April 20, 2003|There at the beginnings of Billy Bob Thornton and Naomi Watts, after the success of 2002's The Man from Elysian Fields, it may finally be director George Hickenlooper's turn in the spotlight. In the mountain resort for the twelfth annual Aspen Shortsfest, I scouted out a place in the deserted lobby/bar area; Hickenlooper, suffering from the onset of a head cold, was down in a flash.
A skilled documentarian and interviewer, Hickenlooper is a friendly presence, cutting an unassuming swath through the impossibly nice lobby of Aspen's Hotel St. Regis. Starting his career after Yale with an internship under Roger Corman, the filmmaker has worked in several genres, earning his first major break with the exceptional documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse. What impresses most about Mr. Hickenlooper, however, is his knowledge of film history and respect for the auteur theory--in his presentation as a part of the fest's "Masterworks" programming, he not only clarified what Bogdanovich defined to him as the two philosophies of editing (mise-en-scène vs. montage), but also made mention of Cahiers du cinema, Dziga Vertov, and the politics of shot selection that can actually save a director's vision from meddling studio interests.
With a new documentary on friend-to-the-stars Rodney Bingenheimer, Mayor of the Sunset Strip (that he thoughtfully, self-deprecatingly refers to as semi-autobiographical), set to premiere in Los Angeles and then at the Toronto International Film Festival, Hickenlooper is whip-smart, wounded by experience, and disarmingly direct.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: What was the genesis of your association with Roger Corman?
GEORGE HICKENLOOPER: When I graduated from Yale I came out to LA with no connections at all but I knew that Roger liked Ivy League guys, so I camped out in his office for three days until his assistant said, "Okay, who are you, what do you want?" "Well, I want a job." So I worked there for a couple of weeks for free before they put me on salary: two hundred bucks a week. That lasted for a little over a year-and-a-half, my doing whatever needed to be done eighteen hours a day, when Roger said, "Now, George, I have something very important I want you to do," and I was thinking great, my big break, maybe writing a script or directing something. He sent me to his house and now I was really getting excited, and his gardener asked me to help set up tables for a party (laughs). At that point I thought maybe it was time to move on from Roger.
That was your last contact with him?
No, no. After Hearts of Darkness, Roger called me and said, "George, I have something very important I want you to do." I went down to meet him and there was a CNN cameraman there. It was right after the LA riots and Roger wanted to do a movie on the riots and I was ready to do a fictional feature so I said why not, so I came down and Roger said, "Now George, tell this good journalist what this movie is going to be about." But we hadn't discussed anything, so literally while the cameraman was setting up to interview me about this new Corman project I'm thinking about this great film about this gun that's passed around...
The Gun, John Badham film, it was a television movie from the Seventies, I think.
Right--I was thinking about that premise but with a movie camera caught up in the riots and passed around from rioter to rioter. An art film with an exploitation overlay. Y'know Roger, though, after about six months it wasn't timely anymore and the project got scrapped. It's too bad, I was going to co-direct it with Carl Franklin--but that's pretty much the extent of my association with Corman. (Editor's Note: In 1997, Robert Altman revisited the premise of Badham's telefilm for an anthology series called, appropriately enough, "Gun".)
During that period with Corman you were making Art, Acting, and the Suicide Chair?
It was just after. I went from working for Corman to writing liner notes for porn movies that were being distributed on LaserDisc. The LaserDisc company had made a deal with Warner Bros., they were trying to go legitimate and I guess the studios weren't all that interested in the technology, so they agreed to license their material through this company, Image Entertainment.
Lots of alliteration.
(laughs) "Lusty Linda and Lascivious Larry"--they were sort of doing half porn, half legit titles at that time. They did Platoon, and I remember thinking it was really a great opportunity to meet directors who loved the technology and would agree to do interviews. I mean, it was the dawn of ancillary material, right, so I had access to all of these guys. Art, Acting, and the Suicide Chair (an interview with Dennis Hopper -Ed.) was a video interview that was supposed to appear with Colors, but once I finished it Orion didn't want it on so it ended up packaged with [Wim Wenders's] American Friend. It was great, I met all these great guys and compiled all these interviews into a book a couple of years ago.
You've referred to Peter Bogdanovich as a mentor. Did that come about through Timothy Bottoms and The Drifter?
Right--while I was working with Corman, I was a PA on Drifter that starred Tim, Kim Delaney, and Miles O'Keefe. Tim is a really complicated guy, a really nice guy. Tim really, I think his career was in the toilet at that point and...um...y'know, one of the things that saved me coming to Hollywood was I was extremely naïve, extremely naïve, I had no idea that if you were a star making B-movies it was something you weren't choosing to do. I'm so glad now. Had I known then what I know now I would have hightailed it out of there.
