From Shitter to Auteur An Interview with Keith Gordon By Mike White.
It was early summer, 1991. A couple of my theater co-workers were sitting around, bored, one Sunday night with movie passes burning a hole in our pocket...
It was early summer, 1991. A couple of my theater co-workers were sitting around, bored, one Sunday night with movie passes burning a hole in our pocket. We were allotted two free shows a week; the passes stapled to our paycheck. It wasn’t often that we actually found the time to use them, however. On this night, however, we had the time but we just didn’t know what to see.
Looking through the newspaper we narrowed down our choices to three films: Stephen King's Sleepwalkers, Wild Orchid 2: Two Shades of Blue or something called A Midnight Clear. I was only familiar with A Midnight Clear from seeing some oblique trailer for it on the big TV screens in the back of the lobby of the Star Theater (see CdC #6). A trailer so vague and ad campaign so myopic are usually signs to steer clear of a film so we ended up seeing Stephen King's Sleepwalkers instead. Yuck!
Like watching a car crash, from that day on I was always a little intrigued about this Midnight Clear movie. It seemed to have an amazing cast starring some of the brightest up-and-coming talents in Hollywood, so why was it just dumped into theaters with little to no support?
It would take years for me to take the plunge and rent A Midnight Clear—having it in my hands several times at my local video store but putting it back in favor of "safer" fare. When I finally saw A Midnight Clear, I was completely blown away.
The film is wonderfully adapted from the novel of the same name by William Wharton (Birdy) and stars a host of fine young actors (this is one of Gary Sinise’s earliest film roles). A Midnight Clear is the story of a group of soldiers in World War II who are more concerned about making it home alive than scoring medals and glory. Stunning visuals combined with great performances and strong story make A Midnight Clear an incredible film.
After finally chancing a rental, I was then dismayed at the small amount publicity went into promoting that film. It was only a nagging feeling, or moreover, bad taste left in my mouth from Sleepwalkers that prompted me to see A Midnight Clear and it was only blind luck that I happened to catch Mother Night, the next film by A Midnight Clear’s writer/director, Keith Gordon.
I was in New York City the week that Mother Night played and I felt compelled to see it. Again, Gordon was employing a tremendous cast; Nick Nolte, Alan Arkin, Sheryl Lee, et cetera. And, again, he was directing a movie based on a great book. Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s Mother Night is the story of Howard W. Campbell Jr., a Nazi propagandist who is actually working for the U.S. government; passing information to agents via his venomous radio broadcasts.
After watching Mother Night, I explored Keith Gordon’s earlier efforts behind the camera: he helped write and produce Static, a wonderfully quirky film in which he starred as Ernie Blick, a genius inventor. Gordon also adapted and directed Robert Cormier’s perennial favorite, The Chocolate War. Next up from Gordon is an adaptation of Scott Spencer’s Waking the Dead. Though it’s been completed since mid-’99, complicated Hollywood production company mergers will keep it from being released until early 2000.
It was a real joy talking to Keith. He was incredibly personable and nice. I was comfortable enough talking to him that I almost asked him to call me a "Shitter"; the wonderful derogatory term he used so joyously in John Carpenter's Christine. I didn’t.
Cashiers du Cinemart: Okay, we’re rolling.
Keith Gordon: Let me just start by saying that I don’t to discuss any of my legal problems in great detail but as far as I knew she was eighteen. Or at least sixteen. Or, certainly in anybody’s mind at least fourteen. I also want to say that I did not know that those components could be used to make a bomb. And, one has to keep in mind that that there’s a great difference between third and first degree murder. I just wanted to say those things to get them out of the way.
CdC: When I’ve told people that I’ve been preparing for an interview with you, I get some blank stares until I associate your name with two roles. Care to take a stab in the dark as to what those might be?
KG: Christine and Back to School, I'd guess.
KG: Well, that makes sense. Those two have been hugely successful on cable and video. I find it myself that whenever anyone says, "Oh you look familiar to me, weren’t you in that movie?" it was always one of those two because they’ve both had a life that’s continued up until present day. Some of the other things I’ve done as an actor have just sort of disappeared more over the years.
CdC: Yeah, it was a coincidence; the other day I ordered Home Movies and didn’t realize you were in it until I saw it listed on your filmography.
KG: Most people don’t even know that that movie exists, much less know that I was in it. That was the first film I did with Brian [DePalma]. It was a very important film for me because not only was it the first film that I had a leading role in but it was also where I really started to learn about filmmaking in a very concentrated way.
