing room. They were my teachers and I owe them all a huge debt.
PT: After Jaws 2, you worked with two terrific directors – two you just mentioned – Bob Fosse and Brian De Palma. Those experiences in particular must have served as a great apprenticeship.
KG: Absolutely. Well, the first thing that happened was that I did Home Movies (1979) with De Palma and that was amazing because that film literally was done as a class project at Sarah Lawrence University. So the whole crew were film students – there were very few professionals involved on the crew side. The cinematographer was professional, though very, very young – it was like his first film, he’d been an assistant. But everybody else were film students.
And Brian treated the whole thing as a class. So, for somebody like me who had an interest in filmmaking, it was fabulous because I was not only making a movie. I was making a movie that was being taught like a class anyway! Essentially, I became one of the students at the same time as I was acting in the movie. So it was such an opportunity and Brian at that point was so open and so giving of his time with all these guys that it was a perfect opportunity to really sort of study at the feet of somebody who knew this stuff inside and out. So that one was remarkable on that level.
All That Jazz (Bob Fosse, 1979) was probably the next thing I actually shot. That was less of that kind of experience only because I was there so much shorter. I mean, here was this huge, complex film, probably shot over 30 weeks or something ridiculous – and I worked for maybe two-and-a-half. So it wasn’t like I was part of the project in the same way. Certainly being around somebody like Bob Fosse was incredibly inspiring, but he was also nowhere near as open a person as Brian was. So while I liked him, there wasn’t as much with Fosse of going, “Why did you do this, why did you do that?” It was more just quietly watching, seeing how he would interact with the other actors and seeing what he would do and trying to learn the best I could, watching Guissepe Rottuno light sets. But that was more sort of sitting quietly in the corner and kind of staying out of the way.
But still remarkable. And luckily they decided to put me in that scene at the end with the whole huge musical number. So that was the really educational part. That one little scene I had with the strippers backstage was shot in two or three days and I was too busy being nervous about the acting to really sit back and watch much. But where I was just sitting in that audience for two weeks, that was great because I didn’t have any lines, I didn’t have anything to worry about, so I would just sit there and watch!
PT: Going back to Home Movies just briefly, you met Mark Romanek on that project.
KG: Yeah, I actually met a lot of people who became important in my life, but Mark being one of the people who was really huge. Mark wasn’t even officially one of the students in the class. Mark was kind of like me – he was a film geek. He was from Chicago. And he had followed Brian around on the set of The Fury (1978) and gotten a job as like a production assistant on that movie. And when he heard that Brian was doing this project, he basically contacted him and said, “Listen, can I come to New York and basically be like one of the students, even though I’m not technically in the class?” And Brian said, “Fine.” So Mark became the second-assistant director on the film.
And he and I just hit it off pretty quickly. We had a similar passion for Stanley Kubrick. He showed me his short films, which I thought were really good and showed a lot of visual flair. We just laughed a lot and kind of became good friends really quickly.
PT: You next worked with De Palma on a more conventional studio project with Dressed to Kill in 1980. I imagine that experience was pretty different than Home Movies, but it still must have been really instructive.
KG: Oh absolutely. I find that Brian has changed over the years and that now he’s much more quiet and introverted. But at that point he was still very communicative and though Dressed to Kill was more of a mainstream film, first of all it wasn’t a huge studio movie. It was still made by American International at a comparatively reasonable budget. It wasn’t an overblown, crazy production situation and Brian was really in pretty complete control. So he was pretty calm during it and the teacher in him was still there.
He was very kind, once again, about the fact that I wanted to know about how he did what he did. And I would again try to come to the set whenever I could when I wasn’t working and watch other scenes being shot. One of the sad things on that movie was, to be honest, I thought the thing was going to be so stupid when we were shooting it. I just felt like watching a scene like the elevator murder felt so silly while they were shooting it. And it was such a great, visceral lesson in the power of editing and music and that what you’re looking for when you’re making a film isn’t a play – you’re not looking for a whole performance or a whole thing in a take. You’re looking for half-a-second, a second, a second-and-a-half of great material.
And I remember seeing that stuff being shot and thinking, “Oh my God, this looks so embarrassing and not real and stupid and it’s not going to be scary.” And seeing the finished scene and not being able to believe the change that it went through was a great lesson in just kind of a gut way of, Oh OK, remember what the point is here. You’re looking for moments. So that was probably the single biggest lesson out of that one. But there were a billion little ones.
PT: And I imagine that it was really on that film – much more so than Home Movies, which was very performance driven and comedy driven – that you’d learn a lesson like that.
KG: Sure. Home Movies was lots of long takes of actors acting. So it was more like doing a play. I mean, there are scenes in there that Brian would cover with one shot or two shots at most. But Dressed to Kill was all about montage and editing and constructing sequences and building tension. And it was kind of remarkable because movie sets during those scenes could not be more boring. And that’s just one of the great paradoxes of movies – sex scenes are the unsexiest things in the world to shoot and scary scenes are the unscariest things in the world to shoot. It’s very weird, but it just kind of seems to be the way it is.
