Keith Gordon Interview

Director Keith Gordon is a passionate movie buff who shuns the limelight to work on projects that enthrall him

Director Keith Gordon is a passionate movie buff who shuns the limelight to work on projects that enthrall him

Casual and comfortable with himself as a working-for-a-living director, Keith Gordon is not Hollywood and he knows it. He's not anti-Hollywood either. But he recognizes that big-budget blockbusters aren't his cup of tea.

Even if he had a hit movie, the 42-year-old says, it wouldn't help him that much in Hollywood because while a hit might help him get a studio deal to make mass-market movies (think Christopher Nolan, who has gone from "Memento" to "Batman 5"), it wouldn't help him get made the unusual and thought-provoking movies he likes.

One of my all-time favorite interviews was with Gordon in March 2000. An excitable fast-talking, supremely out-going, completely normal guy with an absolute passion for movies and without an iota of show business pretense, when I met him, I was the last journalist he had to talk to on the last day of his publicity tour to promote his overlooked, emotionally charged psychological drama "Waking the Dead." But despite being pooped and happy to head back to his home in a quiet corner of Los Angeles, he hardly seemed as if he was winding down.

Our 30-minute interview turned into an hour and a half marathon of two obsessed film geeks comparing notes on everything from Hitchcock's "To Catch a Thief" to the potential of "American Beauty" to revitalize the brainy blockbuster (which didn't work out as well as we'd hoped), and singing the praises of our favorite under-appreciated actresses, which at the time included his "Dead" star Jennifer Connelly -- now a high-profile Oscar winner. (He'd also cast a 12-year-old Kirsten Dunst in a small but powerful role in 1996's "Mother Night.")

Having already been impressed by his first four films (the others being "The Chocolate War" and "A Midnight Clear"), my interest was considerably piqued when I read that Gordon was working on an ambitious, small-budget adaptation of Dennis Potter's "The Singing Detective" -- the novel and acclaimed 1986 BBC miniseries about a embittered pulp novelist hospitalized with severe psoriasis (a metaphor for his festering, acrimonious soul) who escapes into noir-movie fantasies and imagined musical numbers that begin to encroach on his tormented reality.

The more I read (he cast Robert Downey Jr. in the lead and landed Robin Wright Penn, Jeremy Northam, Katie Holmes, Carla Gugino and Adrien Brody for supporting roles), the more anxious I was to see the movie and talk to him again, which, after keeping in touch from time to time by email, I got to do last month at the Prescott Hotel in San Francisco.

Rob Blackwelder: Hey, how've you been?

Keith Gordon: Good! How are you? I was so happy when I saw your name on the list. I thought, that's cool -- it's an old, friendly face!

RB: How's this press tour treating you?

KG: It's been an interesting ride to go on. It's been fun getting out to show the film to people. But it's always a strange thing to make that transition, to say, "Now I'm not a filmmaker, now I'm a salesperson."

RB: Well you must be a great salesperson because you always get such amazing actors to be in your films. "Waking the Dead" -- Billy Crudup and Jennifer Connelly, granted they weren't high-profile people at the time. "Mother Night" -- Nick Nolte, Alan Arkin, Kirsten Dunst. Now Jeremy Northam, who is incredibly underrated; Adrien Brody, who won an Oscar this year; Robert Downey, Jr. -- I don't even need to say it; Robin Wright Penn; Carla Gugino. I love Carla Gugino.

KG: [Nodding slowly and emphatically] She's great. Oh, she's great.

RB: I interviewed her a couple years ago...

KG: Isn't she a sweetheart? She's just so nice.

RB: Alfre Woodard -- so under-rated.

KG: And under-used!

RB: Katie Holmes -- also under-rated. How do you get a cast like that for such a small movie?

KG: Well, every case is different. But in this case, I think it was a combination of a couple things that attracted them: First of all, Potter's writing is on such a high level, and actors are hungry for good writing. His dialogue is so meaty. It's like doing a play to do a Potter script. So I think that attracted a lot of people. They just read it and were like, "I just want to be in it. I don't care what you pay me." That was a big part of it.