I don’t know if you know the story of that movie but it was made primarily by Brian’s filmmaking class at Sarah Lawrence college. The actors were all pro’s, including Kirk Douglas and Nancy Allen and DePalma did direct but almost the entire crew of that film were non-pro’s. They were all film students. He basically made the film as a lesson on how to make an independent film. Even though I wasn’t a student, I desperately wanted to get into filmmaking and directing and Brian was nice enough that he treated me kind of like I was one of the students. It was a tremendous education in making a film on a budget.
CdC: Now that Waking the Dead is, for all intents and purposes, finished, what are you working on?
KG: Right now I’m working on putting together financing for new things that I want to do which is really the hardest and longest part of my work. Unless you want to make obvious, easy, Hollywood-type movies, the hard part is getting the money together. Basically, I’ve come to realize that I’m a professional fund-raiser and direct as a hobby.
I’ve got four or five projects that I'd love to see happen but I’m in that limbo of being just one actor away, or one piece of financing away. That can still take years to happen or it could be a phone call tomorrow and suddenly something’s going.
The projects range from a character comedy about this guy and his grandmother that got sent to me because I was mentoring some writers for the Independent Feature Project to a film noir piece that I wrote back a few years ago off of a Jim Thompson novel. They’re all in the situation of "being very close" in Hollywood parlance—we just need one "big actor" to say they want to do it, but of course that’s the hardest thing to get.
One of the things you have to learn by going through it a few times is getting from nowhere to "oh they really like it and they'll make it if I just get Johnny Depp" isn’t the hard part. The hard part is in getting Johnny Depp.
That’s why I try to keep a few things in the air because it’s so hard to get one project going that if you have three, four, five going that the odds are much better. It’s a strange, nebulous life because you just never know...
CdC: Which Jim Thompson novel did you adapt?
KG: Savage Night, which was given to me by some producers who had it and I fell in love with it. I did an adaptation of it for free because I wanted to maintain control. So, rather than being paid and have them own the script, I wanted to own it.
That one’s been very tough because, if you know that book, it gets more and more subjective and surreal as it goes along. It starts sort of like normal film noir and by the end it’s way into Polanski Repulsion sort of territory.
That script is the one where I get phone calls from people saying, "I love the script but we could never make it." I understand why. The concern is that in the end this could just be a good "film festival movie." This is a movie that might never cross over to a mainstream audience, and I think that would be a risk. It is a difficult piece of material.
My counter is that it could always be done inexpensively but in the current marketplace, because of how expensive marketing a finished film is, even a couple of million dollars is a big risk to take.
CdC: To be honest, I’m not that familiar with Thompson’s work. I’ve picked up a couple of his books at used book stores but they’re in my ever-increasing "to read" pile.
KG: This is actually one of the more obscure ones. People I know who know his work don’t know this book, which is one of the reasons why I think that the rights have been floating around. Things like Killer Inside Me, everyone wants to make that book, but this is one that I don’t think ever sold really well. It’s an interesting book and, as is my want, I stayed very close to it in adapting it. I felt it was very cinematic on the page.
CdC: One of the things that I admired with A Midnight Clear was your adaptation. It stayed very faithful to the written word.
KG: I’m a great believer that if you’re going to adapt a book it’s because you love it. So why would you end up throwing out what was great about the book? I don’t have any big ego about myself as a writer—I don’t think of myself primarily as a writer—so I don’t feel like I have to prove anything. I’m not going to try to out-write Scott Spencer or William Wharton. These guys are great novelists. I guess what I try to do is edit —try to figure out what works cinematically and what doesn’t. If something’s too wordy: how do I condense it to its essence, or how do I find an image that’s the equivalent. I’m not somebody who goes in with the idea of taking the novel’s premise and throwing the rest out. If their dialogue’s good or if their imagery is good then I’m going to use as much of it as I can!
CdC: If you don’t think of yourself as a writer, how do you primarily see yourself; as a director?
KG: Well, as a filmmaker. To me that encompasses writing as a discipline and not as a focus or end in itself. The difference is that people who think of themselves as writers tend to have big egos about what they write. I’m happy to say that William Wharton really wrote A Midnight Clear, I adapted it for the screen. Scott Spencer wrote Waking the Dead, Robert Cromier wrote The Chocolate War and I think it’s a little presumptuous of me to say, "Oh yeah, I wrote those." I wrote the screenplays but that’s very different from someone who sits down and writes an original script from scratch and creates that world. I took worlds that these guys had written and adapted them for another forum.