PT: What was it like working with John Carpenter on Christine?
KG: Well John wasn’t as rooted in teaching as Brian was, but once he knew about my level of passion and interest in doing what he did, again he was really good about just sort of letting me look through the camera all the time and saying why he was using a certain lens or why he was lighting something a certain way or what film stock they were using and why. He was really great with that stuff. He didn’t let me go to dailies, which was very frustrating but then he didn’t let anybody go to dailies.
But in terms of just being on the set, he was very sort of communicative and, beyond that, I liked the way he ran his set, at least on that movie. It was a great lesson in, OK, when I get to do this, this is how I want to do it, in that he was working with a lot of the same crew people over and over, there was a very relaxed atmosphere on the set – he joked around a lot. Even compared to De Palma, there was a lack of intensity on the set in a good way, not a bad way. The work would be intense but he would eat with the crew – there wasn’t a sense of like, Oh, he’s the director, the big important guy. There much more of a sense that he was one of the guys.
And then that translated into the whole cast and crew I think too. I think that more than in most movies, on that movie the cast and the crew would hang out together. It just didn’t feel – I mean, movies can quickly become very much like high school and very cliquey. And John just sort of managed to avoid that on that movie; everybody was just sort of one unit. And that was, I thought, a really great lesson in sort of the social organisation of filmmaking, which is as important as anything else.
PT: So you continued acting all through the ’80s, but you always had your eye on the director’s chair?
KG: Yeah, again, I wasn’t sure how I was going to get to that place. I didn’t know if it was going to take another 20 years, but it was certainly where I wanted to keep pushing towards. So I kept working as an actor. And I kept doing theatre as well, going back and forth between the two, and trying to learn as much as I could.
PT: Static (1985), the film directed by Mark Romanek, was kind of a gesture towards this, in that you co-wrote it…
KG: Sure, that was the first real step into production work. That was the first movie that I co-wrote and I was a co-producer. Basically what happened with that was that Mark and I had stayed in touch since Home Movies and we’d always talked about working together. And he came to me with an idea for a script, which was just really a couple sentence idea. Basically he had an idea that a guy was working in a crucifix factory in the desert, got fired for stealing them and then meets up with a model and they were like in love or something. And that was kind of where he started from.
And so we started from that idea and we built outwards. We probably spent eight months or maybe even a year writing the script. It was a kind of fun process because we were buddies – we’d go have Chinese food and argue about things. And generally I’d go off and write some scenes and he’d go off and write some scenes and then we’d sort of switch – we’d sort of hate each other’s first draft and then we would rewrite each other. And then we’d kind of get together and hash out which versions we were going to use of what. So it was like putting a bill through Congress – very slow.
It may not even have been the best script, but it ended up working for us. We took a lot of time writing the script and then just as much time putting the movie together. It was a very slow process, as it often is with independent movies.
PT: And Romanek was always going to direct it?
KG: Oh, absolutely. No, the whole concept was for him to direct in that he had made a bunch of short films, he had been nominated for a student Academy Award, he had some access to money because his family had money and he had connections to money, so it was reasonable to think that he actually could put the money together to make a film. So it didn’t feel like we were just running in circles.
And especially at that time, there wasn’t as much of what we now think of as the “indie” film world – people weren’t doing that that much. So there weren’t a lot of movies being made for not a lot of money and so you sort of had to have some idea of how you were going to get it financed. But with Mark we had a good head start in that, you know, his father was very heavily into real estate and there were reasons to think that we could actually put together some kind of limited partnership and all that. So it didn’t just feel like a shot in the dark. We didn’t know, but at least we knew that there were people we could call.
PT: So how did The Chocolate War emerge as your first feature?
KG: Well, basically it was a book that I had loved since I was 18 years old, 17 years old. I had first read it when I was doing Jaws 2 and the make-up guy, Bob Jiras, had the rights to I Am The Cheese, another book by Robert Cormier, and he was interested in making that into a movie, which he finally did get done actually a couple years later. And he gave me the book thinking I might be right for the young lead in it as an actor. And I read the book and I loved it and I thought it was really cool, which lead me to being interested in other books by the same author. And I read The Chocolate War and I remember at the time thinking, “God, this would be a great movie. How come nobody’s done it?” And so I kind of kept it in the back of my mind for forever.
When Static was done, this guy Jonathan Krane, who was like a young entrepreneurial manager – he still manages John Travolta – was setting up an independent film production company called MCEG. And he one of the few people in Hollywood that seemed to actually like Static – Static was one of those films that did incredibly well in Europe, particularly in England, and got some great reviews. But it had no commercial life and nobody in America was interested in distributing it. And, again, at this point you didn’t have anywhere near as much of the Miramaxes and Sony Classics – there weren’t a lot of options for a little weird film.
