Keith Gordon

In this second half of my interview with independent American filmmaker Keith Gordon, we focus on his two most recent features, Waking the Dead (2000) and The Singing Detective (2003). It seems appropriate that these works ended up being grouped together, for they constitute an evolutionary development from Gordon’s previous work. Gordon is fully cognisant of this development. Speaking about The Singing Detective, he said to me, “As I’ve gotten older and been in love and gotten happier as a person, I’m less afraid of happy endings. I still don’t like most Hollywood happy endings. I don’t think they’re earned. But I think if somebody earns a happy ending, that’s okay”.

“In Chimes at Midnight and The Immortal Story”, Joseph McBride wrote of Orson Welles in his classic study of the director, “Welles moved ever closer to the faces of his characters. Earlier in his career, he had avoided, almost feared, close-ups, preferring the distancing of rhetoric and the qualification of irony”. Something similar is going on in Gordon’s work as he moves from his early films into a “middle period” of sorts. All the same, Gordon, like Welles, has retained the thematic and stylistic signatures which make his work his own; it’s just that his perspective is more mature, more inclusive, less dark. This is one of the reasons why I feel it safe to say at this relatively early stage in his career that Gordon has the makings of a master filmmaker; after all, as McBride points out to us, didn’t Orson Welles do the same thing?

We cover this progression both explicitly and implicitly in this section of our talk, as well as a brief overview of projects Gordon presently has in various stages of development.

– Peter Tonguette

* * *

As we continued our discussion of December 31, 2002, I mentioned that Waking the Dead was one of the projects which took Gordon longest to make.

Peter Tonguette: When did you first read the novel?

Keith Gordon: I first read the novel in, I believe, 1991. And we made the film in 1999. So, yeah, that’s probably the longest so far – of something that’s actually happened – from when I started. I read the novel, I fell in love with it, did my script in early ’92 or late ’91, and basically the company that had it at the time just couldn’t get anywhere with it. And they were much more of a mainstream company, they had to deal with the studio; I had this meeting at the studio where it was like, Well, we like this, but can you take all the politics out of it and put a happy ending on it? And I was like, “Frankly, no”, which, I think, shocked them and angered them. They were like, “What do you mean?” “Well, no, I’m not gonna make that movie!” Somebody else could probably do it, but there just seems to be no point to me.

So that kind of ended up going on the shelf. I went off and made A Midnight Clear (1992) and Mother Night (1996) and so it kept kind of getting pushed back because I was busy doing other things. And certainly the company that had it wasn’t doing anything with it. And when I finished Mother Night, I read my script again and went, “I still love this”. So I contacted the writer of the novel and he said, “You know, they don’t own my book anymore. So if you want to try to get this done, I’m all for it and you hereby have my permission”. Because he had loved my script and there had been earlier scripts written that he was very unhappy with and felt had kind of really missed the whole point of the book. He had had a film made of “Endless Love” and was very frustrated with the way that had turned out. I think the fact that I seemed to have the same vision of the story that he did – I think he just wanted to see it get made without it getting ruined. So he basically said, “Listen, free of charge – you don’t have to pay me any option money – just, as far as I’m concerned, find it a home”.

And so Jodie Foster was somebody that we had tried to get interested in financing Mother Night and she had passed on it. And she came to one of the first screenings; I had never met her before, so I was very nervous. Afterwards she was like, “That was a huge mistake. I should have made this movie. And I love it and what else do you have?” Which was pretty thrilling. So I gave her Waking the Dead and she loved it; she just completely got it and she said, “I want to do this with you”. That was sort of how that started rolling and we again went through that thing of having Polygram, which is where she had her deal, say, “Well, could you do it with Tom Cruise?” And I was like, “Well, yeah, we could if he wanted to do it – he’d actually be good in the role – but what makes you think he’s going to do this?” And we actually ended up sending it to him and I heard he liked it, but he never said yes; he just said maybe, which after about six months became clear that was as far as it was going to go.

During that time, I got a call from Billy Crudup’s agent and I didn’t even know Billy’s work at that point; I heard his name as like this young up-and-coming actor. But they said he read this and he flipped out over it and he’s all excited. And I looked at some of his work and thought, “Well, God, he’s really talented, but he’s so young and I don’t know if he’s going to be old enough for this – and plus I just doubt that Polygram would ever make it with him”. So he and I had lunch and we completely hit it off as people; I mean, I just thought he was a great guy, I thought he was very bright, and I started thinking, “Well, maybe he’s not as young as I thought he was…” And, as luck would have it, he was just doing Hi-Lo Country (Stephen Frears, 1998) for Polygram and they were all high on him and they thought he was going to be like the next big star. So they were more willing to take a chance on him than maybe other people would have been just based on where he was at that point in his career.

PT: Talking about the casting, I think you’re really in a sense responsible for the huge resurgence of Jennifer Connelly. Her first, I think, really great role was in Waking the Dead.

KG: Well, I’d like to think that’s true. [Laughter] She’s certainly given me credit for that, which I feel good about. But really, half the credit has to go to her agent because, frankly, I didn’t even want to read her for the part. I had the same screwed up misconceptions that everybody else did – you know, I thought, “Well, she’s this gorgeous woman with a great body and, you know, she’s not a great actress”. And her agent was the one who was very dogged about pursuing me and saying, “Listen, I want you to look at a couple little independent films that nobody’s ever seen, that have never really gotten released. She’s done some really good work, I want you to look at these tapes”. And I was like, “Alright, alright, I’ll look at the tapes”. And I was having a very hard time casting the part because, sadly, among young actresses, trying to find somebody who had the physical stuff – the character needed the beauty and all that – but also had the brains and the complexity. I just wasn’t finding anybody who had all the elements. I was finding people who had like one, but not all four or five of the key different things. There were people who felt very modern – I mean, this woman had to feel like she could have been in the ’70s. There were people who just felt… you knew they weren’t from that time.

