January 11, 2004|I reread Richard Henry Dana, Jr.'s Two Years Before the Mast in the days leading up to a chat with Campbell Scott regarding his new film as director, Off the Map. It is the book that Off the Map's matriarch (Joan Allen) reads by lamplight throughout the picture, one that transfers its philosophy of nautical reflection to not only the picture's rhythms but also a visual scheme that re-imagines Dana's vast deeps as the smothering doldrums of the New Mexico desert. Scott's fourth film behind the camera, Off the Map is surprisingly sticky, offering up echoes for days after a viewing and displaying a confidence of voice and purity of spirit of an artist hitting his stride in the last couple of years as actor, director, and sometime producer. So I went to the underground grotto of Denver's Magnolia Hotel with the intention to talk to the generous Mr. Scott about tranquility, Zen and the art of filmmaking if you will--to take a peak into that treasure chest that has offered forth, in addition to Off the Map, one of this year's best films in The Secret Lives of Dentists, and one of last's, Rodger Dodger.
In person, Scott is engaging and almost shockingly charismatic, doing a round of handshaking with myself and a somewhat flabbergasted camera crew assigned that day to follow me around the26 th Denver International Film Festival--his persona at odds with a screen mien that more often than not exudes intelligent, maybe bland, reserve. His true self--at least the true self he presents to media folks when he's promoting a film--is gregarious and warm. A consummate showman, the centre of attention, Scott exhibited the pull of a true heir to Hollywood royalty (the son of George C. Scott and Colleen Dewhurst), but I saw Scott off in a darker corner of the conference room in the minutes before our interview, huddled, protective, around a payphone speaking, I was told, with his son, a ritual he engages in daily from the road. As he offered his insights into the natural world, the staged world, and the filmed world, I understood a little better that beneath Scott's dazzling social charms, quick wit, and obvious intelligence, there lurks that rare and genuine beast in this business: a real person.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: I wanted to...
CAMPBELL SCOTT: Paul, the guy who runs Manhattan who has Dentists and Off the Map, he stopped me and said, "Okay, listen, you're going to meet Walter Chaw, he fucking loved Dentists."
The cat's out of the bag.
(laughs) There's no pretending.
The perception of you onscreen, at least until recently, is that you're taciturn, serious--you don't seem that way in person.
It's easier to play what you're not. I think the answer for me is that the reason I got into acting was not to explore myself. I was a reader, I didn't care about acting. I got into it in college, but I had no interest really in that, in getting up in front of anybody.
Your parents' influence?
Maybe, maybe. I think a lot of it, let me think about this... I think a lot of its appeal to me, that ability to express other people's words and emotions--it's an outlet that's safer, I think. I tend to turn down roles that are too much like me, what I think is most like me anyhow, because I'm me all the time and I'm sick of it (laughs). I'm one of those "let's see what happens" kind of actors, I think, more than using it as an analyst's couch.
I wanted to ask you about the use of Two Years Before the Mast in Off the Map.
It all comes down to something personal--the use of those passages from that book, that wasn't in Joan's original play, but we had room in the film so we wanted to add something that was at once edifying for character development, but also for thematic cohesion. And it all comes down in the end, probably, to my love of nature and, in step with that, my love for what you might call "natural" films and filmmakers: Terrence Malick, Carroll Ballard, Kurosawa, you name them--Nicolas Roeg, Walkabout.
Your father worked with Roeg on Petulia and you're working with Ballard now on Shadows.
Right, exactly, just got through working on it. He's a great guy, man after my own heart, never went back to Hollywood, makes one movie every four years, his own guy with his own vision.
An extraordinary eye...
Oh, man, right, right--and the other elements never suffer for it. The amazing thing to me about Never Cry Wolf and Black Stallion is that no matter how amazing the environmental elements of the movies are--and there's this, what, thirty minute sequence in Black Stallion without one line of dialogue?--they never take away from the story. I don't know if he's not afraid of it, of the story, but he has this pure line in his work--really something we should all aspire to when we go out to make a film. You know, I never asked my dad what it was like to work with Roeg, come to think of it, but I love his films. Walkabout is one of my favourites--those slow dissolves we do in Off the Map, that's just basically stolen, I guess, from that picture. Audiences are used to that technique now from television, but Roeg did it differently, he would dissolve and then just sort of leave it there until we re-engage with what's happening--same day, same place, different time. It speaks to patience, I think, and that's the sort of thing that I admire in art and the sort of thing that Dana's novel and Joan's play speak to as well.
Did you consider shooting Off the Map anywhere other than on location in New Mexico?
No, you know, when I saw the play one of the things that really appealed to me was not just the beautiful story but this evocation of a haunted feeling that you get when you go to New Mexico. I had been there a number of times, my ex-wife is a painter and we'd been there often to Santa Fe and Taos--it's not so far away, is it, from here? Four hours?--they have a wonderful opera house down there... So anyway, I saw the play at a time when I was ready to try to become a film director about ten years ago, and I said, "This is a movie, I can see it," and that's always the first step to making a film, I've discovered, that ability to visualize.