But Jonathan saw it at a screening and really liked it and really got it. And basically he called me to his office and said, “Look, I like your work as an actor, but I also think this movie Static looks really interesting and what do you want to do?” And I said, “Well, I want to direct.” And he said, “Do you have any ideas?” And I told him about The Chocolate War and part of my pitch was, Look, here’s a book that’s sold hundreds of thousands of copies over the years and yet I think it could be made very cheaply – so even if I’m bad, you’re not going to lose money. Basically, just people who have read the book are going to want to see the film and so if I don’t spend too much, you’re not really at any big risk.
And essentially he just said, “Go make the movie.” Ironically enough, my first film was by far the easiest financing I ever went through. There was a short period of time where he said, “Listen, why don’t you make a short first and I’ll finance that and then we’ll see how you do with that.” And I wrote a short script in about three weeks and he read it and said, “Yeah, this is fine, but the more I think about it, why are we going to spend $50,000 doing a short when that’s like ten percent of the budget we could make the movie for?” And I was like, Fine. So he said, “Go write The Chocolate War.
I went to Cormier’s people – and I think Universal had had the rights – and they were fed up with the fact that they had owned it for years and nothing had ever happened with it. I said, “Listen, we can’t pay you much money at all, but we’ll do it with heart and passion and we actually intend to make the movie.” So when the option came up, they let it lapse with Universal and let us have it.
I wrote a script and we made the movie for half a million dollars. We shot it outside of Seattle. And it meant being very creative with sort of how to do things in a very tight way – you know, that’s what you do on your first film. Great fun, too, to have to be inventive. Of course, I didn’t get paid, which was OK – I would have paid them for the chance. But we were just able to be very clever about using minimal locations.
We actually found an abandoned seminary school up there, which had land around it and just was perfect – almost the entire film could be shot in this one building and in the surrounding ground. So it made us very, very efficient and able to do the film in 24 shooting days. The actors were all highly enthusiastic – a lot of them were not professional actors; a lot of them were local actors, like high school kid actors from Seattle.
And it was a great experience. I remember my first day of shooting, I turned to my assistant/girlfriend-who’s-now-my-wife and I said, “I’m home – this is where I’m meant to be.” I never felt that at home as an actor ever on a set.
PT: I was going to ask what your first day was like, having been on so many sets as an actor – what was it like to be on the other side?
KG: Completely different and it completely felt right. I mean, it was scary, of course, but there was a certain sense of calm that I never had as an actor. There was a certain sense of, It’s scary, but now at least I’m in control and I can make this happen. I didn’t know what it’d be like giving orders to people, some of whom were twice my age, some of whom had made 20 films, 30 films. And I found it came very naturally; I was very comfortable with the crew and very comfortable with the cast.
It was pretty thrilling because you don’t know until that first time you walk out there what you’re going to find – what’s going to come up in your gut. And it just felt natural to me. It just like, “Oh this is easy.” I mean, not easy, but it just felt natural. It’s like there are certain sports or certain whatever that your body may acclimate to and this is a case where my psyche acclimated to this very, very well.
I found that I had a talent for, in the midst of crisis, keeping a cool head, which is part of the whole thing in making a film. You know, the set’s gonna fall down, this actor is suddenly sick, this person is having a nervous breakdown and you have to deal with all that. And I found that I was pretty good at doing that – Oh, OK, well this location we were promised and we’d been planning on suddenly pulled the plug on us, well, we’ll shoot it here. And that was sort of the biggest thing that I could bring in some ways as a director.
PT: It’s definitely an essential quality, I think. Looking at the film – I was re-viewing it the other day in preparation for this – I don’t think you can necessarily tell that it’s by a former actor. Not to get into the stereotype about films directed by actors [laughter], but it’s so richly imagined from a movie perspective.
KG: Well, first of all, thank you. But, yeah, I know what you mean. There is a cliché about the kinds of movies actors direct and like most clichés it’s based in, I think, some truth. But again, I wasn’t somebody who had always been this actor and suddenly decided, Well, maybe I’ll try directing. I had always been in love with movies and my heroes were Nic Roeg and Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese. I wasn’t somebody who was looking at those classic “actor movies” of people just sitting and talking and expressing their emotions. Those weren’t the movies that I was most excited about as a filmgoer. So the films that I have made have more reflected the kinds of movies I like to go see than necessarily my experiences as an actor. My experiences as an actor were incredibly helpful in terms of dealing with actors and helping to get good performances from actors and empathising with what actors are going through. But it wasn’t necessarily like that informed so much what kinds of stories I wanted to tell or how. I was much more informed by wanting to do some of the things that I saw other people do and thought, “Oh, that’s so cool.” You know, that kind of visceral experience I would have with certain filmmakers was something I was hoping to be able to do myself.
PT: Talking about the visuals in The Chocolate War, did you do a lot of storyboarding and have it all very worked out from the start? Or did you shoot a lot of coverage as many first-time directors tend to do?