And I started looking at Jennifer’s work and there was this one particular independent film she’d made called Far Harbor (John Huddles, 1996), which I don’t think has ever been released. And she had this like long, long monologue about the death of her baby and she played this manic-depressive woman and she was fabulous. I watched it and I turned to my wife and I said, “Was that as good as I thought it was?” And she was like, “Yeah, it was really good”. So she came in and read and she just gave this remarkable reading. First of all, she just got the character and she has… I mean, the thing that’s great about Jennifer as a person is all the things that’s great about Sarah the character. She’s incredibly bright and well read – she knows history, she knows politics – but she’s also got that kind of Earth Mother, calm thing and she’s incredibly beautiful, but in a way that I very much associate with women of that era where she’s beautiful without trying. It’s not that kind of made-up, you know, “Hi, look at me, I’m sexy” thing; it’s like, “I’m sexy, but I don’t have to make any effort to try”, and that was what I thought that character needed.

Waking the Dead

And she just read so well and Billy had loved working with her on Inventing the Abbotts (Pat O’Connor, 1997). Because that was the other thing – I called Billy and said, “Listen, I’m thinking of reading Jennifer Connelly, but I’m not going to bother if you don’t like working with her”. And he was like, “No, dude, people don’t get how good she is”. So they read together and there was such a chemistry; there’s an analogy sometimes that when actors get going really well it’s like watching a ping-pong game and you forget you’re watching an audition. And that’s what happened – I got interested in the scene. I wasn’t busy thinking, “Well how is she doing!” I was just interested in like what was going to happen in the scene and that to me is always the best sense, when that happens to me I’m like, I know something great is going on.

And then of course the same thing happened with Jodie Foster, who said, “Jennifer Connelly? You’re kidding, she’s not a great actress…” And I sent Jodie the tape of the audition and she called and said, “You’re right. Hire her”. So I was very pleased, but I got to say it was Risa Shapiro, her agent, who was really responsible for getting me to open my eyes about her. And now I just love her and am so glad at the attention she’s getting. She’s also like one of the loveliest people you’ll ever meet in the universe. It’s one of those things where it’s just not fair – you shouldn’t be able to be that beautiful, that smart, that nice, and that talented. But she really is. There’s no Achilles’ Heel that I found in months of working with the woman. She’s kind to the crew, she’s in a good mood all the time, she’ll do whatever you want as a director, she’s brave as an actress – just the greatest person. So I’m so thrilled that she’s getting some of the attention because it doesn’t always end up that the people who deserve it get it. And I can’t wait to work with her again. Both she and Billy were just so much fun.

PT: They really are great together in the film.

KG: And we spent, you know, three weeks in rehearsal and that process was really fun and they were both very good about just opening themselves up as people and as actors in very deep emotional stuff. It was wonderful. It was a really good experience and I think that if they’re good together in the film it’s because they’d go into it with that kind of bravery. Because we did rehearse for three weeks and really did fill in all the gaps between the scenes in the film. Here’s what happens in this scene and here’s what happens in the next scene, but what happened between those two things? We really spent hours and hours talking about that and what were they like together and what was it like when they fought and what was it like when they were making love and what was it like when they were physically apart from each other and what did they have for dinner. We just knew everything about this couple by the time we started shooting and that was very valuable.

PT: In both Mother Night and Waking the Dead, you have a female character altering the protagonists’ life. For example, the only happy moments in Mother Night – when Campbell seems truly happy – are when he’s with Helga or, later on, Resi. And in A Midnight Clear, the soldiers seem almost forever altered by this sad, human encounter with the prostitute. Is this an idea you’re drawn to or is it just a coincidence it seems to emerge in all of these films?

KG: Well it’s not an idea I’m consciously drawn to, but you certainly make a good enough case that it’s impossible to deny. So clearly that is part of it. But, it’s funny, I’m not someone who – I’m always suspicious of directors who claim, “Well I’m interested in this theme, so I picked this story!” I certainly don’t work that way – my psyche doesn’t – and I don’t think most directors do. But, speaking only for myself at least, I don’t usually know why I fall in love with a story. I know I read a story or I hear a story or whatever and I go, “That sounds great”.

Then somebody like you can be very smart about it and show me patterns and I can go, “Oh yeah, that is a pattern”. And then I can think about my own life and go, well, it’s very true. Because I think in my life I’ve battled a lot of sadness and depression and when I found my wife, the person that I spend my life with, she really turned my life around and sort of gave me a sense of meaning in a whole new way. So I can see why that might be something that would come out in the films and I might be drawn to that because certainly a feminine presence in my life sort of gave me my chance at happiness. And so, sure, why wouldn’t I have that be a big thing in the stories that I tell. But it’s not something that I ever consciously think, “Oh, I’m working for this”. I certainly see it – certainly when you say it, I go, “Yeah”. Even back to The Chocolate War (1989), and the Jenny Wright character is sort of his way out. And in The Singing Detective, it’s the same thing and I didn’t even write that. But certainly it’s a similar part of it that it’s really through love that the guy finally finds transcendence.