You've described New Mexico as "magical." How heavily does setting play into your film choices?
Part of the advantage, and part of the result of trying to be a producer and director, are the practical things, you find. It's so advantageous to go to a place that you already have a feel for, a literal and spiritual familiarity. We're going back to Taos in fact with Alan Rudolph to make a period western called "Winter Angel"--and I'm a New York City boy so there's Roger Dodger and Secret Lives is right in the suburbs outside the city. You find these places that you already exist and you go there and make a film there. (Last year, Off the Map became the final film to win the Taos Talking Picture Festival's grand prize, the coveted five acres of land on Cerro Montoso known as the Land Grant Award; the festival recently announced its disbandment due to a lack of financial support. -Ed.) On the flipside, you also want to challenge yourself. What you said before is very telling and a good thing to say about this film, too, that yes it's magical, but it's also a very severe life. When you meet people down there in an environment that big and humbling is that it constantly reminds you of how big it is and how small you are. The most beautiful times combined with the most difficult, and that for me makes it worth going to.
Valentina de Angelis, the girl in Off the Map, she's a New York girl, too, isn't she?
She is, she is. Never acted before in a feature and we just found her in auditions.
There's an amazing clarity about her.
I agree, I agree. That's a great word. A lot of people have had a problem with her, you know, they think she's too precocious, but you'd only think so if you didn't have a kid. Precocious, maybe--precious...I hope not and I don't think so.
|Hope Davis and Scott in
The Secret Lives of Dentists
After your first film as director, Final, based on a Bruce McIntosh play and scripted by McIntosh himself, Craig Lucas doing the screen adaptation for Dentists, and now Joan Ackermann's adaptation of her own Off the Map, is there something about working with playwrights that you find more conducive or comfortable to your sensibilities?
It's a good question.
Meaning that it's not.
(laughs) No, really, you know, it's something that you're taught to avoid, really, you don't want a lot of text, you don't want a lot of words. It's really difficult to translate something from the stage to the screen and I believe in that--I think that it's right most of the time--but I don't know why it keeps turning up with me. I mean, I got my start on the stage and there's no question that I keep getting drawn back to material and artists born there.
Can it be a matter of convenience?
Absolutely, that's a good possibility, I think it could be a matter of convenience, too. I'll start with something theatrical because I'm home there, but it's not difficult when the time comes to remove things from the stage versions to make them fit better on the screen and that elision is vital for that kind of translation to work. It often doesn't, you know, but I think the ones I've done have. (laughs)
I've heard that you worked on Secret Lives for ten years. Tell me, did you meet Craig Lucas on Longtime Companion?
We did, we've always been friends. I should say that I was attached as an actor on the project a long time ago but that it's not entirely fair to say that I've been working on it for ten years solid. It was one of those things that as an actor I always wanted to do and the script was around. We'd call each other every couple of years and talk about how to get it done--various producers would swim in and out of the scene. And then it all went away until I got involved with Holedigger and they asked me what I wanted to do. Off the Map and Secret Lives--Roger Dodger was a bit of a surprise--but those two were the things I wanted to make and Holedigger, and now Manhattan, they've been magnificent about it.
You say that the stage is your home, do those origins inform how you approach film direction?
For me, I can say with some definitiveness, it all begins and ends with the text. I don't think about frames first, effects, story--I think about scenes and what people say. I'm an actor, it's how you learn--one beat to one beat to one beat, it's all musical. That's the one analogy for me, I think, that this is where it all lies is rhythm. It's visceral, it's mathematical, it's intellectual, it's emotional. It's also why I continue to work with the same composer on all my pictures, Gary DeMichele--he did Secret Lives and Off the Map, too.
Rhythms. There's a moment in the three-quarters mark of Off the Map where you cut on a swallow: Joan Allen as she's looking out her door at twilight.
Wow. Thanks for noticing that, I'm really gratified about that because that's a perfect example of what I believe about film, that primacy of rhythm and pulse.
Have you read Walter Murch's In the Blink of an Eye?
I haven't but it's amazing that you mention that, I also work with the same editor on all my stuff, Andy Keir, he's done Roger Dodger, Secret Lives, Final where we met, and I love him and he loves that book. We always talk about it, how he'd watch Gene Hackman blink in The Conversation and how that was the kind of rhythm again that he'd always emulated. If they're good actors, you know, they give you a way into the editing strategy.
Is it difficult for you to manipulate others' performances in your films as director, being an actor yourself?
It's amazing to me how much I want to (laughs), eager almost. I would have never thought... That's the other thing, it can't all be subjective. Sometimes you have to have a rhythm section, you have to abide by certain rules and then break them, and that's what's so much fun in the editing room that you have to constantly learn and unlearn those lessons about impact and performance. On Big Night, for years Stanley [Tucci] and I wanted to make a film and we had these big long talks about how on our film the actors would have supremacy, it would be all about the actors, and within three days we were like, "Get in! Get off! Turn your head!" We were treating them like pieces of meat! (laughs) I'll tell you, though, that it's a collaborative effort, always, at least it has to be for you to have any chance of success.