KG: Well, they’re kind of two separate issues in a way. But in terms of the coverage, it was very, very limited, partly because of budgetary reasons. When you’re shooting a movie in 24 days, you just don’t have time to do a lot of coverage, which was fine because it also meant you had to be disciplined about what you were getting and you had to find ways to get performances that would play all in one take. Since then, I’ve tended to shoot some more coverage because I have learned the value of having escape routes. You know, I love scenes that play in one shot, but if it doesn’t work, it’s really nice when you can have a way out of it.
But in that movie, I just didn’t and that was an OK discipline to have – that was actually kind of a fun challenge. So a lot of that film are scenes shot in one or two shots, but there were also times that we got fancy and did a lot of different things. But there was never pressure to do a lot of coverage. I think a lot of first-time directors are under terrible pressure because the people giving them the money are scared that they won’t have the ability to put the film together right or sometimes they won’t have the ability to reedit the film behind the director’s back.
But I had no pressure like that and I had grown up loving Woody Allen’s movies and I liked films where things played in one shot and I thought, Well, because of the money we have, let’s make that part of the style we’re doing here rather than fighting it; I’d rather do fewer shots well than a lot of shots badly.
In terms of the storyboard thing, it was funny because it was my first time doing it. So they did sort of insist that I start to do storyboards and we hired this local person. But after two days of doing it, I realised that this was a complete waste of time because what I was ending up with was somebody else’s bad reconceptualisation of what they thought I was saying. And if I could draw, I would probably do storyboards, but I can’t; I’m dyslexic and my handwriting is completely illegible and I can’t draw for the life of me. So basically what I did on that film and I’ve done on every directing project since – it just became my style – was I do what I would think of as almost verbal storyboards.
I’ll take a scene and I’ll describe in very great detail how I expect it to look and where the light’s coming from and what the colors are. Then I’ll break down each shot – I’ll have, you know, “A – 18mm lens, camera tracking slowly left to right, pushing in, starting from about ten feet back to about six feet back.” And I’ll just write out a really complicated, thorough description of each shot in the movie. The advantage of that is that it’s my words; it’s not somebody else’s drawings, meaning a reinterpretation. Also, because I’m able to be that explicit, sometimes in storyboards, I think crews don’t quite know what you mean. An arrow can mean a lot – it’s like, are we zooming in or what? Here I’m being much more verbal and literal.
At the same time, because there’s not a drawing, there’s also I think more freedom. You don’t get production designers and people like that getting hung up on trying to imitate a drawing. It’s just a bunch of words, so there’s still a lot of flexibility for people to re-imagine it, which is great because as much as I do these things in tremendous detail and specificity, I want to throw them all out as I’m going along. I want my cinematographer, my designers, everybody to better my ideas.
So what’s worked well with this system for me is that here’s a very complicated blueprint that I’ll do with every scene in the movie, but then because again it’s just words I feel like it’s much easier for my cinematographer to say, “Listen, I see what you’re going for here, but what if we use this kind of lens?” And a lot of times, he’s right. And that collaborative kind of way of working works well for me. And somehow I feel like for my personality, having this very solid base but then being able to keep a very loose attitude about it, works very well for me. Because I always know what I’m going to do – I always have an idea, I have always have a plan. And then if an actor comes up with a better idea of where he wants to walk in the scene, then you just change the plan. But at least I’ve always got something to lean on that I know will be within the overall scheme of the film I want to create.
PT: You know, there’s that Truffaut quote, which I think you’ve referenced a few times in interviews, about how being a director is knowing exactly what you want, but being willing to…
KG: …and having no ego at all about giving it up.
KG: And I think that that is a great quote. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a smarter quote about directing. And both sides of it are equally important. You’ve got to have a vision, you’ve got to have something that you see on that screen, but if you just get obsessed with that you miss so much that could be better along the way. And that’s always the tap-dancing you’re doing all through it. Every day on a movie set you’ve got that. Everyday that’s the biggest job, in some ways, going, “Is this better? Here’s my idea and here’s what what this person x is suggesting – is it better than my idea? Is it not? Is there some way to get the best of both worlds? I always imagined this scene with the actor, you know, standing by the window, but they really don’t want to stand by the window. Is it worth pushing them to try it? Is it worth seeing where they want to stand and is there a way to get the same visual feeling with them not there?” And those are the decisions you’re making a hundred times an hour and hoping that your instincts are good.
PT: In your work you seem interested in institutions kind of engulfing people.
PT: One of the major changes I think you made to the book The Chocolate War was making Archie seem more of a symptom of the problem than the problem itself – how Obie was right in line to replace Archie by the film’s conclusion.
KG: Yeah, that was something that was one of the more controversial things I’ve done. It bugs a lot of people who love the book. The movie has a more – I think of it as a more complex ending. It was actually Jonathan Krane who made the point and I gotta say I agreed with him. He said, “The problem with the book is that the book basically ends and it really is, Life sucks and then you die.” It’s sort of like there’s no point – it’s just nihilistic. And I by nature am not a nihilist. I can be cynical about things and I think there’s a lot of darkness that needs to be explored in life and I think it’s an important part of living to look at the dark side of things, but it’s not to say the same thing as things are just pointless, that you can’t fight city hall, so why even try?