PT: To steer this back to the kind of awkward territory of business, how well did Waking the Dead do commercially?

KG: Oh about as well as all of my films, which is terrible. [Laughter] My cinematographer, Tom Richmond, who’s done all of my films, and I joke about how they have those things in Variety saying, “Congratulations to Tom Hanks on $1 billion in ticket sales”. So we want somebody to take one out for us saying, “Congratulations on $1 million in ticket sales”.

The most successful of the films was A Midnight Clear. That was the one that did best. But Waking the Dead was a disaster pretty much financially, although it’s done okay on video and over the years of its life it will probably sooner or later pay itself back for its cost. But it was bad timing, among other things. It was made by Gramercy, and Gramercy went out of business right around the time that the film was going to be distributed. So consequently, we were caught in the middle of a lot of executives who had been there when we were doing the film and who were no longer there; a lot of the ones who were didn’t know how long they were going to keep their jobs. Polygram was being sold to Universal, so we didn’t even know who to ask about stuff half the time. We were hoping to put a soundtrack album out – we were trying to deal with like who would pay for rights and things – and we couldn’t even think of who to get on the phone with to say yes. Because all of the people at Polygram were like all being fired every day.

I don’t know if the film was ever going to be a mainstream commercial hit, but certainly our release was not helped by the fact that we were basically dealing with a lot of people who had bigger things on their minds than our movie.

PT: I ask because Waking the Dead in particular is so immediate and satisfying emotionally. So if the studios can’t distribute a film like this correctly, what can they do?

KG: Well, the thing about distribution is that, I think more than any other thing in the film business, to me – my observation – is that it’s like going to Vegas. Nobody knows how to make it work, nobody has the rules. It’s basically just throwing the dice out there because you’re dealing with so many imponderables. You’re dealing what other movies open that week, open the week before, the week after; what critics see the film; what mood are they in when they see the film; what is on TV; what’s the weather like.

One of the most depressing but fascinating things about Waking the Dead was there were cities where we got nothing but rave reviews and there were cities where we got nothing but bad reviews and it had almost no effect on the box office. That’s the one thing you think with independent film – “Well, reviews are going to make all the difference”. But we could not have gotten better reviews than we got in Los Angeles. And it still didn’t make any money in Los Angeles. We couldn’t have gotten worse reviews than we did in Philadelphia and it didn’t do that much worse in Philadelphia.

And it seems to me that there’s some weird zeitgeist thing that happens and obviously distribution is important and how much money they spend is important and all that stuff, but why of all of John Sayles’ films was… oh God, the Kris Kristofferson…

PT: Lone Star (1996)?

KG: Lone Star. Why was that the only one that really did well when, for example, City of Hope (John Sayles, 1991), which to me had a very similar structure and I thought was just as wonderful a film, completely died? God knows! It was just the right combination of critics and audience interest and nothing else out at that moment and the little kind of pieces of luck that happen.

On the other hand, you can have bad luck. With A Midnight Clear, it did okay, but it would have done a lot better if on the weekend of all our great reviews, the Rodney King riots hadn’t happened in Los Angeles. And the theatres here were all closed and people weren’t really thinking about movies much. I think the opening weekend gross in L.A. was like 60 bucks because the theatres were closed. And here we had this two-page ad in the L.A. Times and that was our big push, for that weekend. And it was gone. So more than anything else in this process, it ain’t about anything other than luck, I think. Even if you do everything right, it can fail.

The Singing Detective

PT: Here’s kind of a difficult question. Which of the films that you’ve done to date is the most similar to how you envisioned it to be initially?

KG: Oh, that’s a really good question. Most like what I originally envisioned it to be initially. [Pause] Probably… wow. I mean, because all of them – the nature of filmmaking is, as we talked about before, you have this vision and it changes. So none of them are exactly like the vision and yet all of them are somewhat still the core of it. Probably Mother Night, I guess, was the closest from beginning to end and I don’t know why that is. Like Singing Detective is very, very close to my sort of concept and theories about what I wanted it to be, but what that was going to turn out like I didn’t know. There was much more of a sense of, I’ve never done a musical number before – so I kind of had this feeling I wanted it to have and I feel really good that it has that feeling, but certainly some scenes look very different than I would have guessed how they were going to look two months before shooting started.

It also might be a time thing too. Because Waking the Dead was so many years in the making the concept evolved over time, as I evolved as a person. And, on the other extreme, with The Singing Detective, where I was hired 12 weeks before the film started shooting, there was no time for a concept to sit around, so I was kind of putting the concept together on the fly. I think Mother Night split that difference where I was with it long enough where it really ground itself into my brain, but not so long that the ideas that I liked at the beginning I didn’t even like anymore. So that’s probably I would guess that. I don’t know. It’s one of those questions I can answer too many different ways. [Laughter]

Keith and I picked up our conversation on November 9, 2003, following my first viewing of his wonderful The Singing Detective, which had played earlier that year at the Sundance and Toronto film festivals and had just opened commercially the previous month in the United States.

PT: When did Dennis Potter complete his feature film adaptation of The Singing Detective? Was it shortly before his death?

