September 22, 2001|Stephen Ryder's voice is forceful and worn in the way of a man who has a lot of stories and knows that the stories are good ones. A published poet, a professor of dialogue and writing at NYU, and a former police officer and journalist nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Op/Ed in 1976, he is a magnetic personality and a graceful speaker: careful not to interrupt and catching one off guard with an incisive question born of his experience as a professional interrogator. Mr. Ryder's new film L.I.E. bristles with a brittle reality balanced against a deep scholarly vein that is surprising only until you speak with the man. Also generous with his time, Mr. Ryder sat down with Film Freak Central recently to share some of his thoughts on his movie, Jack Valenti and the M.P.A.A., and Walt Whitman.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: First off, Mr. Ryder, I wanted to thank you for taking the time in light of recent events to sit down and do an interview with us. The quality of your work in L.I.E. is such that we see it as a great honour to not only bring the film to a wider audience to the extent that we are capable, but also to allow you a forum for the discussion of the many literary allusions and implications of your work.
Let's start with Big John. He's a fascinating screen persona--a deeply flawed human being who finds grace through the protection of a young boy and the fine things with which he surrounds himself. Knowing your background as a police officer and journalist, would you talk about the insight into people who do monstrous things that led you to the creation of Big John?
STEPHEN RYDER: I've lived a long time, irrespective of my experience in police work and journalism. I learned that sometimes good people do bad things--most of us know that. But what some of us don't seem to be quite so cognizant of is that sometimes, bad people do good things. I was hoping to illustrate this innate contradictory human quality when I created the Big John character.
Parenthetically, I don't regard gay men who have teenaged lovers as "monstrous." Inter-generational relationships exist in both heterosexual and homosexual spheres and have throughout history. While I most definitely do not endorse this inclination, I refuse to demonize or dehumanize an entire class of people simply because I don't understand them.
Elvis Presley met and fell in love with Priscilla, (whom he met while in the U.S. Army stationed in Frankfurt, Germany) when she was TWELVE. By the time she was FOURTEEN, her father had given her PERMISSION to live with Elvis at his home in Memphis, Tennessee. Elvis Presley is on a U.S. postage stamp. No one referred to him then or now as a pedophile. Yet Big John, whose live-in lover is pushing 20, and whose current love-interests are both pushing 16--is a pedophile. What bullshit. It is the thinnest veneer for homophobia.
Being something of a loner and an intellectual in a decidedly anti-intellectual landscape, Big John's connection with Howie is a fascinating organism that hints at a mentor relationship. Can you talk about the identification between the man and the child, and how that relationship works to offset Howie's lack of connection with his own father?
There were three guys like this in my neighborhood in the Bronx when I was growing up in the 1940's and 50's. Referred to as "Big John" (or "John The Queer" by some), Phil The Milkman (he was the actual milkman), and a mean, dangerous, whacko ex-Marine named Joe, who had just come home from combat in Korea in 1954. Each of these guys had hung out a shingle and any boy from about the age of thirteen or fourteen knew where to go if he wanted beer, cigarettes, dirty movies and oral sex. These practitioners resided in situ for a couple of generations and it was, apparently, a well-kept open secret.
Except for the time Joe got shot in the hip in front of Randy's Candy store, and the time crazy little Frankie trashed Big John's antique-strewn apartment, causing him to leave town abruptly, thirty years went by without any fuss or any parents finding out. I never met Phil, I went up to Big John's house once when I was 15 (we played chess--he never made a move), and I hated Joe and he hated me.
To answer your question directly--some boys need to talk to a man, preferably his father--but on some issues, definitely NOT his father. The fathers of my generation of boys were not very engaged, and if the boy is different from, or smarter than his own father, he needs to seek a man who is more like himself. I think that is what was going on in the film. That man's ethnicity, religion or sexual preference wouldn't make any difference to an adventurous, alienated, experimental youngster.
You've called Big John a "Falstaff" figure (recalling that Falstaff's first name is also "John"), making Howie a young King Henry (again the mentor relationship). In addition to the essential optimism of Howie's last monologue, this referencing of the bittersweet end of the relationship between Shakespeare's Falstaff and Henry points to a bright future for young Howie. Can you speak of the extent to which Shakespeare informed the relationships of the characters in L.I.E.? Is there a particular play upon which you based the structure of the film?
Ah, Shakespeare. No, I didn't base the story on any of his plays, but rather on William Shakespeare's own life. I am convinced he was in love with 16-year-old Henry Wriothesly, Earl of Southampton, to whom, it appears, he wrote his sonnets. Now from all accounts, young Henry was a blond-haired, blue-eyed Taylor Hansen type fairly renowned for a disposition as pleasing as his countenance. It appears as well that young Henry was fairly taken with Shakespeare, inasmuch as he financed his work and was a devoted fan. Read sonnet 62L--very enlightening.
But of course, falling into the Falstaff character was unavoidable for Big John, and yes, I meant to indicate that Howie would be alright down the road.
