The Three Faces of Ivan
Photos by Michael Powers
THE SILENCE WAS PROFOUND AS THE LIGHTS WENT UP. THEN came the applause. The new movie ivans xtc. -- the one that, just prior to its release, has Hollywood talent agents in a dither about how they are being represented onscreen -- had just crescendoed to its finish, riding the love-and-death aria from Wagner's Tristan and Isolde. The three artists representing the picture, Bernard Rose, Danny Huston and Lisa Enos, filed toward the stage at the Writers Guild Theater to address their audience, a UCLA sneak-previews class hosted by film critic Steven Farber.
Talk about a target audience: Many of the folks in the class were either connected to the movie business -- which had been satirically shish-kebabed in the film's first half -- or of a certain age and therefore familiar with the film's true subject, the grim yet exalted business of dying. In keeping with "The Death of Ivan Ilyich," the Tolstoy story from which the screenplay was derived, ivans xtc. fearlessly tours the darkest moments in the decline of its protagonist, yet in the very essence of its candor offers powerful consolation. Death is transcended here, not through a vision of the afterlife, but by offering such a clear-eyed angle on this life that the crude anguish of death -- particularly the loneliness of it -- gives way to a feeling of ecstatic communion with the whole of nature. This feeling is earned, as it is in Tolstoy, by concrete observation. The world the hero swims in is solidly realized, a byproduct of the manner in which the film was shot -- on high-definition video, using only existing locations and available light. Ivan's death, and his ecstasy, required no suspension of disbelief on the audience's part: Both had unfolded before our eyes with the immediacy of a diary.
Yet there was barely a wet eye in the house. Ivans xtc., like its source material, is no tear-jerking Terms of Endearment. What had transpired was a more classical emotional experience: terror, pity and awe fused into a catharsis around the most hotly denied secret in Hollywood: We all die.
Los Angeles Lakers vs. Washington Wizards
TicketsWed., Oct. 25, 7:30pm
UCLA Men's Soccer v Oregon State & UCLA Women's Soccer v Stanford
TicketsThu., Oct. 26, 4:30pm
CSUN Womens Soccer
TicketsThu., Oct. 26, 7:00pm
Los Angeles Lakers vs. Toronto Raptors
TicketsFri., Oct. 27, 7:30pm
UCLA Women's Soccer v California & UCLA Men's Soccer v Washington
TicketsSun., Oct. 29, 1:00pm
The filmmakers took their places on the stage. One could easily imagine them as collaborators, their intensities were so harmoniously matched. Director Bernard Rose all but popped out of his chair as he answered questions, especially any that asked him to explain why his previous film, Anna Karenina (1997), got butchered on the editing table, to the point where he wanted to remove his name from it, and how that had led to the present guerrilla-style approach to Tolstoy. (Although it was Anna Karenina's executive producer, Mel Gibson, who supervised the recuts, to this day Rose -- who hopes one day to see his own version restored -- doesn't know whether Gibson did so willingly or whether he was pressured by his backers at Warner Bros. "Mel and I have never discussed it," he told us. At the Writers Guild preview, however, he did share an absurd note he received from Warner's production chief Lorenzo di Bonaventura by way of explaining the cuts: "But she's so unsympathetic -- she cheats on her husband!") Lanky Danny Huston, revealing in person the same easygoing, virile charm he displays onscreen as Ivan Beckman, a Beverly Hills talent agent, spoke in a velvet growl -- inherited from his father, film director John Huston -- that lent itself well to the spinning of yarns punctuated by infectious laughter. Documentary maker and ivans xtc. producer Lisa Enos, who not only collaborated with Rose on the script but literally suggested the project into existence, is a steady, acerbic anchor to the other two. She also lives with Rose (they just had a child together), and she quietly brings him down to earth when he waxes extravagant about the adventure of making ivans xtc. on a shoestring -- reminding him that in the two years it took them to find a distributor, they lost their house.