KG: It was not like literally on his deathbed. It was probably late 1992 as far as I can gather. I think it was October or November of ’92 and he died in ’94. So I don’t think he knew he was dying at that point, although certainly he was getting older and his health was always a disastrous mess. And the people who knew him said that certainly by the time he wrote this his attitude was mellowing in the direction that it continued to go right up until the time of his death. He was sort of softening as a person and getting a little more – in a good sense – sentimental and in a good sense sort of open to the meaning of life being more than just “Life sucks and then you die”. And that that was already going on at this point even if he didn’t know he was dying.

PT: When did you first read the script?

KG: I read it not long after he wrote it. In fact, he was probably still alive when I first read it. My agents knew I was a huge Potter fan, so they sent it to me saying, “We probably can’t get you in the door on this, but we know you like this guy’s work very much so we figured you’d be curious, so here’s the script”. And that was probably early ’93. And, of course, I did love it and, of course, I couldn’t get in the door.

It was repeatedly announced with various incredibly high profile people being attached to it – which they may or may not have been. I mean, that’s such a Hollywood thing. One meeting happens and suddenly this person’s doing the movie. Variously I remember Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman, Anthony Hopkins being mentioned. I remember Barry Levinson, Paul Mazursky, David Cronenberg… I could probably come up with 15 names of actors and directors who over the years everybody said were going to do it. God knows how far any of those versions ever got, but certainly it was always those kind of very visible people.

PT: When were you first approached about directing the film? Was it just after when [Mel] Gibson’s company had purchased the rights?

KG: It was a while after Gibson’s company had got it. Gibson’s company got it and then Mel was the one who decided that the way to do the film was to sort of drop a zero off the budget that had been bandied about and do it as a more experimental/independent sort of film – which was certainly closer to Potter’s intention. Potter was actually not a fan of the film that was made of Pennies From Heaven – although I love it. But Potter was unhappy and one of the things he was unhappy about was that he felt it was sort of too big, too glitzy, the musical numbers were too slick, and too much like real musical numbers instead of Brechtian comments on musical numbers. So Mel’s feeling was to go back to what Potter was intending in the first place – and that’s also the way to get this movie made.

And then Mel was the one who went to Robert Downey before they ever started going to directors and said, “Robert, do you want to do this?” And Robert at that point was just coming out of prison. It was kind of genius on Mel’s part to realise that not only would Robert’s talent be a good match-up for the role, but that also what Robert had been through in terms of prison life… I think doing this role he saw as a real catharsis for Robert. And I think he was right.

PT: How did Gibson know how passionate you were about the project?

KG: Well, as far as I can gather, there was sort of a confluence of things that happened. Robert had good memories of me from Back to School (Alan Metter, 1986), but we had also talked together over the years about working together as director and actor. Simultaneously, my agents did a great job of getting in Gibson’s people’s ears and saying, you know, “He knows Robert, he loves this script, he’s been chasing it around, and he knows how to do things inexpensively, which is what you guys want to do”. I think it is one of those things where both sides take a little bit of credit. I think Robert likes to take credit that it was his idea. My agents like to take credit that it was their idea. I have a funny feeling that it may have been both ideas; that they both kind of came together to get Icon to go, “Oh, this is an interesting idea”. And I think they had gone to a few more A-list directors with Robert, but then when they said, “And we want to do it for $7 million”, those people like ran screaming.

So I went in and had a meeting. Not with Mel, but with Robert and Kevin Lake, who was the creative executive for the company on the project. I talked for some ridiculous length about all the ways I saw the film and how much I love Potter and how I saw approaching the movie and where I saw it being different from the show and where I saw it being similar. I left and didn’t hear anything for a little while. I figured, “Okay, I guess I blew it”. I then got this call a couple months later, saying, “We start in 12 weeks. Are you in?” Which was both thrilling and terrifying, because I like to have a lot more time than 12 weeks to get something this complicated prepared! But luckily I had thought about it for so long, so I had a lot of starting places to jump off from.

PT: How far was all of this after Waking the Dead? About two years?

KG: About, yeah. We started shooting this in the spring of 2002. So I was hired in the winter of 2002 and Waking the Dead came out in the spring of 2000. So, yeah, it would have been about two years after the release of Waking the Dead and a couple years more from when we shot it! Because it took forever to come out.

PT: I have the advantage, I think, in that when I first saw your film of The Singing Detective, I hadn’t seen the Potter mini-series. So I can view your film more or less on its own terms.

KG: Sure.

The Last Interview

PT: How would you characterise the differences between the mini-series and your film? Especially differences in the outlook between the two films, which we touched on just a bit ago in terms of how Potter’s perspective was changing.

KG: I think that’s one of the largest changes from the original. It’s a little bit more hopeful. There’s more room for redemption. I think Potter, towards the end of his life, people around him said he had mellowed. He did a very famous interview… did you ever see the thing called “The Last Interview” that he did?

PT: No, I haven’t.

KG: It’s rentable, I think. It’s pretty amazing. It’s an hour-long interview he did for the BBC two or three weeks before he died. He knew he was dying. His humour’s as caustic as ever. I remember he was talking about naming the tumour that was killing him “Rupert” after Rupert Murdoch, who he blamed for ruining British television. But at the same time, he also talks at great lengths about looking out his hospital window and seeing a tree and realising how important just that tree was. You just see that it’s a man who’s really in touch with the moment and with life in a way that he’s never been before.

I think that that change is very evident in the emotional undertone of the piece, the ultimate hopefulness of the piece. I think the original piece is a lot more bleak in its assessment of the hope of the character and the assessment of the character himself. The character is, I think, darker all the way through in the original. And essentially the character is Potter and I think Potter had a lot more of self-loathing at that point than when he re-wrote it. So my suspicion is that that was one of the reasons he wanted to revisit it.