So I tried to come up with something that would not make the ending light or lighter, but it would make it more complicated. I also have a problem with villains in the traditional sense and Archie was right on the edge of that. I think whether it’s Adolf Hitler or whoever, by making all the evil in the world about a person you miss the fact that there’s a reason that person got to the position to do evil and a system that allowed that to happen and people around them that allowed that to happen. Evil is always more complicated than one bad person. And so that was a conscious choice, to make it about Archie being part of a system and that eventually the system consumes him and goes right along.
But to me that was a more interesting thing to explore than just, Oh, he’s a bad guy and then he wins. And I also liked the idea, and I’ve always been attracted to the idea, that it became also in a way about in Jerry’s very attempt to do something morally good, he becomes a victim of his own hubris and ends up just feeding the very system that he’s trying to take down. And to me that’s a more interesting idea than just you can’t fight city hall. Well, you can fight city hall, but you better be really careful about how you do it because what if city hall wants you to be doing exactly that? And that to me is a much more interesting thing to try to deal with. So that was the reason for those changes and it’s funny because I know that there are still sixteen year olds out there who will see the film and like write on the IMDB saying that, “Oh, they, they chickened out on the ending!” We really didn’t chicken out – it’s just as dark, it’s just a little more complicated.
PT: I find it even more unsettling.
KG: Well, it’s unsettling in a different way. But that was probably the only time that I’ve done a material change to a book, but it was the only time I’ve done a book that I really felt like, “Oh, I’m not comfortable just with what the other thing is saying.” So that was something that I feel comfortable with but it’s interesting to see how it still pushes buttons for people now.
PT: Several years passed between The Chocolate War and your next film. How did A Midnight Clear come about?
KG: Well, A Midnight Clear happened because Dale Pollack – who was at the time head of A&M Films – had had [the book] A Midnight Clear for a while and had been trying to do it in various guises, but usually as kind of a mainstream studio film. In fact, Tom Cruise had been attached at one point and I think Randa Haines was supposed to direct it and they could never quite get a green light on it because it’s sad, it’s complicated, it’s not obviously easy commercial material. As a $20 million movie, I can see why people would have been hesitant.
So they had gone through various scripts and various directors and I guess A&M was sort of putting pressure on Dale to drop the book because I think the book was an expensive option. Wharton was sort of very hot at that time because he’d written Birdy and so they were spending a lot of money just to keep the option alive. And A&M was saying, “Look, either make the movie or let it go.” So Dale sort of had the idea of what if we do this more as an independent kind of film, and independent films were starting to get more – they were becoming a more viable part of the business at that point.
So he had seen The Chocolate War and liked it and he had me in. It’s funny because they sent me the book first and on the first reading I didn’t respond to it that strongly. I thought it’s great that it’s an antiwar piece and all that, but it’s a little cliché and I don’t know what I would do with this. And then I kind of read it again and I was sort of thinking specifically Paths of Glory (Stanley Kubrick, 1958) and other antiwar films I’d loved and I thought, “Wait a minute – there’s actually some really great stuff here.” All the detail that Wharton wrote that I kind of glanced over too quickly the first time – the spookiness of it and the oddness and surreal-ness of it, which I kind of missed on a first reading. So I was busy being distracted by certain little details that I didn’t like that we didn’t use in the film, but were really not even the point of the thing.
PT: So A&M approached you with the book. Did you have other projects ongoing that you were trying to get done?
KG: Oh sure. I always have had like ten projects going in the air at any given time or at least five or so. There was a film that I still never got made called “In Deep”, which I was supposed to do MCEG after The Chocolate War – it was a script written by a friend of mine named George Beckerman. And it was like a very, very black sort of Dr. Strangelove-ian comedy about the legal system and it was about this middle class black guy who gets a parking ticket and tries to fight it and ends up on death row. And actually ends up getting executed at the end of the film. And it was very, very funny and very, very bleak and bizarre and wonderful. They were going to finance it and we went and did location scouting – we were going to shoot in Dallas – and we were starting to cast the movie and Joe Morton was going to play the lead. And MCEG went into bankruptcy. That was sort of the end of that. So I was back to being unemployed and that was when the thing came up with A&M with A Midnight Clear. We had a couple of meetings and Dale seemed to really like my ideas, which were basically to write a script that was very close to the book. I think they had earlier scripts – which I never read – which had gone off pretty far from the book. And I said, “I don’t know. The book seems really good to me.” It has good dialogue and I liked the structure of it. Basically, I think my job would be to just translate it as much without losing anything as I could.