"Elvis Presley met and fell in love with Priscilla when she was TWELVE. No one referred to him then or now as a pedophile."
How much, if any, did veteran character actor Brian Cox contribute to the character of Big John?
I was never on the set, except for one day for a few hours. Writers are sometimes not welcome, and I certainly wasn't, so I don't know about a lot of things relative to the actual filming. I was hired by the Director to write a script based on his idea about two boys who broke into houses, and there was a mention of a man in a van referred to as "The Bloated man." After I wrote and re-wrote the script many times--sometimes with Michael's collaboration, my job was, officially, done.
I do know that regarding the dialogue, with the exception of two parenthetical ad libs about food, Cox played the role As Written--verbatim. He is a wonderful, talented actor and a real gentleman. He has the greatest respect for writers and treated the script like it was the Bible. During press conferences I have sat next to him and when they ask him how he prepared for the role, or how he researched it, he would say: "I read the script."
How much coaching, if any, was required on-set of your remarkable young cast?
Paul Dano was the perfect, quintessential "Howie" (read: Holden Caulfield) from the first audition. Likewise Billy Kaye, also James Costa. These boys were brought to us by Judy Henderson as her initial choices. She's one of the best casting directors in the business, we were lucky to have her. They usually nailed it on the first take, I am told. But again, since I was never on the set, you have to ask the Director about that.
How much script evolution occurred during the physical production between you and Michael Cuesta, and/or you and the cast?
While the director telephoned me often during the filming, it was only when a scene wasn't working or he had some other problem that he wanted my advice about. I was not really encouraged to have anything to do with the cast, so I didn't, although Paul's father and mother have a good relationship with me, and so does he. We talk often now.
There are two pivotal scenes in the relationship between Big John and Howie--the first comes when Howie quotes Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself"--the second comes in the now-infamous straight razor scene. Whitman is that most American of poets--one with an unflagging patriotism, a sense of blossoming self-awareness, and a surprisingly clear-eyed view of how the United States so often fails to live up to the promise of its creed. What was your intention in Howie's recitation of a portion of "Song of Myself"--his entire relationship with Big John seems to change at that point.
Well, I was trying to think of what it would be that would knock John off his predatory feet. I was always trying to undermine his arrogant self-assurance with the humble facts of his life. His mother on the answering machine talking about his hemmoroids, his obviously deficient boyfriend--what did he really admire? Classical intelligence, intellectual elegance. His Chagall, his Steinway--his French. What would make him fall in LOVE? A boy like him, that's what. Himself at fifteen--the lost child in his soul. After all, they used to call these guys "Inverts." That's not entirely inaccurate, methinks.
So, I had Howie recite Whitman's paen to puberty, a poem I knew Big John would know well. And the loneliness, alienation and self-awareness it speaks of would lead John to think he and Howie were kindred spirits. And maybe they are. Nothing defangs a jungle cat as effectively as falling in love, and so it was here that John lost his power over the boy, and the boy, with perfect instincts, knew it. Both characters arc right here--a magical scene.
The fragment of the poem in the film is about desire, it is preceded in the poem by a portion known as the "o solitary me" section which describes a burgeoning self-awareness in the speaker. How did Whitman's personal journey inform Howie's own self-discovery during the course of the film?
It is obvious that Walt Whitman knew, at an early age, that he was quite different from other boys. His poetry did not redeem him in his early life, however, for as you know, Leaves of Grass was self-published--no one would touch it. Whitman was a decent man, a kind-hearted softie in a cruel time. His ministrations to dying young soldiers in the Civil War are heartbreaking testimonials to his sensitivities. But I wouldn't make too much of his connection with Howie. Suffice it to say that at fifteen, every boy can relate to lines like "nevermore the cries of unsatisfied love be absent from me" and "the sweet Hell within."
I know that there was a bit of dialogue deleted during the straight-razor scene; how was that scene conceptualized in your mind, and can you talk about any changes that might have occurred in its journey to the screen?
I get a kick out of all the reaction to "the shaving scene." It has already become a classic of Cinema. Rex Reed said, in his review, "The most erotically-charged scene ever filmed." He went on to say, "The sexual tension was so palpable that the woman in the seat next to me nearly fainted." I am delighted by all this, but I meant NO sexual innuendo at all, and I don't know, but I don't think the director did either.
That scene evolved in an interesting way. One day Michael Cuesta called me on the phone after reading my latest script rewrite and said. "They're not bonding enough--what would bond them--how would they bond? Meaning Howie and John. How does a man bond with a boy?" Michael's son was only about two years old at the time, mine were already in their thirties.
"He teaches him how to shave," I said. Then, in an instant, Michael knew it was true.
And it was his decision to use a straight razor. I argued against it and I was wrong. It was a stroke of genius on Michael's part. I wasn't on the set and the first time I saw the scene was in the theater.
You want to hear the dialogue that was deleted from that scene?