I think he also was intrigued by revisiting the piece through some new eyes in some other thematic areas – moving it to America, changing the time frame, changing the eras of all of it. And in the process, new things get brought up. It’s sort of like doing Shakespeare in another time and place and suddenly you get new insights into what’s sort of underneath it.

PT: Do you think you yourself would have made the film differently ten years earlier, around the time that you made The Chocolate War? Because I almost see a progression in your own work…

KG: Oh, sure! I think that’s probably very, very much true. In fact, I think when I first read the script, I had more of the reaction that some people have, of, “Oh, it’s too sentimental now”. As I’ve gotten older and been in love and gotten happier as a person, I’m less afraid of happy endings. I still don’t like most Hollywood happy endings. I don’t think they’re earned. But I think if somebody earns a happy ending, that’s okay. Plus, what became clear to me as I worked on the film is that this is a very ambiguous, open-ended happy ending. I mean, it’s still the character shoots him, he doesn’t shoot the character. So who’s walking out of the hospital? And what does it really mean? And how much of that happiness is in his head and how much of it is real? The lights are going down and it’s one more theatrical moment as he’s leaving. So when I was making it, I didn’t intend it as, “And everything’s perfect now!” I intended it as, something’s better and it’ll be interesting to see where he goes from here. But I think some people still take it on a much more literal, “And now everything’s perfect” level. I don’t think that was Potter’s intent and I know it wasn’t mine.

But all throughout, people have taken things on a very literal level. People have criticised the fact that he has a revelation about his past and then he suddenly walks. They say, “Oh, it’s like some old movie where then he can get up and walk”. But Potter was the first to poke fun at that! Having everybody burst into song at that point. “Three Steps to Heaven”, which is this wildly over-simplistic song about what it takes to be happy, is to me a very pointed comment on exactly that. On how, “Yeah, I’m showing you the simple version here, folks, but it’s not this simple”. But again people, for whatever reason, haven’t seemed to stop and think with this version about what things mean or what some of the ironies are. It’s funny because a lot of people said, “Oh, in the original the songs were always comments on what was going on”. Well, they are here too folks! It’s just that they’re different comments.

So that I think was the biggest change in some ways. But also there’s a stylistic change as well. The piece is much choppier than the original. I think this threw people who were obsessed with the original off. I think it was a function of compressing it in time, but Potter did a great thing. He didn’t try to copy the style of the first one in a way that couldn’t work in an hour-45 minute movie. Because the first one had a very lyrical feel and the scenes took their time. He said at one point that the original was a bit of a portrait and you’re sitting back and watching it. You’re watching this man in the hospital. Whereas he said that he saw the film as being more visceral and being more that you’re inside the character’s brain. That you’re having to figure out right along with him, instead of being ahead of him, watching him figure it all out.

PT: That’s a very valid point.

KG: And so it has, because of that, a more choppy feel, especially the first half hour or so. The moments are shorter and how it all fits together is much less clear. In the show, it was faster how you get the idea of how everything fits. For the film, it’s clear to me when you read the script, that he’s intending that for quite a while you’re going to be sitting there going, “How does this all fit together? What’s real? How does this story fit with this?” So I think that was a big change that threw people off. I also think that in the original, the mystery story was much more literal and much more a very literal minded counterpart to the hospital story. For this, because he wanted to focus on the hospital character more, the mystery story is more poetic. It doesn’t mean anything in the end – other than a lot thematically. But it’s not like the answer to the mystery is part of the story as much as the fact is that there is no answer. Which I thought was more interesting in a way! [Laughs] But it seems to have driven a lot of people nuts. The whole point at the end of the mystery is that he’d never gotten to an answer. And that in his writing, he’d never really gone deep enough to get to these deeper levels.

PT: It’s a dead end in a lot of ways.

KG: Yeah, at least that style of writing. His wife says at one point, “You’ve got to write something real”. And that’s what he hasn’t stepped up and done yet. Maybe after the story he can. Maybe he’ll be ready to take all those characters from his past, but go to the next level with them.

PT: How did you and Tom Richmond work out the different visual palettes and visual grammars for the various sections of the film?

KG: The same way that Tom and I always seem to work, which is that I’ll have the broad stroke concept going in of what I want to do and then he’ll really help refine it as we start talking. I knew I wanted the hospital to be over-bright, ugly white light – here’s a man who’s ashamed of his skin and ashamed of who he is and who does not want to be seen. I thought then that he should never be able to hide. The light should be all around him, it should be fluorescent light, which will just make him look even worse. I thought early on that he should be a prisoner in a box so that he should be framed in the centre of the frame a lot of the time and that that world should be an objective world viewed subjectively. Whereas I saw the noir world as a subjective world viewed more objectively, the way ’50s B-movie noir tended to be.

The Singing Detective

So the noir to me is this world that should have been over-dark, sort of the opposite of the hospital world. It was the place that he wanted to go hide in. And it was this idea that it was an unfinished world – and that came out of looking at ’50s B-movie stuff where the sets were so cheap and the sets were one wall and things didn’t look like a real apartment or a real place. I thought, “Well that’s interesting because that plays into the whole idea that this man is writing this as he’s going”. So I wanted, early on especially, the feeling to be that you’re looking at something that’s unfinished. Like, he knows there’s a girl in a bar, but he doesn’t know what else is there so everything else is blackness. So it’s not literally like a movie, but it’s like the inside of your brain when you haven’t finished putting in all of the details yet.

