his role as one of John Cusack's sidekicks in High Fidelity (star-struck employees hovered around us, hoping for a word), I was more excited to talk to him about his vocal cameo in the late, lamented series "The Critic", as well as, of course, his first foray into directing with the remarkable Love Liza. Clad in the epitome of unassuming casual, Mr. Louiso seemed surprised that I had a complete filmography for him and embarrassed that I wanted to talk about his career in some detail--reactions both that speak to not only the investment that most of my peers take in researching their topic, but to a certain quality of Mr. Louiso: an unforced modesty that charms. Over the course of our interview, we talked about all manner of things and particularly, fascinatingly, of his passages over water.
Trained in the theatre and working steadily as one of Hollywood's most reliable supporting players since Scent of a Woman, Philip Seymour Hoffman is best when lovelorn, though he soundly rejects the idea of similarity in any of the roles that he plays. Probably best known for his work with writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, Hoffman sees his first starring role in director Todd Louiso's own feature directing debut, Love Liza. I talked to Mr. Hoffman on the telephone from Sundance--surprised as I always am to hear a familiar stranger's voice in my ear (playing "phone tag" with Elvira, Mistress of the Dark remains a surreal highlight), I asked Mr. Hoffman about one of my favourite overlooked films, Montana; about what he was thinking with Patch Adams and last year's abominable Red Dragon; and, to start, about his work with the Labyrinth Theater Company.-WC
PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN: Well Labyrinth has been around for eleven years--John Ortiz is one of the founding members and I met him about eight years ago, joined the company, and he and I are the artistic directors. I've directed a few plays there--written in-house--and the popularity of a few of the things that we've done--"Jesus Hopped the A Train" and "Our Lady of 121st Street" most recently--really brought us into the popular consciousness in the New York scene.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: Did I read that you were doing "Long Day's Journey Into Night"?
Has directing for the stage made you want to direct for the screen?
You were obviously involved with Love Liza from the beginning.
I talked to Mr. Louiso about the images of immersion in Love Liza.
Paul Schrader said to me once that the bad thing about a low budget is that it's low, but the good thing is that it's enough and what you make is yours.
You were in two of the best films of the year last year (Love Liza, Punch-Drunk Love) and one of the worst (Red Dragon)--what was the thinking in taking the Lounds role in Ratner's picture?
You know, there's a great genre picture you did that I love that no one seems to have seen, Montana.
Is there any truth that you were asked to play Robin Hood by the guys who did Reign of Fire?
You dislike attempts to identify recurring tendencies in your career.
Tell me about channeling Lester Bangs.
His review of "Astral Weeks" is a benchmark in autobiographical criticism.
You're promoting Owning Mahoney now--is Sweet Spot in turnaround?
You bring a level of "nakedness" to your roles that can be uncomfortable. Tell me about the toll that acting takes on you.
TODD LOUISO: Hey--what's this?
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: It's your life's work as a list.
Oh my God--I was wondering when someone would find out I played Ophelia.
I was more interested in your "Johnny Wrath" role in "The Critic".
Really? Right--he was the Kurt Cobain-y character who falls in love with Jay Sherman's sister. I was in this TV show called "Phenom" which James L. Brooks produced and the same people who did that--they also did "The Simpsons" and Jerry Maguire so those guys have been very good to me--said that I would be the perfect burnout, wastoid rocker to break Margo's heart. Is that show in syndication? I love Jon Lovitz.
It's on Comedy Central late nights. I know that "Phenom" was only on the air for a season or so, but what was the experience of working on network television like?
It was a great big learning experience--I mean, it really works a different part of your instrument as an actor. The material's light and not so rigid, so important--but you're coming up with stuff all the time. Your memorizing skills become, y'know, like a sponge. And you're constantly coming up with different ways to do things on the spot--there are constant rewrites. I'm glad it only lasted a year, but it was one of my favourite experiences.
So talk to me about the arc of your career--you got out of the gate pretty fast in Stella.
(laughs) Preppy Boy #1.
So no "face time" with Bette Midler?
Oh God, no.
Same deal with Billy Bathgate?
Pretty much, but with Billy Bathgate, I had been working with Robert Benton for a couple of years and so that's basically how that happened. I worked for him while I was at school at NYU. I auditioned for both Stella and Scent of a Woman--I had a much bigger role, though, in Scent of a Woman. That's essentially how Phil [Seymour Hoffman] and I met.
Did you meet Tom Stoppard then as well?
No, we never really met, I doubt he'd recognize me if he saw me--but he did write the screenplay for Billy Bathgate and since I was working for Robert Benton, I used that as an "in" to ask him if he'd let me do a movie version of his play "Fifteen Minute Hamlet" and he was kind enough to let me do that. It was pretty well received--Bravo and IFC showed it for about five years.
Was that your first writing experience?
I was an intern at "Saturday Night Live" for a while, I was a cameraman on their film unit doing their commercial parodies--and I wrote a couple of commercials there, they were never made. I did that--I wrote about twenty different ones, actually. One was almost made but, y'know, I was very young--it's very much a boy's club there. I was an intern from NYU, I don't know what I was thinking.
So after Apollo 13, The Rock, your big break in Jerry Maguire--what happened with 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag?
(laughs) That was hell. I guess we had a good time making it but...um... (laughs) It was what it was. David [Spade] and I had a good time and the director was a really nice guy. I knew David from SNL, but he didn't know me, of course. I was essentially a copier and a coffee-getter--it was pretty funny to be in this movie with him--it took me a long time to tell him. I remember there was some guy, some intern on "Phenom" who's now some very successful actor, and so it goes.