All in all, the threesome presented in person what later would emerge in words as they sat for a series of interviews with the Weekly: an authenticity that, one senses, may be prophetic of the kinds of collaborations and projects that will form themselves into the next wave of commercial filmmaking.
I. DANNY HUSTON, star
IN ADDITION TO THAT VOICE, WHICH SO evokes that of his late father as to be startling, Danny Huston projects the rugged individualism that has defined the Huston clan across three generations. Paradoxical as that may sound -- a family of individualists? -- one need only recall his grandfather Walter Huston, striding through Dodsworth (1936), or his sister Anjelica, scheming and maneuvering through Prizzi's Honor (1985), to comprehend the idea. Danny Huston, in line with these forebears, gives off the easy confidence that comes of a strong inner compass.
He has also followed in the family tradition of pursuing a varied creative career. Born in Rome in 1962, raised there by his mother, Zoe Sallis, and in Ireland by his father (with many stops in the U.S. and Mexico), Danny began as a painter but gravitated early to film directing, and has made four features -- Mr. North (1988), Becoming Colette (1991), The Maddening (1995) and Amparo (2001). He is modestly proud of these; as he relates below, it was the choice to take up acting, and watch other directors at work, that led to a deepening of his ambitions as a filmmaker.
He certainly turns in a magnetic, career-making performance in ivans xtc. Being in his late 30s, he brings what Emerson called "a long foreground" to the role -- a rare aura of having lived in his own skin a bit longer than people we usually see onscreen, at least in Hollywood. Walter Huston, who also came to stardom at near 40, had exactly this quality.
L.A. WEEKLY: Was there any one thing that attracted you to ivans xtc.?
DANNY HUSTON: I suppose it was the depth of insight inherent in the Tolstoy story. Looking at the text closely, I had to look into myself -- because the story is about one's own mortality. I had to examine memories of people I knew who had died. I read a couple of books on cancer, on dying, about the various stages, bargaining and denial. I cross-referenced those elements into the story and referred back to the screenplay, to see exactly where all of those things lay. Then, literally taking a colored pencil, I -- dare I say it? -- worked on the character arc. ä
When you say you referred to memories of loved ones who've died, that must have included John Huston, your father.
For as long as I can remember, my father was dying. A journalist once asked him, "Toward what do you attribute your longevity?" And he said, "Surgery." [Laughs.] Visiting him in a hospital wasn't that uncommon. Such experiences with Dad helped me in a very specific way. They gave my character a certain courage. My primary concern in portraying a character who's dying was to avoid projecting any sense of self-pity or sentimentality. Looking at the character of Ivan, there's a certain bravado -- which helps create a certain pathos, one hopes. I had great faith that Bernard would treat the character with the same care. One of our shorthand things with Anna Karenina was to keep focused on the question "Is there a God?" And keep it a question. With ivans xtc., we took the opposite tack. We decided there is a God. [Laughs.]
So for me, the moment of Ivan's ecstasy is when he dies. Tolstoy ends the story with a full stop: "And then he died."
And you stop right there, too, at the exact threshold.
Right. No final credits or anything. Which I think makes it a very faithful adaptation -- though it forces you to have a very long credit sequence at the beginning.
People might type this movie as a Hollywood satire -- but really, it bypasses Hollywood at warp speed.
[Laughs.] Hopefully it's a clever way to achieve two things. One, obviously, is that Bernard and I were able to make the picture in Los Angeles, that we didn't end up making a period picture in Russia. The other is that it has somewhat more commercial appeal, in terms of its insight into that world of la dolce vita the tabloids can only glimpse, and guess at. My father used to tell me that life, for too many people in Hollywood, is their work.
How did he keep himself out of that shredder? Did he offer you any advice?
He approached movies in a very free, unhurried way. He had a very high regard for literature and fine art. And for "cinema" in its potential. But his regard for movies, as such, was not all that high. He was a master at translating great works, adapting them to film. He saw that movies are, in a sense, the bastard children of those other works. Every film I like of his brings me back to something else, but not to film. I never once overheard a conversation in which he used film as a reference. "It's Chinatown meets E.T." [Laughs.] But I do it all the time.