Big John: "You know, there's a book, Cyrano De Bergerac, by Edmond Rostand. It's a story about a guy with an exaggerated proboscis--a real long one. That nose was a metaphor, an insignia of his inescapable 'differentness.' Isolated from society at large, he compensated for his sense of inferiority by becoming the finest swordsman in all of France. And a rapier wit, to boot!" (A beat)
You see, Howard--you and Cyrano are much alike. But since you have a cute little nose...(he tweaks Howie's nose)...that can't be it. You're different in other ways. You're like a diamond in a coal bin. (A beat) So it follows that you must become a great swordsman--so no one will trifle with you.
Brian Cox told the press that he loved that dialogue, but he and I agree that the scene works better without it. It was Michael's decision to delete the dialogue, I am told, when he watched the dailies of that scene and saw the visual power, he said--"Let's see it one time without the sound." He made the right decision and my hat is off to him on that one.
But I still had only envisioned the scene as a sacred ceremony: an intimate rite of passage between a father and a son. I never even imagined a sexual component, but I guess I'm a real square in that department. I wanted to show that Howie's father had not done the things a father should do with a son, like teaching him to drive and to shave, and that John had the instincts--all perfectly legit, to teach a boy these things. Maybe because he was a devotee of the cult of maleness as celebrated in the Marine Corps and the Police, these symbolic rites would mean a lot to Big John.
"You don't have the space and I don't have the time to say all I would like to say about the sanctimonious pinheads calling themselves the MPAA..."
I wanted to address the miscarriage of justice that has occurred in the MPAA's branding of this film as "NC-17"--thus robbing it of countless screens and advertising opportunities. A dangerous topic to be sure, the pedophilia elements in the plot of L.I.E. are handled with the utmost respect and seriousness. The film is about a pedophile, not pedophilia--a crucial distinction. I wanted to offer you the opportunity to discuss the rating if you wish, and your views about why you think the MPAA has ruled in this way.
You don't have the space and I don't have the time to say all I would like to say about the sanctimonious pinheads calling themselves the MPAA and hiding behind their sheets. But let me be crystal clear on this: I can discern no philosophical difference between these hypocritical, narrow-minded, blue-nosed religious fanatics and the Taliban. Seriously. Of course the MPAA is not psychotic enough, or bold enough to commit mass murder, but their doctrine of ignorance and repression, and the arrogance of their supposition that their values are the one size that fits all is theologically indistinguishable from any other despotic regime.
It is a sad commentary on the cowardice of this industry that they allow themselves to be dictated to by the latter-day Joseph McCarthys of the MPAA. People who meet in secret and describe themselves as "parents." "Parents?" Well THAT narrows it down! Attila, Joseph Goebbles and O.J. Simpson fit into THAT category. That's a qualification? I can't understand why someone has not filed a class-action suit against the "MPAA" under the RICO statute (Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organization Act) for acting in Restraint of Trade in Inter-State Commerce. Great financial harm is done to corporations that have invested millions of dollars in their film products, people are put out of work, and careers are truncated by this secret organization. "Oh, but compliance is voluntary!" Replies Jack "Johnny Scissors" Valenti.
Yeah, as "voluntary" as paying a bookie.
Finally, I wanted to give you an opportunity to talk about your upcoming book, and your new film project, a retelling of Romeo & Juliet.
My book Dinner Behind The Lines from Bennington Books NY is available now at Barnes & Noble and on Amazon.com, or you can e-mail email@example.com. It's a collection of poems and stories in soft cover.
I have three film projects moving forward. I can't believe how busy I am now.
Only Perfect is a Romeo & Juliet-inspired romance set in present-day Montreal, the kids being quite young--twelve-thirteen. The girl, "Michelle Beaubien," is an upscale Francophone Quebecois, and the boy, "Coleman Hawkins," is a poor Anglophone living in the East End. The story deals with the classic family conflict exacerbated by ethnic differences and socio-economic factors. It treats young love with respect and detail, and never sinks to pubertal comedy or cheap titillation. Because this film too goes where no film has gone before--but not in the direction of sex--I have attracted the attention of one of Canada's best directors and we are conferring now on production budgeting and schedules.
Night Of The Black Mamba--a feature film--is a spy thriller told as the very personal story of a former CIA operative who is living quietly in America and trying to write a book that certain people don't want to see in print. Brian Cox and Armand Asante have both expressed interest in playing lead roles and have requested current scripts.
Revere. Can't tell you anything about this one. A feature film, the script is complete up to a shooting script. It is ready to go now. A well-known, award-winning Canadian director is negotiating with me on this one as we speak.
Kings Of The Earth. This one is a Big-Budget Whopper! A conspiracy within NASA with links to Ancient extra-terrestrial visitors to earth who have become us. They are not bugs. Our protagonist, John McCallister, has inadvertantly uncovered their grand plan, and he wants to stop them. If they don't stop him first.