I also think a lot of people love Robert Downey. They want to work with him. I think he has an empathy factor within the business, people really feel bad for the struggles he's been through, but they think he's brilliant. You always hear it from actors: He's one of the best actors of his generation. He's one of the best actors we have in America. So between Downey and the script, that was where people's excitement came from. And, you know, I think I have a reputation with actors too. The word has gotten out that my movies are fun to work on, which I think also helps because actors do like to enjoy the process, and they know that I, as a director, try to make it a positive work process...

RB: And to use your word, you pick meaty stuff, too.

KG: Yeah, or something that gives people a chance to do something different. Like Adrien (who plays a dim-bulb mafia goon), his whole thing was that the part was so goofy and funny. After "The Pianist" he's seen as Mister Serious Actor Guy, but he's also got a very wacky sense of humor, so for him playing a part that was a wildly comic part, that was really appealing. So between all that, we managed to get an amazing bunch of actors, even though nobody got paid (Hollywood rates) -- everybody got scale and were doing it because they wanted to be a part of the project.

But it was great! I looked around at the bunch of actors around me and thought, Wow! I'm happy. I'm not gonna complain.

RB: I understand you weren't all that familiar with Katie Holmes when you cast her (in a small role as a nurse who gives Downey ointment rub-downs that turn into song-filled sexual fantasies).

KG: That's true. Katie was actually Robert and Mel's suggestion. I thought she looked great, but I'd never seen "Dawson's Creek," and I'd happened to have missed her movies, so I literally didn't know who she was other than a woman I'd seen some photos of. But then I saw "Go," I saw "Wonder Boys," I saw "The Gift," and what impressed me was the range she has for such a young actress. Usually, if you're young and beautiful, you just do your thing. But she clearly wanted to play characters. She clearly wanted to be different from role to role, and that counted a lot for me.

And then the fact that Robert liked her and was comfortable working with her -- because Robert was coming off of three years of not working, you know? He was scared -- this was an impossible role, you know? What a difficult role to take on. So if he knew someone and liked them, that counted for a lot. Then I met Katie, and she was so smart and so nice, and she got all the ideas. She got the themes to the piece, which a lot of young actresses didn't. A lot of young actresses came in to read and you could tell they didn't get it. They didn't get what it was about, and she did. She was very easy to work with too. "Pieces of April," she's so different in that too. She's really interesting. Each thing she does, she challenges herself and I hope she keeps doing that.

RB: So I have to ask the Robert Downey, Jr. insurance question. He hasn't gotten some parts lately because the studios can't get insurance on him after his drug problems. Was that an issue?

KG: Well, it wasn't an issue on this movie because Mel was basically paying for the movie. Mel was the insurance. He said in an interview somewhere that "the insurance was that I showed Robert a picture of my penis on a chopping block, and said 'This is what happens to me if you don't stay good.'"

RB: [Laughs.]

KG: That really was the case. At that point Downey was literally uninsurable -- he hadn't done a film in three years and was coming out of prison. Now that he did our film and he was fine, and he's done "Gothika" and he was fine, I think it will get progressively easier for him. But it's an issue that will only go away with time. If he stays good, by three years from now, the issue will go away. If he doesn't, it will keep haunting him. But he's gotta stay good for bigger reasons than that. I mean, he's gonna kill himself if he doesn't, so I hope to God he does. It's such a hard thing though, when you've been a drug addict for 20, 25 years. He's gotten himself clean, but that doesn't mean now it's easy. It's going to be something he's going to have to keep working with the rest of his life.

RB: You have to wake up every morning and recommit.

KG: Yeah. And he wants to live. He loves his kid, you know? He wants to be alive. So I'm really keeping everything crossed for the guy because it is hard, and in Hollywood, everything's right there. It's not like he ain't gonna be offered drugs -- a lot. So it's gonna take a lot of will power, and he's just going to have to really stick with it. But he's a really, really good human being. Part of the reason people want him to succeed and give him so many chances is because he's a good guy and a great talent. There are a lot of people out there pulling for him. I think for him, if he keeps working, he'll be OK. For him, work is very important. I think it's when he sits around that he gets himself in trouble. He's got so much stuff in him, if he doesn't have an outlet for it, it's dangerous. But he's also been doing music now, he's got a new girlfriend he's really crazy about -- he's being smart and finding other outlets.