As for advice, I remember when I was little, playing around with a Super-8 camera. I was moving it all over the place, just letting it run -- and he stopped me: "No, no. What are you doing?" He pointed at what I'd been filming. "When you look from there to there, what do you do?" he asked me. I told him I didn't know. And he said, "You blink your eyes. That's a cut! So get rid of all that other nonsense. You look at the lady coming up the street, then you cut to the fellow over there who's going to meet her."
And that has held so true. Once you understand a story, once you know what you're trying to convey, there really is only one place to put the camera. There is only one way to do it. There is no great freedom of interpretation.
Still, the digital-video technology must increase your sense of what's possible.
It's just liberating, when we can actually go out and tell our stories. Instead of Bernard and I moping around, blaming the studio, blaming our agents, blaming everybody -- blame, blame, blame -- not getting anything done because we're so tired, so busy trying to get other things off the ground that we don't experience any other works, we don't adapt anything else, we're just stuck in our hole. It was actually quite startling to hear Lisa, who's not in the film business, turn ä around and say, "Guys, instead of moaning, why don't you just -- shoot a film?"
"Well," we grumbled, "because we can't."
"Why can't you?"
"We need to buy film."
"Why not shoot it with a digital camera?"
[Dithering noises.] "Nn-nh . . . Digital doesn't look good."
"Why do you care what it looks like, if you've got something to tell?"
Then we tried this new system out, and it's beautiful! With Bernard, adapting Tolstoy, I think we decided after we made the picture that it's neo-realism, or some semblance of it. I always felt that L.A., in making it, became our Rome, and that Bernard is auteur enough, maestro enough, that we were within reach of the more neo-realist aspects of Fellini's work, with yours truly hoping to fill the shoes of Marcello Mastroianni. It's an environment that we understand, an environment that we know. It just seemed very convenient to set this tale in our back yard.
It's interesting that you use Fellini as an example of neo-realism. Because when you look closely at the texture of La Dolce Vita, or even 8 1/2, they're very journalistic, very matter-of-fact, shot by shot. They're only mistaken for surrealism because Fellini is documenting something inside his head as he interacts with the world.
Exactly right. And when people criticize some of the cameo performances in ivans xtc., because they're not actors that they know, I think back on 8 1/2 and other Fellini works and think, "These are not supposed to be actors -- they are real characters." Bernard has done the Fellini thing of driving down the road, finding somebody and grabbing him, and putting him in the film because he fits the character. You can't replace that. My friend Alex Butler, who plays Peter Weller's "minder," he walks a certain way, carries himself exactly the way such a character would, without ever "acting."
And you cast an actual CAA agent, Adam Krentzman, as the agent who takes over for Ivan after his death.
Exa-a-actly. [Laughs.] Doing all the horrific things that he's qualified to do! Our first screening at CAA was fantastic. Although we had a little wine in the foyer beforehand, a lot of people were uncomfortable with it at first. There were quite a few shufflings and itchy little movements in seats before they could settle into the story. [Laughs.] But I've since gotten a lot of calls from many agents to say how deeply affected they were by the film -- moved to understand that, despite appearances, it was about something else.
So I don't think anybody believes that we're poking fun at them. A lot of people in film -- guys who work at the lab, for example -- would say, "I had to spend more time with my family after seeing your film. I even took two or three days off from work." It asks people to re-evaluate what their lives are about.
You mentioned at the Writers Guild that you're fluent in Italian. Did you live in Italy as a little kid?
My mother had a home there for 20 years. What I like to say is that I was conceived during Freud, born during the pre-production of The Bible and teethed on The Night of the Iguana. Actually, Jean Paul Sartre introduced my mother to my father. And then I . . . "existed," I suppose.
So your upbringing makes you more of a European than an American.