When you began the task of directing your first feature, did you draw from some of the great directors that you worked with?
I really admire Stephen Frears' films, but the directors I mostly admire as directors are kind of--y'know, what I was really working towards are some of the films of the Seventies, films like Harold and Maude. I really love Hal Ashby's films--a kind of melancholy to it, a sort of edge to it--things I tried to get to with the music in my film. I met Jim O'Rourke on High Fidelity, this was before we were financed, and I told him we were developing this script and I kind of had him in mind to do the music for it. I sort of had in mind a sort of Jack Nitzschekind of thing from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest--the score for Rain People, you know. Jim knows a ton about movies--do you know him at all?
I don't, no.
He's really cool. He works with Sonic Youth now, but back then he was just on his own. He produces a lot of stuff, that last Wilco album?
Do we see him in I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, the Sam Jones picture?
He's actually in it for a second--he's sitting there at the end when they're talking to Jeff Tweedy and Jim's sitting on a couch smoking. This is after they'd parted ways with Jay.
I like your spare use of soundtrack in the film.
Yeah, that's really dangerous--the temptation is to use music too much, to use it to save you when something's not working. The beginning of Love Liza is all in silence because I wanted to establish sort of a way for the audience to watch the film. There's also so much noise in the world, and I hate it, and I wanted to show the silence and the solitude of life--to make you uncomfortable with it. I liked the script because there was so little dialogue--we were on such a tight schedule and such a tight budget that we weren't able to do very much beyond just the sparest detail. We actually felt like we got the shaft on a lot of things that we wanted to do--a few interesting visual ideas I had we couldn't afford. But the trade-off, of course, is that we got to do what we wanted to do and it was ours in the end.
So the special effects that you did have--were they mostly in-camera?
My cinematographer [Lisa Rinzler] had this pane of glass that she used--just moving that in front of the camera. How we got Lisa was kind of fateful. I was working with another DP who dropped out at the last minute and I was left without a DP with about two months before shooting and we had given the script to Lisa some time before and hadn't heard back, but just right around that time she called, said that she'd finally read the script and loved it and was the job still open. So we met and sort of, you know, fell in love with each other.
Tell me about working with Philip Seymour Hoffman--I know that Hoffman's brother, Gordy, wrote the screenplay...
It was scary at times. I was nervous with Phil but just in the sense of what we were dealing with on a minute-to-minute basis, but we've known each other for quite a while and had a really high degree of comfort. We trusted each other a lot--it was his first starring role, and my first feature, so it was an experiment for the both of us where we were kind of helping each other through the whole process. He's been long overdue for the recognition of a starring role.
How did you get Jack Kehler--he's amazing in your film.
My wife's a playwright and has worked with him a lot--I've seen him in tons of stuff over the years and just loved him. He was really important to the film--it was vital to get someone like Jack--not that there's anyone like Jack--for the Denny character in that he really supplies the anchor for this piece.
There's a recurring visual theme in your film of immersion--baptism/rebirth; how much of that was in the screenplay?
Not very much initially. We sort of picked up on it early and wanted to expand it more throughout the film. I feel like Wilson is always looking for water to cleanse himself, he's always saying that he wants to go swimming--"I wanna go swimming, I wanna go swimming"--and in the end, eventually, what happens to him is the opposite.
Not so much the opposite as just a different kind of immersion.
That's a good point. Definitely. He's holding on to all these material objects that he connects with Her and I think about all those things going up in the end as her sort of willing it, but also it has nothing to do with how lost ones should be remembered.
Having Wilson floating in a liminal space is interesting from a symbolic standpoint, but a proximate one as well. In-betweenness is a nice representation of grief.
Right, right--even when he's not actually underwater, we tried to evoke that kind of remove, that kind of submersion in the monochromatic color scheme and a sort of dreaminess. Also the flying, too, there's that remove and floating--pretty much in the same way. I mean, I've heard that people who fly airplanes--not model airplanes--are a little aloof. A little above it all, not dealing with reality--but y'know, it's just something that I read and I don't have a footnote so maybe you should qualify that when you print this. (laughs)
I like the symbolic tightness of your conclusion as well in that it shows Wilson, again in the swim trunks, emerging from his final baptism.
God, I like that. That's great.
Is "Chicago Hope" where you met your wife, Sarah Koskoff?
No, we met in '95 on some pilot that never aired. "Chicago Hope" happened when I was sort of not working and developing Love Liza--I read the script in '96 or '97 and began working with Gordy on evolving the script.
I really like the scene in Love Liza where Sarah's character hits on Wilson in the aquarium--and there you have the immersion again.
Right, right--I don't think that Sarah's character would have been attracted to Wilson under normal circumstances so that was, to me, a very sad, very tragic scene. Here're these people who just aren't quite connecting to each other and to their emotions, y'know, they're somehow just missing each other, just misunderstanding what the other needs. The Kathy Bates character, too, you think she's benevolent but she's really just after the letter, y'know, she's just manipulating Wilson to get to what she thinks that she needs. Ultimately, though, when she has the chance to open the letter, she finds that she can't open it either and that happens, of course, on the edge of a bathtub. (laughs)
Was there a thought to not opening the letter at all?
Yeah, there was, there was. In the end, we thought that it would have just been better for them to read it. I mean, we wanted to avoid the easy ending however we could, but leaving the letter unread would have begun to feel like too much of a gimmick.
That last shot of your film is pretty similar to the last shot of Adaptation..
Ah shit. Fucking Spike, goddamnit. (laughs) I like that image though, that highway, and I like how that ties into people you sometimes see walking down the side of the road. I always wonder where they come from and what their story is.