So that was about how much I had going in. And then Tom and I started talking about how do we achieve that. And he did his usual amazing job of taking those kind of very broad concepts and saying, “Here’s how we can do this, here’s how we can do that, here’s the kind of lights that we use here”, running tests on things, different kinds of film stock to get a noir world where the blacks were very rich and had a colour to them. He talked about the difference between black on screen that’s just an absence of colour and black that has a colour.

I also knew I wanted, as the worlds crash into each other near the end of the film, to do something to the look of the movie where some of the darkness and contrast of the noir world would come into the hospital world. Tom is the one who suggested we go to skip bleaching, which we did and I think it works really well. After the hoods show up when he’s hallucinating, everything gets much more contrasty and grainy. So it’s still as bright as it ever was in the hospital, but suddenly it’s got an old, almost black-and-white feeling laid on top of it. That was Tom taking my desire to do that but not knowing how and saying, “Well, here’s a possible technique”. And then we went and looked at tests and it was exactly what I wanted to do.

PT: The idea of the noir section being unfinished also plays into the idea in the film that that style of writing being an emotional dead end, as you suggested. It’s almost a visualisation of this thematic idea.

KG: Well, it’s true because everything in the movie in a lot of ways is undone, is unfinished. But, again, that wasn’t something I necessarily even thought about as much intellectually as it just felt right with this man’s process of… I just knew he was sitting there trying to get a handle on something so that all is nice and neat and done, but it doesn’t feel like he’s figured it all out.

But, again, that was really suggested by sitting and looking at The Killing (Stanley Kubrick, 1957) and Killer’s Kiss (Stanley Kubrick, 1955) and Nick Ray movies and Sam Fuller movies. And looking at how often, because of their low budgets, they would have that feeling too. They would turn that into a plus and create these expressionist worlds. But you know, you look at Killer’s Kiss, where the sets are so obviously sets – you can’t for a second believe that’s real! But that’s not important; it’s a poetic world.

PT: That’s exactly how I’ve described Killer’s Kiss in the past. It’s beautiful filmmaking done with the least amount of production resources imaginable!

KG: But that probably led to a kind of poetry that it wouldn’t have had had they had the A-movie type of budget.

So that was sort of the first inspiration and then thinking how that would apply with this was what took us to our sort of hyper-noir reality.

PT: How much of the shifting between time periods in the film was found in the editing or was that mostly all in Potter’s screenplay?

KG: Oh, it’s all in Potter. It’s about 99.9% in Potter. The structure was completely his. Unlike something like Waking the Dead, where we did a lot of that work in the editing room, this was the complete opposite end. To me – and maybe I’m too much of a fan and I’ve never done a film like this before where I’ve worked from a screenplay by somebody who I think is kind of a genius writer. But my feeling was there were reasons for everything he did and it wasn’t my job to outthink him, it was my job to understand the reasons he did what he did. I didn’t care if anybody else liked this movie, but I wanted him to smile. There are only so many great writers and I’m going to stick to what it was that he was trying to do.

So we never in the editing really experimented that much with any other structure because his structure seemed very intentional, very thought-out, very intelligent. And sure, once that door is open, you could put it together a thousand ways, I thought that this worked really well. It was also an incredibly tight script. My editor’s first assembly was about an hour and 53 minutes. And the final film was about an hour and 45 minutes, without credits. So we took about eight minutes out of the whole movie through the whole editing process. Whereas with Waking the Dead, the first assembly was whatever – three hours and 20 minutes or whatever the hell it was! [Laughs] So this was a very different thing. This was a very sparse, tight script. We lost very little.

PT: And even on the set, would you say that you stuck to the script more than anything you’ve done previously?

KG: Oh, much more. Usually the first thing – and I’ve probably said this to you the last time we talked – I say to the actors is, “I wrote it. It ain’t Shakespeare. Throw it out. I don’t care about the words. I care about what the ideas are”. With this one, it was a little different. And, in fact, I had to reign Robert in – because Robert’s first instinct is always to improvise. And his attitude – and I think he’s largely right – is that he’s a better writer than most of the people writing in Hollywood! And I think he’s right in most cases, but not in this case. So I had to really seduce him into staying with the words or at least working with the words first. I said, “I’ll always give you takes where if you want to improvise, you can”. Which we did sometimes. But the other thing that happened is that because he then stuck with the words for a long time, he got into Potter’s rhythms and idiom and then when he improvised it suddenly did fit. When he was improvising in the beginning during the rehearsals, it would be a Saturday Night Live sketch. And suddenly it would be a completely different voice, a completely different humour, a completely different style. But after he worked with it and got into the character – because he’s got such a brilliant mind, Robert is so fast – that he then ultimately could improvise Potter. He could throw lines into a page-long monologue and you wouldn’t know what was his line and what was Potter’s.

Mel Gibson in The Singing Detective

PT: Now whose idea was it to cast Mel Gibson in the role of the psychiatrist?

KG: That was Mel’s idea. When I took the job, Mel said basically, “I’d like to do this unless you have any objections”. And my first reaction was, “Well, that’s cool. It’s not how I saw the character – he’s written more as a guy in his 60s – but Mel’s always fun to watch…” But I thought I was going to get Mel doing a Mel cameo. And I was really happy in the first day of rehearsal when we started talking about the character. I think it was Mel who articulated the fact that, “Listen, I can’t look like me because if this man is going to trust me, I’ve got to be as much of an outsider as he is. That if I look like handsome Mel Gibson Actor Guy, why would this man ever open up to me?” So once he said that, I thought, “Oh, he’s really thinking like an actor. He’s not thinking like a movie star”.