And it was funny, because at the same time I’d been approached by Brian Grazer about doing this motorcycle racing movie in L.A. And it was this weird situation because A Midnight Clear was much more something that my heart was excited about, but the other thing was a real career opportunity. And it was very odd because they could never quite get the money for A Midnight Clear. It kept almost happening and almost happening and almost happening, and I was right to the point of like, Well, I’m going to have to do this other movie. And literally within 48 hours of Brian Grazer saying, “Well, are you in or are you out on us?” – and my having to have said yes – Dale Pollack called and said, “Yes, we’ve got the financing.”
And it had gone through all sorts of tortuous ups-and-downs – we had the money, we lost the money. And ultimately it was made by this bizarre combination of sources and foreign money and cable money and domestic money and A&M’s money, which was kind of messy and in some ways very disadvantageous because I ended up having like ten different bosses, all of whom had very strong egos and personalities, all of whom saw slightly different movies. And so, for the first and, knock on wood, only time so far in my career, I had a very difficult time on that movie in terms of a lot of politics, a lot of pressure, a lot of people interfering in the creative process. I’ve been really blessed on four of the five movies now that I’ve been essentially left alone and just supported. And on that movie it was very touchy and tricky to deal with the money people.
PT: And you would attribute that to having so many sources for the financing?
KG: Yeah, I think it was the personalities involved, but it was the number of them. I mean, I would probably work with any of those people again in a more one-on-one… because I’m pretty good at arguing my case and I don’t mind if somebody’s got a point of view and taking in their ideas. The problem was here, it just sort of became like a kid in a bad divorce. It was like they were so busy fighting with each other and then the movie would become sort of the stepchild in the middle of their fighting with each other and who was really going to stay in control. And then Dale was a little bit strange in that Dale wanted so much to protect me in a nice way – which is great – but he couldn’t. So he did something that didn’t work in the end, which is he said, “You don’t talk to these guys. I’ll protect you from them.” But because he wasn’t strong enough in the end to do it, it meant I had no relationship with them and they just saw me as this petulant director. Dale would come to me and say, “They want you to do X and Y and Z.” And I’d say, “Gee, that seems like a really bad idea to me and I think it’s going to ruin the story and here’s why.” And then he’d go back to them and say, “Well, Keith says no.”
So from their point-of-view, I was this stuck-up, difficult young director who wasn’t listening. From my point-of-view, they were these guys were out to ruin my movie. And it was only probably in the years past, when I talked to some of these people, that I realised we probably could have done a lot better if he were communicating a lot more directly. Because I could have given them some of what they were looking for and they wouldn’t have seen me as just like crazed Michael Cimino, Jr., out to do whatever I felt like. But because Dale became the conduit it was actually something that blew up in our faces and didn’t work well. Again, I think he meant well, but ever since then I’ve always tried to be very directly communicative with the money people and it’s why in fact I started producing my own films after that. I always wanted to be the one that, when they say, “You don’t have money for rehearsals!”, I can very calmly and directly say to them, “Here’s why I think we do have money for rehearsals and here’s why I think it’s worth it.” And usually I find I win those arguments if they then see me directly explaining it. The problem is, when they don’t, there’s nobody there to explain what the vision is and why it should be done a certain way.
PT: You mentioned you were offered a project produced by Brian Grazer during this period. And that brings me to another point. One of the things that strikes me about your work is that even though all of your films are taken from another source – in the case of The Singing Detective, a mini-series – you seem to pursue your own agenda: projects you love and care about, when so many filmmakers do projects for-hire in between “personal” projects. I even read you passed on American Beauty [Sam Mendes, 1999]…
KG: Sure… now, again, I want to be very clear on that. Nobody offered me American Beauty. My agents sent me American Beauty. Just because your agents send you a script, doesn’t mean the producers or studio are even interested. But agents often want to gauge your interest before they start pitching you. I passed on the chance to follow-up on it and pursue it. But I don’t want people thinking I’m claiming that they were saying, “Here’s the job!” Just because that could make it seem like I was lying, because it’s not really accurate. What happens a lot in Hollywood with projects is that they’ll send the script out to five directors, ten directors, 50 directors and see who responds. So you can pass on a project, but passing on a project is not the same as being offered a project. So it’s just important in that otherwise it could start sounding like you’re kind of exaggerating what your importance is.
But, yeah, I did pass on following up on that script because, as much as I thought it was a really interesting script that was well written, I didn’t personally respond to it. Certainly, as the years have gone by, I feel more and more that I am primarily interested in doing things that speak to me and that when you do a movie it’s a year out of your life – and really comes out being more like almost two years by the time you start dealing with distribution and marketing and all that – and you better love it. I mean, that is one thing – as an actor, you work six weeks on a movie, eight weeks, four weeks, whatever – it’s over, it’s fast. So to do a crummy acting job to pay the rent is pretty painless.
But if you’re going to direct a movie that’s a lot of your life and the hours are ridiculous and the workload is ridiculous and if you’re not passionate about it… I mean, I’m sort of admiring of people who can do that because I don’t know how they don’t lose their minds. I feel like I’m going to lose my mind when I’m doing something I love. But the idea of getting up at four in the morning and going to bed at midnight on something I didn’t care about – I just said, God, there are easier ways to make a living! You know, I’d rather work in a bookstore or something. I mean, I don’t get it.