In a way, yes. I remember very early in life seeing a rough cut of The Bible. My mother played Hagar in The Bible. She was carrying this kid, Ishmael, in the desert, and I thought the kid was me, and my father has the voice-over of God, and he plays Noah -- so I was very confused as to what was reality and what was fiction. [Laughs.] And I haven't really recovered. I still don't really know.
You direct. You write for the screen. Now you act. Are there other art forms you're ambitious of?
I paint. I love having that privacy, that sense of silent moments just to myself. Otherwise I'm just forever doomed to be in the film industry. There are times when I get frustrated, and wish I could do something else, even just -- cut hair. But I can't. I'm addicted. It's in every pore.
And that's why directing -- and trying to get a film going in the conventional way, with a studio -- can be so hard. Your entire universe is consumed by one project, and you begin to have a blinkered existence. You kind of forget how to live. It all becomes about film. I remember my father giving a lecture at some film school. One of the students asked him, "Wouldn't it be correct, Mr. Huston, to say that in the first act you establish your characters, in the second act you tell your story, and in the third act you reveal what it is you were trying to say throughout the film?" And my father looked at him, and said, "You know what you should do? Get yourself down to Mexico, and fuck some whores." [Laughs.] You could've heard a pin drop in the auditorium. But what my father was saying was essentially correct, which is live, for Christ's sake. Then you'll be able to tell a story!
Speaking of stories, Bernard is particularly aggrieved about what happened to his Anna Karenina, especially the way your performance as Anna's brother was almost entirely cut out of the film. What was your perspective on all that? Is there a way to prevent that?
When my father was shooting Prizzi's Honor, this fellow from ABC came in. We were sitting in the bar of the hotel, and this executive said to Dad, "The ratio you're shooting is fantastically low. Thank you for using so little film." My father nodded: "You're very welcome." After the guy left the bar, my father turned to me -- I had just left film school -- and he said, "What a fool." I was surprised: "What do you mean?" "The man's a fool!" I asked why, and he said, "Because I'm not giving him any footage to cut!" That was basically how my father would shoot. He would shoot a long shot, and then -- in midsentence! -- "To be, or not to . . ." "CUT!" And he'd move in for a close-up: ". . . be, that is the question." [Laughter.] He never hesitated to split a line on either side of a pair of shots. He would literally work his way through the film, using very, very little actual film stock, and protecting himself from anybody coming in and cutting it. Because there wasn't any extra material left over for them to do that with. With the exception of The Bible, his films tend to be short and to the point. What the producers saw was what they got, and there he was, covering himself beautifully.
Do you feel ready to tackle directing in a new way based on your experience with ivans xtc.?
The wonderful thing about being an actor is that you can observe many different directors at work, something you can't do if you're just a director. That's been very, very useful. And now? It's like Archimedes said: "Give me a point to lean on, and I can lift the world."
I feel like I've found my point to lean on, and I'm ready to go.
II. BERNARD ROSE, director
BORN IN 1960 AND EDUCATED AT THE NATIONAL Film and Television School in Beaconsfield, England, Bernard Rose first came to the attention of American moviegoers with the urban-folklore chiller Candyman (1992). By then he'd already directed several features, most notably Chicago Joe and the Showgirl (1990), and since then he is best-known for Immortal Beloved (1994), which starred Gary Oldman in the role of Ludwig van Beethoven. This led to Anna Karenina (1997), which puzzled this reviewer (among many others) by its astonishing brevity.
In 1999, Rose had been set to direct The Thief of Always for Universal, based on the novel by Clive Barker and budgeted at $90 million. While waiting for that project to begin production, he quickly wrote a screen adaptation of Tolstoy's short story "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" and -- having time to spare and no exclusivity arrangement to stop him -- began shooting ivans xtc. Alas, after an item about the film appeared in Jeffrey Wells' Internet column, Hollywood Confidential, Rose was suddenly dropped as director of The Thief of Always. (He received the news during the shooting of the funeral scene, from his then-agent at CAA, Adam Krentzman, who also plays an agent in the film.)