And, in fact, that was his whole delight in doing this was letting himself get thrown into a character instead of worrying about the image. I think you’ll see him do that more from now on. I think, kind of like Nick Nolte at around the time we did Mother Night, I caught Mel at around the same kind of time in his career. He’s been the leading man for a long time and it’s not like he won’t do it to make the money and support his company, but I think he wants to get back to acting. He came out of theatre originally and I think he wants to go back to stretching himself. Which he’s good at and enjoys a great deal. He really loved finding this guy’s voice and his walk and how he would look. You could see he was just like a little kid, getting all excited with it. So that was really all him and the impetus to jump into that lead of the whole other way to play the character was really him. I think I helped guide where he went, but he was the one who said, “Let’s throw out Mel Gibson, let’s come up with who this guy is”.

PT: It’s really a fun performance to watch – all of the character’s mannerisms and idiosyncrasies. He really is as much of an outsider as Dark is, as you say.

KG: Yeah, he became this strange, ugly, silly little oddball. And he became a tiny little man just by his body language. I mean, Mel’s not a big guy, but he really seemed to have shrunk through just the way that he used his body. And all that stuff was just all him. He’d just work on stuff and come show it to me and I’d be like, “Great!” He even went out and paid for the makeup separately. It was all his company’s money, but we didn’t have any money in the budget for special makeup for that character. He was like, “Oh, don’t worry about it, I’ll just go pay for it!” He just went off and did it.

PT: Now Adrien Brody is cast memorably as a hood in Dark’s fantasy world. Did he shoot this after he had shot The Pianist (Roman Polanski, 2002), but it must have been prior to its theatrical debut?

KG: Exactly. He had finished the film not long before he did this. It was ironic, but I remember him on the first day of shooting talking about how he wasn’t sure if The Pianist was ever going to be released in America… he loved it, but that nobody wanted to distribute it. It’s sort of funny how fates change!

PT: What a difference a year makes!

KG: Exactly! But he was very excited about it and he’s a very smart film buff kind of guy, so just having worked with Polanski was a huge thrill for him. I think he loved the movie but he was not at all convinced that anyone was going to know what to do with it. The way he was talking about it was that they were trying to find a distributor and it took them a while before Focus stepped up and said they wanted it. He had just won at Cannes before we started shooting, I think, so we knew about that and that was very exciting.

PT: I think that one of the biggest misconceptions about The Singing Detective is that is was going to be a big, fun musical. And certainly the musical numbers in the film are wonderfully stylish, but one of the things that struck me – and I had to kind of adjust my own expectations as a viewer in this sense – was how much of the time you spent in the present day sequences, in those long dialogue exchanges between Dark and his wife. And I really appreciated this, that the film is ultimately much more of a character study of Dan Dark’s evolution as a person than it is an exercise in style.

KG: Yes, absolutely. And Potter talks about that a lot, he says, “I don’t write musicals”. Musical numbers are one trick he uses to explore the character’s psyche, but he doesn’t see the pieces as musicals. He sees that as just like any other device that you might use to look at something anew. And that’s why Potter was so frustrated and disappointed with the Pennies From Heaven film, because he felt that that turned into a musical instead of it being a comment about musicals and pop culture and how we’re affected by Hollywood and all those kind of things – in Pennies From Heaven, it suddenly became that.

So, yes, it’s true. I remember in one book he said, “If they’re bored by an eight minute long scene, then let them turn off the TV set!” [Laughs] He was very unafraid of long dialogue scenes and he felt that every scene had its own rhythm and its own pace and that people should be willing to watch a piece that has different paces and different feelings going on. Sometimes things move quickly and sometimes things slow down. Of course, certainly modern audiences are not used to that kind of a thing. But I really liked that about him, that he had that attitude throughout his career. And when you look at some of the original pieces of Pennies From Heaven and The Singing Detective, from the BBC period, there are sometimes remarkably long dialogue scenes with two people in a room. There’s one in Pennies From Heaven with Bob Hoskins and his wife that must be ten or 12 minutes of just sitting and talking. And yet it’s riveting because it’s great acting and great writing. But it suddenly became a play! And then went right back to this much more stylised thing going on around it. I think his feeling was that we shouldn’t be bound by those rules, “Oh, it’s this kind of a piece or that kind of a piece”. The whole fun of film or visual storytelling is that you can combine different styles and why shouldn’t we, just because we don’t?

PT: Exactly. And I think that one of the things that makes the film The Singing Detective kind of a tough sell is that – to the extent that the musical genre has rebounded at all – people associate the genre with Chicago (Rob Marshall, 2002) or Moulin Rouge (Baz Luhrmann, 2001). I can see that that might be a stumbling block in terms of marketing it.

KG: Oh, absolutely. It was always a tricky thing, even in just talking about the film, whenever I was interviewed, the first question people would ask is, “Oh, how do you compare it to Chicago?” [Laughter] “How do you compare it to Moulin Rouge”. I go, “I don’t! Those are true musicals!” And I do think, yes, that if people are expecting that then I think it could be very frustrating. Because it isn’t. The musical numbers that exist are truncated, are short – I think they’re cool, but they’re not meant to be all out musical numbers. They’re meant to be odd comments on what’s going on. And Potter did something interesting too where there are more of them in the beginning and they’re less and less and less fully fleshed out. It’s almost like as the guy is getting closer to some kind of reality, the musical numbers intrude more in fragments as opposed to the traditional musical structure, which is where you build to the big number. And here we build away from the big number!

