October 24, 2004|Wearing a baseball cap and red jacket, Bill Pullman seems like any other sturdy middle-aged guy. He does, that is, until he talks. Like his screen persona, Mr. Pullman chews over his words with careful, delighted concentration--his speech is laced with just a hint of savoury, not the least because of his affection for "hmmm" as a lead-in to his laconic delivery. There's something about this vital sense of Mr. Pullman always being in the process of discovery (of evolving, if you will) that I suspect draws directors as creepily revolutionary as David Lynch, Wim Wenders, Wes Craven, and Thomas Vinterberg into his orbit. Mr. Pullman fights battles with himself in his performances, a sense of tension that's made palpable when he's matched with artists similarly engaged in refereeing the wrestling match between the intimate and the profane. In town for an experimental theatre project with which he's involved at the National Theater Conservatory, Mr. Pullman was joined for a few days at the 27th Starz Denver International Film Festival by Curtiss Clayton, who directed him in the filmed re-telling of Verdi's Rigoletto, Rick.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: Dear Wendy is in the can: a Thomas Vinterberg from a script by Lars Von Trier--daunting?
BILL PULLMAN: Well, yes. People that have Thomas and Lars on their radar, I think they're the ones really watching the world cinema, the things that are happening that are important to where films will go in the future. I've always admired Thomas and Lars--I've always wanted to work with them, particularly Thomas because he's got this sort of wild history with Festen and his second film, The Third Lie, which didn't do as well but was interesting, too. Alive, you know. There's a lot of nervous laughter in [Vinterberg's and Von Trier's] movies that is of course the best kind. (laughs)
Is this Vinterberg's film or Von Trier's?
Vinterberg is a young guy and Lars is the older guy, but they have a very curious friendship. Lars is an extremely complicated individual, you know, and I think that this was important to both of them that Thomas take this project and make it his own. So I think that at some point they made the decision that Lars wasn't going to be around very much. I'd see Lars, but we'd never talk about Dear Wendy. Thomas really took over the script, made some changes. It was really exciting for me, too, to be working with Anthony Dod Mantle.
Right, he shot Festen and [Vinterberg's] It's All About Love. He and Thomas had spent quite a bit of time in development of this film and they had decided on a very specific kind of look that they wanted for this film and that HD digital video was the way that they were going to achieve that look. So they took this new Sony camera that's smaller than most, but requires all these secondary backup batteries and wire leads, and Anthony took this backpack and modified it. He converted it so that it had a boom that came up and out and then with bungee cords and duct tape, he strapped it up so that it could live at this slightly lower than standard height as he's walking in and around the action. It was cool because he, as a DP, made himself such a small unit that he could basically just walk around like a handheld, practically. I mean, there was this huge army of people following himself around with a video link-up and stuff, but the camera itself was a player.
Is there any comparison to David Lynch's innovations?
There is because David is... Some of them are, you know, they're definitely the David Lynches, they have a certain excitement about the creative process. Also a certain confidence that comes from knowing that you are hand-making something, you know, a lot of people don't seem to own that process of hand-making a thing, but guys like Thomas and David do. They don't do as much delegating, they're getting their hands on it and personalizing their work. David's sense of joy is such a crackling interior thing that it's all kind of presented in this...held...smile and this Jimmy Stewart-esque delivery. (Imitating Lynch:) "Thaaat's...beeeeautiful." Everybody on the set, not just me, there's this certain kind of clarity from where you work with someone whose whole being is so iconographic, is confident in his own creative skin.
Is that confidence infectious or scary?
(laughs) I was nervous working with David. I mean there are times when actors haven't come off the best with David--very good actors, they sometimes don't produce their best work when they work with David. The central actors in particular, they're usually versions of himself, you know, and so they're a lot more reserved than the secondary characters that are a lot of fun. I think of Willem Dafoe's and Crispin Glover's parts in Wild at Heart and they're great and just so memorable.
Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet.
Exactly right--he's not the star but his work is the work that you remember, that's truly memorable. Even Lost Highway, you remember Robert Loggia's great snap-out with the highway laws rant--and Robert Blake's whole presence.
Why you? Why do Wim Wenders and David Lynch and Thomas Vinterberg look for you?
Isn't that amazing? Even this new film, The Grudge, Takashi Shimizu requested me particularly, so, you know, it was one of those things that...it wasn't a central part, there wasn't so much a central part really, but the fact that he requested me in particular... When you think about people across the world who know your work--same thing with Thomas--they become a curious sort of Rorschach test for myself to try to figure out what they want. All I can come up with is that maybe they want this sort of nuance and depth that I'm not always sure that I can provide. (laughs) You fear that people believe that your gun is more mighty than it is: the gunfighter that people start to believe can shoot magic bullets but then they meet them and challenge them and the gun shoots normal bullets and they shoot you dead.
Visionary director Mel Brooks has mentioned recently that he'd like to do a sequel to Spaceballs. You in?
(laughs) Mel teases, man, he's been talking about that for years and years. I haven't heard from him, but I'd love to do it--we'll just have to see if he's going to dump me on the giant pile of discarded robots.