RB: As an actor, he is somebody who doesn't just read something off the page -- he's creating as he goes. So what did he bring to the role that wasn't on the page?

KG: Well, it's funny. One of the things that was a struggle for him was that I really made him work through the text, which he isn't used to. He's used to really completely improvising. But I had to say to him, "Look, this is very specific writing. This is one of the best writers of the last 50 years. Think of it like doing Shakespeare." I had to really seduce him with that a little. I remember writing him a note before we started rehearsal saying, "Trust the text, Luke." But once he committed to the words, and fell in love with the words, and used the words, then he did start to be able to improvise -- but he's got such a great ear that he got Potter's idiom. So now in the film when he throws a line in, you don't know. I think in the end he was happy with me, but for a while there he was gritting his teeth. But I also made him a deal. I said, "Listen, you give me a couple good takes the way it's written, and I'll give you one where you can say anything you want." But what was interesting was how often we'd do that and he'd go, "You know what? I like the way it's written."

But what Robert really added was all the non-improvising stuff. It was the acting. First, he brought an empathy to the role that was crucial. This is a very angry guy, (and) if you didn't get pulled in by this man's humanity in spite of his anger and bitterness and sarcasm, we'd be in trouble. But Robert is a good enough actor that he can do both -- he can give you all the darkness of this man, but he's so lovable on some level that no matter how much you want to turn off to him, you can't. You keep wanting him to be OK and get through this -- and that was a great thing to bring to it.

RB: I'll tell you, one thing that went through my head when I was watching him in the noir scenes was that the guy has such a Mickey Spillane kind of face, I would love to see him do a noir detective movie.

KG: Yes!

RB: If they were ever going to remake, say, "The Big Sleep," he could so do that.

KG: Yes. He's got a period thing about him. There's a chiseled-ness to him.... But you know what's funny? You could say that about Robert in a lot of different roles, and that's part of what's amazing about him. He's a real chameleon. Each time you see him in something, you think, he's perfect for this! And yet, you think of the range of roles -- he was playing a gay editor in "Wonder Boys" and you think, yeah, that's what he looks like.

RB: You can even think he looks like Charles Chaplin in "Chaplin"...

KG: Which he really doesn't at all! At all! But you look at him in that role, and he does! I think that's part of what's remarkable about him. I think he has an acting elasticity -- even to his face -- that's kind of incredible, that molds to what he's doing. I would give him tapes of, like, Sterling Hayden (Brig. Gen. Jack D. Ripper in "Dr. Strangelove") to go look at, and he'd come back the next day for rehearsal and he'd suddenly kind of look like him. I'd have him look at a Bogart movie, and suddenly there'd be Bogart in his face. I don't know what that is, but it's some sort of magic thing that some actors have. I think Peter Sellers has it -- certain actors can go beyond changing internally and actually externally seem to re-manifest themselves, and Robert's got that thing, whatever it is.

RB: Were there times that you wished you could talk to Potter, and say, "Hey, I'm stuck here. What do I do?"

KG: Oh, sure! God! With material this complicated, I'm sure I would have learned a lot. The lucky thing is that Potter left this huge legacy of interviews. He talked a lot to the press, so that was very helpful. There were both filmed interviews and written interviews in which he talked about his work in general, why the lip-syncing, why this, why that, about the original "Singing Detective" and even a little about the screenplay for this "Singing Detective." So I relied on that as much as I could. But yeah, it would have been great to have him around. [Pause] On the other hand, he's supposed to have been very hard to handle, so part of me was glad he wasn't on the set screaming, "Cut! What the f**k are you doing to my script?"

RB: [Laughs] Why do you think it took 10 years to get that screenplay produced?