PT: And I think it works beautifully. In the long dialogue scene towards the end between Dark and his wife, I was riveted even in terms of the filmmaking – the shots you chose, the editing rhythms, and of course the acting.

KG: Well thanks! I think that that certainly was the intent of the piece, that the humanity is ultimately going to be more interesting than anything else. And certainly Potter would agree with that, that the style is there to illuminate the humanity, not that the humanity is there to illuminate the style!

PT: In our previous conversation, we talked just a bit about how you seem to be drawn – whether consciously or, more likely, unconsciously – to stories in which a female character changes the male protagonist’s life for the better.

KG: Yeah.

PT: And that’s something I really took from The Singing Detective. Wouldn’t you say that so much of the film has to do with Dark gradually coming to realise that his wife is really his one friend in the world? It’s a progression of his character that I really palpably felt.

KG: Well, sure, I think that’s absolutely at the core of it. He’s basically learning to love – which is learning to trust, which is learning to accept himself, which is learning to not blame everybody else. And not just his wife, but his mother. I mean, here’s this guy who, because of what he saw as a child, wanted to blame his mother for everything because – in a great kind of double twist thing – he felt so guilty about it! [Laughs] He blamed his mother because he was really trying to get the blame off himself because in his heart of hearts he thought, “I did this, I screwed it all up, I was the one who killed my mother, I was the one who destroyed my family”. So he spent his entire life trying to push that anger and guilt onto his mother. And in the process of doing that, spread that onto all the other women in his world.

This is a difference from the series in terms of the clarity of it, but in the end it’s not their fault! In the end it’s really about taking on his own responsibility for what he did as a little boy and then letting go of that responsibility – because he was a little boy. But, yes, it screwed up his whole life because he created a paranoia in himself to take the focus off of himself and put that onto the women around him.

PT: And that relates in really interesting ways to your other films, particularly Waking the Dead, where Crudup’s character realises too late just how great a person Connelly’s character was.

KG: Yes.

The Singing Detective

PT: So it’s certainly something you seem attracted to – probably unconsciously.

KG: Yeah, it’s not like I seek out the theme, but it’s certainly when you talk about it or when we talk about it it’s a theme that has great resonance for me. It feels emotional and meaningful to me because I do think love is incredibly redemptive. I do think it has the power to kind of help us completely re-conceive who we are in the world and see the world in a new way. And I think that without love, it’s very hard to do that – whether it’s romantic love or maybe other kinds of friendship or love could do it too. But I think somewhere along the way we need that kind of unconditional love – to start being able to give it to ourselves. I think that once we can do that, then we can be a lot happier in the world. But that’s a hard thing to do and I think we need others to achieve it.

And in a sense, it’s not just women in this case. It is Gibson’s character – it is opening up to somebody else trying to help him, even in a male figure. You know, kind of a bit of a father figure, to a man who has really cut off everything, certainly women and sex being the core of it. But just as much it’s him opening up to a doctor.

* * *

As of this writing (December 2004), Keith Gordon has a number of highly promising projects in development. For a number of years, Gordon has been trying to raise the money to film an adaptation of Lisa Reardon’s novel, “Billy Dead”. Ethan Hawke is attached to play the lead and will also produce along with Gordon. Gordon alum Jennifer Connelly is also interested in playing a role.

“A Thousand Days” follows two points in a man’s life – Michael Caine is interested in playing the older incarnation of the man, Paul Bettany the younger. Gordon compares the project to James Ivory’s The Remains of the Day (1993) in terms of its quietness and thoughtfulness.

On the other hand, Gordon links “The Homing” to early period John Frankenheimer, particularly his The Manchurian Candidate (1963) and Seconds (1966). Gordon describes “The Homing” as “slightly science-fictiony thriller but also with a good dose of social satire underneath it”.

Gordon recently completed his adaptation of David Czuchlewski’s novel, “The Muse Asylum”, which he is to direct and produce along with Peter Newman. And continuing the director’s career-long involvement with movies drawn from first-rate literary material, Gordon turned in this past summer a second draft of his adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s “End of Eternity” to Cruise/Wagner Productions and Paramount.

Finally, “God Dips His Love In My Heart” is the story of an older doctor and a younger doctor in a “malfunctioning father-son” relationship. With Francis Ford Coppola on board as executive producer, it would again be a Keith Gordon film in which time is presented in a less than linear manner. Says the director: “I seem to be drawn to those kinds of stories, although again in this case and in the case of Thousand Days, it’s not like I wrote them or designed that structure. But I certainly seem to like that structure. So many of my favourite movies do that. So many of my favourite movies play interesting games with time and perception. I think movies are so good at that, at making us think about the difference between some kind of objective reality and the fact that even what we think of as objectively true is still a very subjective experience”.

For his time, commitment, and dedication to this piece, grateful thanks to Keith Gordon.

See also “Keith Gordon on Keith Gordon, Part One: From Actor to Director

About The Author

Peter Tonguette is the author of Orson Welles Remembered and The Films of James Bridges. His work has appeared in Sight & Sound, Cineaste, Film Comment, and many other publications.

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