Rose, half-amused at the twisted fates governing such reversals, prefers not to complain. Much!
L.A. WEEKLY: Ivans xtc. makes perfect sense on its own terms, but if you happen to know the Tolstoy story, there's an added pleasure -- because despite the Hollywood transposition, you've been exceptionally faithful to the source.
BERNARD ROSE: The joke of the book is that it contains a truth so universal, you could actually take almost anybody's life and do it as Ivan Ilyich. Anyone who dies of natural causes eventually is Ivan Ilyich. What struck me about Tolstoy's construction is that he pulls a trick on you. You read the first part, and you think, "Oh who cares -- some bureaucrat died." But then, when you go into his life, his life is so important to him.
One thing about the film that felt concordant with the book was the irony that it's not about the "death" of Ivan so much as it is, very deeply, about the life of Ivan -- and that it's his life that's killing him.
Well, what really kills him is cigarettes. People's attitudes are upside-down: "Oh yeah, he must've died because he was taking all that coke." Coke doesn't kill him. It doesn't do anything to him. Ivan's friends and clients don't want to face how close to death they all are, and how much his actual behavior is essentially unexceptional. When [CAA superagent] Jay Moloney died, people went out of their way to say how exceptionally addicted and terrible he was. But it isn't as if there aren't a lot of Hollywood agents who take coke!
Ivan's not a big cokehead. It's just as he explains -- he takes what they're offering. He goes out of his way to make everybody feel comfortable. He wants everybody to feel they're having a good time. There are people in Hollywood who are true masters of that. And they get very rich off it.
Your use of classical music -- especially the Wagner at the beginning and the end -- really amplifies the film's themes beautifully.
Isolde's aria at the end of Tristan and Isolde does manage to convey the 19th-century idea that death is some kind of ecstasy, a kind of transfiguring moment instead of a black hole. That's what Tolstoy does in the story. He gets you to that last paragraph and -- there -- it's okay. One thing that emerged from talking to Lisa about her mother's death, as well as to others who've witnessed death closely, is that there seems to be a common agreement that, at the very end, death doesn't seem as terrifying and appalling as it does up to that point.
In the year 2000, death was as taboo a subject as sex was in 1900.
Death, and transcendence, are so denied in Ivan's world that the pathological narcissism of Hollywood feels like an inevitable consequence: "Those for whom God is dead worship each other."
If Don West is God, then we're in trouble. Because then God is just an asshole full of coke blather. But the whole point about that character is not that he's particularly loathsome. He's a kind of Frankenstein monster assembled from parts of different people I've seen do different things. I would ascribe one characteristic to one individual, but on the whole the idea is not to point the finger but to say: "Whoever is elevated to that position -- it doesn't matter if it's a 20th-century movie star or rock star, or from another era, whatever you might call them, a king, a queen -- the elevation is always basically going to lead to that behavior." Because otherwise, why be that if you can't do that? It's like when people were horrified by the idea that Clinton was partying in the White House. Well, why else be president?
I would really like it to. That was a very, very unpleasant event. I'm not really sure why they did what they did. Presumably they were in a "flop sweat," which is usually why people butcher movies. But I was told everything was fine, and I was sent to London to do some looping. And when I was in London I found out they'd hired another editor and were re-cutting the movie. They just made sure they'd got me out of town, and when I got back, they wouldn't let me on the lot. And that was the end of that.
Something has gone wrong when you've got people in power who've never read the book, and they're looking at something and saying, "I think the story should go like this. I think it would be better." And others chiming in, going, "Yeah! That would be better." But the story doesn't go like that. That's not how Tolstoy wrote the book. She's sympathetic and an adulteress.
Tell me about working with Danny Huston. You used him in Anna Karenina. But how did you guys hook up in the first place?
I'd known Danny for a long time. He used to be married to Virginia Madsen, who played the lead in Candyman. So he's an old friend. I've always thought he had that quality that makes a movie star in the true sense of the word, in that you want to watch him.