Now again, I don’t have kids, I don’t have a lot of other burdens in my life. I can completely understand being in a different place in one’s life where you go, “I just want to make as much money as I can as fast as I can and then never have to think about money again or put my five kids through college or whatever.” That’s perfectly valid. But for me as a person, my priorities have been to take on only those projects that I feel excited about. And I feel very lucky that I’ve never been at the point where I haven’t been able to. Maybe it’ll always be that way and maybe it won’t – I don’t know. There may come a day when Free Willy Part 11 is what I gotta do to send my kids through college or what I gotta do to pay my medical bills.
But I’ve been lucky enough right now, and I live simply enough… I mean, not to say that I live like a monk – I live in a nice house – but I learned a lesson growing up with parents in the business that you don’t trust what the future’s going to bring economically. So I haven’t run out and bought a Porsche, I don’t buy Armani suits. I try to, when I make some money doing a movie, to put it in the bank, so that if it’s three or four or five years before the next one, that’s OK. And because of that I’ve been able to do this thing of really pursuing the things that excite me and do the things I love and have it be less about how much money can I make and more about how much do I care about this story and how much creative freedom can I get. I mean, I’d much rather lose a zero off of my salary and have more control of the film than make a film for a studio and be paid a million dollars but have somebody else reedit it.
PT: So did Robert Weide, the screenwriter of Mother Night, approach you with that project?
KG: Well, Bob and I – kind of like with Mark – had been friends for years. We first met when an ex-girlfriend of mine had a script optioned by a company that Bob was working at and then he and I just hit it off immediately and were like, God, we should do something together. And we stayed great friends since then too. And Bob has been close to Kurt Vonnegut for many, many years as well. Bob’s a wonderful documentary filmmaker and has been making a documentary on Kurt for maybe 15 years.
And we’d always talked about how hard it was to translate Kurt’s work to film. But Bob came to me and said, “Listen, I want to do something with Kurt’s stuff and let’s look at the books and see what would make sense.” And we talked about several of the different books and “Mother Night” was one that we both loved personally, we both felt could be made for a limited budget. So much of Kurt’s stuff is science-fiction based or at least surreal universe based, where if you don’t have money… I mean, Bob has been trying to get Sirens of Titan done, but as he said the nightmare is that with less than 50 million dollars you can’t make the movie. So that eliminated a lot of the books right there. There was Player Piano which was a possibility, there was Mother Night… but most of them really would have been budgets that we knew we could never raise. And we read a couple things and we talked and Mother Night just seemed to be one we both really felt could be done well and didn’t rely on money and that would also translate to film.
I mean, for example, some of the books I don’t know if they should even be made into films. Whatever you thought of [the film] Breakfast of Champions (Alan Rudolph, 1999), that was a book that on a personal level, before it was done, I certainly felt, “How would you do this, since this is sort of about the style of the writing?” So that even if you take all the funny little incidents, you’re losing the point, which has to do with literary style. And Mother Night was not about literary style.
And so Bob said that he wanted to write the screenplay and I was sort of like – and Bob had never written a screenplay before, certainly not for anything that had ever been done – ”Alright fine, you go write the screenplay”, because at that point I was still working on A Midnight Clear. And I was like, “Go write the screenplay”, but I always felt like, “Yes, and then I’ll rewrite the screenplay.” And what happened was, to my shock and sort of lesson in not assuming other people can’t do things really well, Bob wrote this fabulous script where I read it and basically I had almost nothing to say. My biggest problem with it was that it was too long and so we spent some time together cutting it down. But he had done an amazing job of capturing Vonnegut’s voice.
When I read the script, I couldn’t tell what was Bob’s and what was Kurt’s. And, in the ultimate compliment, Vonnegut said much the same thing to Bob. When he read the script, he said, “You know, I haven’t read my book in 30 years and I found myself not remembering if things were in the book or not.” And in fact, ironically enough, the one note that Vonnegut had was there was one scene that he thought stuck out. It wasn’t in the final film, but it was in the script – it was the scene where Werner Noth – Nolte’s character’s father-in-law – was hung by a bunch of women. And Kurt said, “That one scene, that seemed like too much to me. I felt like that isn’t something I would have written.” And Bob said, “Except that that’s in the book!” [Laughter] Kurt was like, “Oh, OK. Well, that’s what happens when you don’t read your own book for 30 years.” But that’s how good the script was. Kurt literally didn’t remember – literally – what scenes were what.
So I was thrilled with the script and I guess we cut it down by about20 pages, but that was really all we did to it. And then we started on this long and absurd process of trying to get it financed. We used to joke about, “Oh this is great – they like log lines in Hollywood and most movies have things like, you know, ‘Teenagers fall in love and find true happiness.’ And our log line was, ‘Nice Nazi kills self.’” So we were expecting people to throw us money.