But Tim's career was in the toilet and because one of my favourite films of all time had been The Last Picture Show, I think he appreciated that I was interested in him. It was a year later as I was doing the LaserDisc stuff and a release of Johnny Got His Gun, and of course Dalton Trumbo was dead, so I called up Tim for an interview. I went up to Santa Barbara to talk to him and he told me that Peter had called to see if he'd do Texasville--but he and Peter had gotten along miserably on The Last Picture Show so he wasn't sure he was going to do it. I kind of held his hand and encouraged him--I thought it'd be great for him to reprise that role even though McMurtry, who's really savvy, had written Texasville with the Jeff Bridges character the lead. Jeff's star had risen and Tim's had fallen.
So Bottoms agreed...
Yeah, he agreed but he said that he only wanted to do it if I [followed him on set and] recorded it. So Tim approached Peter and Peter was, understandably, very reluctant but basically agreed to talk to me because he was afraid Tim wasn't going to do it if he didn't. I think the turning point with Peter and me was that I showed him a paper I'd done in college on BBS, we shared an interest in auteur theory, and I told him that I was modeling myself on his career--well, his early career (laughs)--and I got him to agree on an EPK kind of thing. Once we got to Texas though, the piece got to be more and more intimate into Peter's life--Polly Platt came out to the set and it became a deconstruction of Peter's life and career.
And Picture This was the result.
Yes. Peter saw it and was very supportive of me delving into his personal stuff, helped me finish it even, and has continued to be supportive with career advice subsequently. It's one of my better films, it's what got me Hearts of Darkness.
Let's talk about Hearts of Darkness--Eleanor Coppola saw Picture This and called you up?
It was a combination of a couple of things. I was friendly with Chris Coppola through my Roger Corman days and over the year-and-a-half I was cutting the Bogdanovich piece, I showed it to Chris. He knew that Ellie was looking for someone and so he showed it to her. In the meantime I'd met a producer named George Zaloom who was trying to acquire the rights--so all those elements gelled within about six months of each other and I ended up with something like sixty hours of footage from the Apocalypse Now set.
Did Ms. Coppola intend for the picture to be so personal?
Well, it was first optioned as a one-hour thing for Showtime focused on the pyrotechnics of the making of Apocalypse Now--something I wasn't that interested in really. But during the course of looking through all this stuff I found these audiotapes and I heard Francis going on about killing himself and knew that I had something pretty extraordinary. I didn't understand why Ellie had included them--I mean, there was stuff in there, these private conversations about their marriage, stuff that we just couldn't use in good conscience. I was scared to death to call her about them, I put it off for like a day--I was terrified she wouldn't let us use them and she was a little reluctant, but she agreed and we took the new stuff to Steve Hewitt at Showtime and said, "Look, you gotta listen to this." He upped our budget and we decided to expand it into a feature.
What happened with the Keitel footage?
The thing that was most painful for me about Hearts of Darkness is that footage. We had the "terminate with extreme prejudice" scene with Harvey and Harry Dean Stanton and you could really see a total difference in the movie. [John] Milius's original intention was to make a black comedy set in Vietnam--a Dr. Strangelove in tone. While Francis was shooting with Harvey he was much more faithful to that element of the script but when he started re-shooting with Martin [Sheen], I think, during that down time is when Coppola wrapped his head around these more august, loftier ideas, The Golden Bough...
Exactly, slightly ostentatious.
I miss that pretension in American film.
(laughs) Me, too. So I had Harvey's scene juxtaposed against Martin's and it was ready to go, but I had to get Harvey to clear it so I called him up. Harvey's still very sensitive about it and said, "Well, I'll let you use the stuff if you tell me honestly why they fired me," so I asked [co-producer] Fred Roos and he said, "Oh, Harvey was just a pain in the ass." So I tell Harvey and he says, "Fuck that fat fuck" and the short of it is that we weren't allowed to use the footage.
I like a lot of The Killing Box, I like zombies and I like the Civil War, but it doesn't feel like a complete film--tell me what happened.
(sighs) Gray Night was what it was originally called, the director's cut is on LaserDisc. That film was brutalized. Adrian Pasdar has a morphine addiction, and there was a lot of homoeroticism between his character and Corbin Bernsen's character, but [producer] Brad Krevoy, who'd also worked for Corman, just butchered the picture. Billy Bob Thornton had a much bigger part and there was a different ending--I mean a lot of stuff in there was stupid and my fault, y'know, but it was a good way to cut my teeth. The director's cut is better. (laughs)
The interview scene in Some Folks Call it a Sling Blade, you've said that you and Thornton had a disagreement over how it was shot.
Billy Bob wanted the whole speech in close-up and... Look, we became very close friends during The Killing Box, almost inseparable. He'd been performing this character in a variety show called "Pearls Before Swine", and this character Carl had that speech and he performed it for me and I said, "Look, this would be a great film, but let's make a short first." So he gave me the whole monologue, I moved it from a mental institution to a prison, and I wrote the supporting characters, Woodridge, a couple others. We finished it as the first act of a film and I raised the money, $55,000, to shoot it. Once we were in the cutting room, Billy Bob had gotten a television show called "Hearts Afire" and sides of Billy Bob's character that I hadn't seen before started to emerge.