Actors aren't some freak of nature, they're just people. And my theory has always been, cast the most interesting person, because that's what you see. It's like Marlon Brando. Maybe he is this great actor, but then again, maybe he's just this sort of fascinating kook. You want to see what he's going to do next, because it's going to be something unexpected. People often assume these people have something special about them, but very often it's a flaw.
We respond best to those performances where the person has revealed something that feels almost perversely private. And Danny manages to do that. He can hold your attention. In that scene with the whores, there's a wonderful moment where he's talking on about his mother and suddenly -- he just stops. He can't remember what the hell he's going to say next, or what's going on, or why they're there. He sits there, completely silent. And you realize he's just terrified of dying.
There's another magical moment, where he mimes the long-ago memory of lying against his mother's breast by pressing the back of his hand to his face. It's the gesture of a naturally talkative man -- a natural storyteller. You just let him be, and he is the movie for that moment.
He is, yes. I think you do totally identify with him at that point. He's saying to the girls, "You're going to survive and I'm going to die, but don't pity me, because someday it'll happen to you, too." Which is basically Tolstoy's great one-liner: "Stop feeling sorry for this guy. You're next!"
Are you off to London to set up another film?
I hope to, but it's the old story: Is the money in place? I certainly hope to do another film with Danny. One of the problems any of us face in setting a film up is that the business model people have been operating on isn't really functioning right now. The technology is changing. The cost of films is changing. The idea of funding something entirely on pre-sales is fine if you've got a big actor, because that gives them something to pre-sell it on. But then that leaves this weird thing where the same five people are in all the movies.
We're going to see a big change in the kinds of films that people will make, and will want to see. One influence that's bound to have an impact is ä the way so much of life is routinely taped. There are so many hidden cameras everywhere. I'm convinced you could stage a whole feature film in the center of London without having to use a camera of your own. Look at the World Trade Center bombing. How many angles did they have of that airplane hitting?
They even got the first plane going in, because someone happened to be down in the street doing an interview.
And that's unthinkable! Essentially, everybody in the world witnessed that incident firsthand. And not just witnessed it -- witnessed it repeatedly. I've never seen that before.
People don't realize that that is seriously going to affect what we accept, what we look for. The initial sentiment in Hollywood after September 11 was "Well, nobody will want to see Arnold Schwarzenegger in a violent action movie." And then, a month later, they concluded the two are unrelated and slated Collateral Damage for release. The truth is, people really don't want to see those movies anymore -- not because of the content, but because they look fake. "I've seen how it really looks now, and it didn't look like that." Reality looked different, and it was much more frightening, much more disturbing. The people weren't wearing makeup, they weren't backlit.
There are a lot of movies now where you can just feel the craft-services table outside the shot, groaning with M&Ms. You can see the tiredness of the actors because they've just woken up from a nap in their trailer. If I were a studio, I wouldn't be investing $100 million in a big movie that was looking like any of these old-fashioned blockbusters. That's not where the world, or movies, are going. The style looks dated, and I think what will replace it is more of this sense of how the world looks through a camcorder, in DV. Not necessarily jittery or hand-held -- but you'll want to know how it was shot, where it was shot. Because we're all aware now. Because we've got them at home. We'll want to know who's handling the camera.
III. LISA ENOS, producer, co-writer, co-star
MUCH OF WHAT'S KILLING IVAN BECKMAN IN ivans xtc. festers most dramatically in his relationship with Charlotte White, the ambitious screenwriter with whom he's romantically involved. By way of going with the flow, he lets the superstar played by Peter Weller snort cocaine from her upper thigh; by way of keeping himself afloat when he's been delivered the blow of a cancer diagnosis, he shies from confiding in her. She herself is an all-too-willing participant in the worst of Ivan's world; one readily surmises that he loves her more than she loves him. This is conceivably a thankless role, but it has been brought off with subtlety and energy by Lisa Enos. She not only co-wrote the script, but actively inspired Bernard Rose and Danny Huston to take on the project in the first place. As she relates below, her background is making documentaries, though her true calling -- as an actress, producer, co-writer and round-the-clock muse -- may be as a fierce advocate of the reality check.