KG: Oh, because -- well there were a number of things. But mostly because it was always owned by studios, who were always looking at it as a huge movie, and it's too weird to be a huge movie!

RB: They didn't know what to do with it.

KG: Yeah. What would happen is it would attract all this great talent, so they would announce it -- Jack Nicholson and Barry Levinson! -- you know. Then it would never happen. Then it would be, Dustin Hoffman and Paul Mazursky! And it would never happen. Everybody loved it, but in the end nobody wanted to put that kind of money up for what is essentially an experimental film.

It was Mel Gibson who realized the way to do it was to drop a zero off the budget and do it as an independent film. Then you can be brave and you don't have to worry so much. So Mel picked it up, and then he took it to Downey, and thought it would be a great first role back for Robert to show off in. And Mel got the cathartic thing of it too, that here's a story about a man being reborn, and that's what Robert needed to do. Then it was really Robert who brought me in. Robert wanted a director he was going to feel comfortable with, and they knew I loved the piece and had been chasing it around, unsuccessfully. They knew I know how to make movies cheap, and Robert liked my work.

RB: And you knew Robert before.

KG: Yeah! We'd been in (the Rodney Dangerfield comedy) "Back to School" together. We played roommates back in like 1986. We hadn't stayed buddies, but we'd stayed in touch, and there'd been a couple other projects he'd been wanting to act in and he'd called me about directing, but the projects never happened. So that was really how that happened. He just kind of kept track of me. And we had a really good, easy time together, and I think he needed that. I think he needed somebody who was gonna be able to hold his hand a little bit through this one, and he knew that's something I'd feel comfortable doing.

RB: Before we run out of time, I wanted to talk about style a little. As the film goes on, the fantasy world becomes less surreal as the story goes on, and the real world becomes more surreal as the fantasy starts leaking through. Was that in the script?

KG: No. Potter doesn't write very much about the look of the film at all. He doesn't concern himself very much with what the director's going to do with it. He just gives you the dialogue and the basic scenarios. However, (the style) was implied to me in the basic scenarios. I mean, you have here a very basic, surrealistic, absurdist, expressionist noir world, and you've got a comparative real hospital world, and these two worlds are going to crash into each other. So my job, I felt, was to design a look for each one that could have the possibility of blending into the other, so that each would start taking on elements of the other. So that was my job. I wasn't going to touch the script, but I had to find the sort of visual equivalents of the kind of playfulness Potter was doing with his words.

The way I thought of it was that the noir world was an incomplete noir world -- that Robert's character is writing these places in his head and they're not done yet. Then as he goes along, he's filling in more and more and more, so then you get things like the black-and-white rear-screen projection in one scene, you get more things that start to give it detail, but they're still surreal detail. Meanwhile the hospital is getting odder and odder. We were doing all sorts of tricky things like changing the size of his room every time you're in it, which you don't notice, but it's enough to make you feel that things aren't quite right. So each world has its own weirdness. Then the trick was dancing them into each other.---

With our time up and other journalists waiting (I didn't get the last slot of the day this time), I ask Gordon to give me an update on some of the film projects he's been working on putting together since we last spoke. Most of them are in still that almost-green-lighted Hollywood limbo, he tells me. But the guy is still a magnet for astonishing talent. Ben Kingsley is attached to one movie ("We're still trying to cast the other lead," Gordon says). Another, "a 'Twilight Zone'-ish thriller" called "The Homing," will star Ed Harris if and when it's a go. Yet another has Michael Caine, Jennifer Connelly and her new husband Paul Bettany (whom she met on "A Beautiful Mind") attached. And a fourth has other interesting stars attached, but Gordon cannot talk about it for legal reasons because he and his potential cast are taking an unusual approach to financing -- they're planning to offer an Initial Public Offering on the stock market.

"It's completely different than the Hollywood thing," he laughs. "In Hollywood hype up what you're doing. I've never been involved with Wall Street before, and the lawyers are like, 'No! You can't go out there and sell this thing until we're official!" But we're hoping to be on the NASDAQ board by the end of the month. If it works, it's going to be an amazing new way to finance movies."

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