Such as he's extremely arrogant. There was this Jekyll/Hyde thing going on--we'd gotten along so well but once I shot the film he started demanding this and this and this. No discussion, just demands. I had shot the whole monologue in close-up as coverage, but it was always my intention to shoot the thing wide and do a slow push in on him and pull away from her (Molly Ringwald as the reporter -Ed.) and he'd wanted a close-up. He said it'd be cool to cut away to the clock, to the desk, then to him in close-up, and I said to him, "Look, it doesn't make sense to cut away to the clock and the desk, your performance is strong enough by itself and I think it'll make the end of the speech more powerful" and on and on--and he says, "You cocksucking motherfucker," and I was in tears, I mean he actually went as far as to have one of his buddies, one of his Arkansas cronies, try to steal the negative. By this point we'd already started to outline the feature--the kid was mine, it was a Frankenstein story in my mind--and he'd become intolerably unpleasant. But that all changed two months later. He was saying, "This film is a fucking piece of shit, it's an embarrassment, fuck you"--I was devastated, but we got into Sundance and he totally changed his tune. So for another three or four months we worked on the film. He did the principal writing, but I contributed so much--at least enough for a "story by" credit.
What was the breaking point?
He came over for dinner one night, I was giving him a second chance, and had a producer who'd seen the short film, and I had a script called "The Low Life" that I wanted to do while we were raising the money for Sling Blade. I asked him to do the part that James LeGros ended up playing and he was like, "Fuck you, I want the lead." I explained that he wasn't right for that part, that I wanted [Sean] Astin and that besides, his television show obligations kept him from doing anything until the fall so that was a problem with a big part--so he goes on: "You motherfucking cocksucker, I gave you this great short, you motherfucker," and my wife said, "Whoa, don't talk like that in our apartment!" And he started in on her, calling her a "cunt" and I kicked him out and I haven't talked to him since. He made Sling Blade and had great success--we had to settle, obviously, and he deceived the Academy. He didn't submit the original screenplay because he knew there'd be problems from me--he got the adapted screenplay award based on "his play" but there was never a play, there was that variety piece and there was the short film. The press got hold of it at the time, but nobody really cared.
Of course, but it was the right moral choice at the time. He's a bad guy.
Tell me about Persons Unknown--your noir film--and working with Naomi Watts.
I'd always wanted to make a noir, of course, and I liked the script a lot. I cast Naomi whom I'd seen in Flirting. She and I hit it off really well and we're still good friends--we became very close, to the detriment of my marriage, I think. It led to my separation from my wife. It was really a hard time.
Were you daunted in making an un-shot Orson Welles script, The Big Brass Ring?
Not really. I really connected with the story--the presidential candidate with the gap between his public and private life. Welles had considered it a bookend for Citizen Kane. My own great-uncle had been the governor of the state of Iowa so I'd always been intrigued by political vs. private life, so I looked at it as adapting anything--a Shakespeare play. I think so many people see Welles as a director and not a writer, that the misperception is that I was tampering with a Welles film rather than engaging in a process of adaptation of a script--something not quite as sacrosanct as a completed film.
There are some low angles in the picture that recall Gregg Toland's style with Welles.
A couple, but more I was thinking of the mise-en-scène of a John Ford.
The Man from Elysian Fields has been your most well-received fiction feature so far. Why has it been such a toil for you, and has this picture finally opened some doors for you.
It has opened a few doors--well, a few mainstream indie kind of doors, I guess you'd say. You use the word "toil" and toiling is really what it feels like, but I had dinner last night with Bruce Beresford and Julie Taymor and y'know, they're complaining about how hard it is to find funding and stuff so toiling...it's all relative I guess. I've had films at Sundance that were pretty well received, but what I haven't had is entrée into the east coast intellectual clique--I haven't really been embraced there. My films don't fit the post-modern model. They're not snarky, they're not post-modern, they're not cartoon-like in nature like a lot of films are now and I'm not feeling sorry for myself, it's been a conscious choice for me to go in this direction with my work.
I find post-modernism to be so corrosive to our culture. I mean, it's the deconstruction of culture after all: the making of films that are based on human emotion but only in the most detached way. It's an archness, a seepage from fine art that started with Marcel Duchamp in the '40s all the way through to Warhol and then into the films of the American '80s and '90s. Peter [Bogdanovich] told me once that The Last Picture Show wouldn't even be a cable release now, it'd be straight-to-video. But I think that history will be unkind to post-modern films, for the most part--films like Far From Heaven that don't necessarily work on their own terms but only through this meta-knowledge and this growing Sirk fan club. At the end of the day, though, it's the human dramas--the Chekovs, the William Wylers, the Fords, the Five Easy Pieces, and the Midnight Cowboys that endure.