So we went down millions of blind alleys and constantly were being misled. And there’s always that thing of people are more interested if you have an actor, but actors are more interested if you have money, so it was very hard to even get the script to actors. Then we had one actor – who will go nameless – who was a name actor who was very interested, but it became very clear in a meeting that it would be a nightmare and he wanted to reconceive the whole thing.
PT: The story of how you finally approached Nick Nolte with the role is pretty funny.
KG: Well, what happened was, Fine Line had always loved the script. Ruth Vitale, who was heading up Fine Line and is now at Paramount Classics, had always really liked the script. She was one of the few people in town who didn’t read it and just say, “What, are you out of your mind?” But she did say the only way to get this made here would be with one of a very few major stars because we’re not going to make a movie about a nice Nazi who hangs himself unless we have enough foreign pre-sales or whatever that’s going to make it logical for us. So they said Nick Nolte, Robert de Niro, or Daniel Day-Lewis. And Nick Nolte was somebody that we’d always loved and we’d sent him the script very early on – maybe the first actor we ever sent it to. And we’d been told by an agent, “What, are you out of your mind? He makes ten million dollars a movie and go away and leave us alone.” And we tried going back to him again and were told the same thing.
Then we went to Robert De Niro and it took about five months to get a response and the response we got back from his company was that, “Well, he might be interested in directing it but not acting in it”, which didn’t really do us a lot of good. And Daniel Day-Lewis we chased around for six months and couldn’t even get him to read the script – his agent was like, “Well, he’s backpacking across Europe…”
So almost a year went by where we got nowhere. And then I got this call from a casting director that I’d known as an actor in New York, saying, “I’m casting this movie and we’re trying to get like neat people to do like little cameos in it. And I know you’re not acting much these days, but would you be interested?” And I said, “What’s the movie?” And she said, “Well, it’s I Love Trouble (Charles Shyer, 1994) with Nick Nolte and Julia Roberts.” And my little voice in my head started going, “Oh wait a minute. This is an opportunity.” And I said, “Well, if you can get me a scene with Nick Nolte, I’ll do it.”
So I played the part of Andy the Photographer and I think I had one line or maybe two lines. But I was on the set for a few days, which was also very lucky because it was a big train wreck scene so it wasn’t like I was just there for a few hours. So the first night I started chatting with Nick, who turned out to be this really nice guy, and we hit it off and we were very friendly very quickly. And the second day I brought the script and I said, “Listen, this is the reason I took this part. And you can have me thrown off the set if you want and I hope this is not so obnoxious.” He was very gracious and he was a big fan of Vonnegut’s. Even though his agents passed on the project, he swore he’d never heard of it, which made sense to me because it was a great role and I had the feeling he probably had never gotten to see it. So he took the script and he said, “Yeah, I’ll read it and this is really interesting to me and I want to get back to doing more parts like that.”
So I thought that was thrilling and then about three months went by and I didn’t hear anything. So I called his assistant and his assistant had been very helpful, going to Nick and saying, “Listen, this guy is legit and he actually makes movies. And, you know, he’s not some guy who’s crazy.”
So I called the assistant and said, “Listen, I’ve never heard anything.” He said, “You know, Nick is a mess. He always loses stuff – he probably lost the script. Just give me another copy – I’ll make sure he reads it.” So I got a script and like a week later I get home and on my answering machine there’s this voice going [imitates scraggly Nolte voice], “Hey, it’s Nick Nolte! Ehh… I wanted to know if you wanted to come to the house and talk about the script, I just love it!” At first I thought it was like Bob doing a big joke. But then it became clear that, no, it really is Nick Nolte.
So that was really what happened. I went up to his compound in Malibu and we spent the whole day hanging out and talking and he was like the greatest guy. I loved what he had to say about the script and the part and I think he liked about what I had to say about how I wanted to work. And he was right at the point in his career where he was really desperate to get back to doing things that were about the art and not about the money. You know, he had a couple of failures and I Love Trouble was a big disappointment. And I think he just wanted to be an actor again.
So I caught him at the right moment where the fact that we couldn’t pay him 10 percent of his normal salary just didn’t matter. Of course, it did matter to everybody around him, so then the huge nightmare became getting a deal with him finished. Everybody around him had a lot of reason to not let this happen. So there was a lot of struggle. You know, we would get these calls saying, “You know, Nick needs a personal trainer on the set at all times! And you have to pay for that.” And I called Nick and I said, “Nick, this is like a five million dollar movie!” And he goes, “I don’t have a personal trainer!” [Laughter] So there was a lot of that stuff, but we finally got a deal hammered out and once we had him Fine Line was in. They were good to their word even though it was a year later and they would have had every right to weasel out and change their minds and say, “No, now we don’t want to do it.” But they didn’t.
For his time, commitment, and dedication to this piece, grateful thanks to Keith Gordon.