Wim Wenders, for whom you made The End of Violence: another visionary director, another director with a very different process.
That's true. With Wim, it's very... I get a little unnerved working with him in some ways because he so comes from that documentary school and you don't really see his hand very strongly on the events of shooting a scene. There are very oblique kinds of things that he'll come and adjust during a scene: a café and someone comes up and sells us flowers and he won't talk to us about performance, but he'll sort of arrange the flowers, change the colours of some of them--what kind of flowers are they? What kind of flower do I pick? All these tertiary levels of decisions that you never knew for sure if it was taking you anywhere. But I like him a lot, and I trusted him, and his process of assembling a film is where he shot himself in the foot a little with The End of Violence. He was under the gun to get a print in for Cannes and he rushed it to assembly, and it got there and it got creamed. It just was a killer. He thought he had a movie and it wasn't any good. But he had the rare ability to come back for eleven weeks of editing...
No, just re-editing--and I guess I'm not sure that it was eleven weeks. They did pay for some number of weeks. And that's the version that you see now. There's no comparison, really, the version on video right now is something that's complete--the first version that screened at Cannes was really a disaster.
I love The End of Violence.
Me, too. Besides what it has to offer as a Wenders film, the issues of surveillance in that film alone make it prescient. It's gorgeous to look at, really, all of it this sad Edward Hopper painting. I feel really lucky to be a part of it even though it took a little hindsight to see the breadth of its value.
The curve to cult classic was steeper for Zero Effect.
I loved, loved that character. It felt close to who I was and it still does.
With The Serpent and the Rainbow, too--maybe even Brain Dead.
I'm always amazed when people bring up these films--I wonder how they ever came across them. There has evolved these two very different audiences especially for The Serpent and the Rainbow: there are these horror fans on the one hand and then there are people who actually practice voodoo, Santeria--people from those countries who see it as cultural representation, rare as it is for them. Almost anthropological. I'm amazed, too, that something like that which was lambasted--as, what, a "B+ movie" somebody said at the time--has taken on this totally unexpected lustre with time. Even with the new ending that made it sort of hokey, all the things that made it not exactly what Wes initially intended for it, it still has a core following that feels for right or wrong that there's something vital about it. For me, what I liked was the experiential drug trip side of it, kind of the Altered States idea of having scientific roots to the visceral side of that kind of pioneering self-experimentation.
The B movies, though, are more authentic, I find. Nicholas Ray, Samuel Fuller, even Alfred Hitchcock--these guys did Bs. It's unwise to discount Bs offhand.
Great point. I mean with a couple of pretty obvious exceptions (laughs), my career is most easily labelled as a "genre" career--detective stories, and David Lynch supernaturals, and horror movies, and science-fiction, and farce... My brother, he rents an unbelievable amount of movies and he always manages to find stuff that hasn't found any kind of distribution or theatrical release. Those "Bs," especially now where the action movies are such a theme park ride...to find a B action movie, there's often more of a sense of authenticity--that mainstream rarity of a disaffected hero with some sense of a more unstable environment for a more nuanced hero. In the high-pressured studio movie, the hero has good teeth--he's still Tom Cruise and he can't be a scum-ball when all's said and done. But that doesn't really reflect our uncertainty and fear, does it?
Rick is the very definition of disaffected, and yet there's a pure idea in it about the sanctity of family. Why this film for you at this moment in time?
I guess because I sometimes am so aware of the range of my own feelings that I get tempted by characters that also have what I see as my own sense of constant struggling against almost impossible, irreconcilable polarities. I remember knowing instinctively as I was reading the script that he was seeing the awful nature of a good person who has allowed himself to act badly, yet maintain this kind of moral centre. He wouldn't think of it that way, though, because his sense of protectiveness over his daughter is almost a selfish one--she's the only receptacle for his secret fears, you know, and she's precious to him in that sort of shorthand in his life. The reaction to the film reflects that polarization, too. People resist that world--there are a lot of people that like the nastiness, but get really uncomfortable with the bits where my character isn't nasty. It doesn't appease the monochromatic worldview that we're being lulled by now in our times. We have such narrow constructs with which to view ourselves and ourselves in our society. Complexity offends people.
You have a daughter the same age as Agnes Bruckner's character in Rick.
I do, I do--and that has a lot to do with the pick of film for me now, too, I think. Different ages that I pass through, times of clarity where I've found myself in, or sought out, I don't know--these roles that reflect who I am right now at age fifty. What it is that I've had to twist and contort within myself to please and to be accepted to this point. There's this density of images that you send when you're a guy at fifty and it's not as simple or easy as it was twenty years ago. That whole sense of being who I am at this moment--and to have the projects in my hand at times in my life where I'm capable of appreciating them. It's that Rorschach test again for yourself but applied differently--that in a moment of crisis you discover who you really are. And I've been able to explore who I really am at a few milestone moments in my life in these films, with some of the most gifted and courageous filmmakers around providing me the insight and eloquence that I can't provide for myself.