L.A. WEEKLY: We're eager to have your side in the making of ivans xtc. The way Bernard and Danny tell it, you were the one who lit a fire under them.
LISA ENOS: I don't know that I did that so literally. They both looked at me one time and asked, "How is it possible you can go around making movies so cheaply while we're stuck here in development hell?" They were inspired by my whole just do it attitude. I was this young whippersnapper who had just come to town, and had my own production company. I was making documentaries independently that I'd been selling to A&E, on television.
I showed one to Bernard -- The Angel of Bergen-Belsen, about a woman who saved 54 children during the Holocaust by hiding them in her concentration-camp barracks. He said, "I thought you told me this was low-budget, like $200,000." I said, "It was." He couldn't believe it: "This looks great! How is it possible you made this for $200,000, when at Universal they're telling me my next picture can't be made for less than 90 million!" I said, "I don't know. Could it be because they're renting sound stages to themselves at $4,000 a day?"
What was the exact technology used on ivans xtc.?
The HD cam. It's the same camera as Lucas used to shoot the latest Star Wars. That is, the same technology but a different frame rate. [Laughs.] If you're not a computer or camera geek, you probably don't know what that means -- but it was HD cam 700A. So cutting-edge that when we got it, in early '99, the manual was in Japanese.
You took part in the writing of the screenplay. Was this the first time you'd ever worked in fiction?
Apart from some things for kids, no, I'd never worked in dramatic fiction before. Bernard, on the other hand, is a screenwriter. I just helped give the script some reality. Cancer, hospitals -- I'd just been through all that with my mother, who'd recently died of cancer. I'd also lost my father to a heart attack. So I had a lot of experience dealing with death. All that happy good stuff.
Since I witnessed my own mother's death by cancer about 20 years ago, the reality you three created was instantly recognizable right down the line.
Thank you. There are things you wouldn't know if you hadn't been through it. Bernard originally had all this sort of suspenseful stuff in the script about many different visits to the doctor and so on, but I said, "No no no. If you want me onboard, I am not going to make a bullshit movie about somebody who has cancer. This is what happens: You get the call. A call that says, 'Bring somebody with you.' And you know right then that the news is not good. After that, it's just a series of boring doctor visits that we don't have to go into."
Your scenes with Danny are so natural. You'd never mistake the film for a documentary, but there's a hand-held immediacy.
That's what I was interested in. To make a film that gave the feeling of being a fly on the wall. As soon as I realized that Bernard and even Danny weren't afraid of that, that they were eager to go out and make a film with their bare hands, I was really excited. In conventional moviemaking, by the time all the pink ribbons are in place and all the T's are crossed, everybody's lost their energy for the story. Whereas Bernard produced a draft May 17, 1999, and we started shooting just a couple of weeks later, in June. I just called up a few people who I knew would come up with the money. It was a really, really strong script. A lot of times now when we appear on panels, we'll hear people say, "Wow, it seemed really improvised!" Believe me, you can't improvise that kind of dramatic structure.
Ivan Beckman is such a believable character. Authentically an agent, but universal too. It's a nice irony that in Tolstoy's novel, Ivan Ilyich is a civil judge in czarist Russia -- and that in the film he's a top Hollywood agent. It makes you see the film industry as a nightmare twin of life under the czar, a world of self-immolating intriguers all dying behind their pasted-on smiles.
It really is a universal movie. Anybody who has to wear a suit and force a big smile is going to relate. We would often get asked, "Won't people be confused by all the Hollywood stuff? Will they know what 'coverage' is?" The old will-it-play-in-Peoria line. And I'm like, "Come on -- I'm from the Midwest. What do you think people do out there? They read, they think, they pay attention."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Los Angeles, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.