I feel that I have writing skills and I’m proud of those skills but, to me, they fall as part of being a filmmaker just like knowing something about photographic lenses. It’s just part of being what a good filmmaker knows about.
CdC: The only thing from the book of A Midnight Clear that I remember you changing, other than the elimination of Wont’s (the main character) gastrointestinal problems, was your moving of the section regarding Mother sending Wont a check for all those years to the end of the film where it worked very well, if not better, as a final word about Mother.
KG: There’s lot of little changes like changing Major Love’s name to Major Griffin because I felt that "Major Love" was just too close to Catch-22 style wordplay. I didn’t mind the wordplay with our main characters’ names, calling themselves "Mother" and "Father", because the characters are supposed to have made up those names. But the idea of having somebody’s real name being that heavily ironic was a little too much.
It was just a lot of editing down and simplifying, but, you know, Wharton’s a great writer. And that, according to him, was actually a true story. It was something that actually happened to him. He wrote it in a novelistic form but he swears that there was such an incident that he was part of and that his squad really did have a "Mother" and a "Father." He was really writing it out of his own memory and who was I to try to improve on that?
CdC: How does it compare directing something that you’ve adapted yourself to Mother Night, which had been adapted by Robert Weide?
KG: It was a little bit different. I felt a little more distant from the material but in the case of Mother Night the screenwriter has been my best friend for fifteen years. We developed the project together for a long time, so it was something that I was very intimate with. We came up with the idea of doing the book together. So while the script is one hundred percent Bob’s—I was certainly involved through the whole process. It wasn’t like somebody handed me a script and said, "Okay now make this."
If I had adapted it, there are some things I might have probably done differently—I don’t know what. But I just really loved his script and thought it worked as an organic whole. I did very little to that script other than some editing and tightening. My biggest contribution was saying, "Yeah, this is a wonderful scene and we don’t have time to shoot it."
When I’ve done TV I’m directing something that I haven’t been involved with developing at all. That’s very weird because you’re trying to find where to cleave on to it and where to make it your own. Not an uninteresting thing to do nor is it unpleasant. It’s just different than living with something. By the time we got the money to shoot Mother Night it was as if I had written it because I had internalized it. But, certainly, when I’ve done TV work, there’s a constant feeling of, "Am I missing the point here? Am I not saying what this is about?" You have to have the dialogue constantly with yourself when it’s not your own material.
I just had a psychotic experience recently with Waking the Dead where the Writer’s Guild, in their infinite wisdom, decided to give writing credit to a guy who had written a script I had never seen seven years before mine for a different company. Apparently, I’ve learned since, that’s actually common on adaptations and I’ve just been very lucky. On A Midnight Clear, for example, there were two versions that were written years before mine but those writers said, "Listen, we weren’t involved with it, we don’t want any credit." But this guy did, even though our drafts are completely different approaches to the same story. Under Writer’s Guild rules all he had to do was show that he wrote one-third of the "elements" (a very loosely defined term which even includes story points), which of course he did because it comes from the same book! He actually got credit for a movie when none of us involved had ever seen his script. It was the most Kafkaesque thing I’ve every been through in my life.
CdC: What was your relationship with Vonnegut?
KG: Really, the relationship was Bob’s. He’s a documentary filmmaker and he had gotten to know Vonnegut because Vonnegut had liked some of his early work and had gotten in touch with him. They stayed in contact and Bob decided that he wanted to make a documentary about Kurt and started filming him over the years. Eventually they developed almost a father-son relationship.
When Bob decided that he wanted to get into features and he and I had been talking about doing something for a long time, he brought me the idea of doing something of Vonnegut’s. We discussed which books of Kurt’s could be made into good films and which books could be made well as films for a reasonable sum of money. So, as much as we loved Cat’s Cradle—first of all the rights were tied up—but also you’ve got to portray the end of the world and that'd be hard to do on a limited budget. With Breakfast of Champions (I haven’t seen the film version yet) but we thought, "Oh god, that book is so much about being a book. To me, Kurt’s drawings were Breakfast of Champions. So, how do you translate that and not lose what’s special about it?"
We felt that Mother Night, being one of Kurt’s earlier books where his style was less extreme, was more amenable. It had a beginning, a middle, and an end. It wasn’t so much about literary style. And, with the nature of Howard Campbell’s story we could make it for a price.
I was lucky enough to get to know Kurt somewhat through the process and he’s been wonderful to me; very kind and supportive. But, Bob was the one who got us the rights for free for the years we were trying to get it made and he got Kurt to be in the film.
CdC: When I first saw Mother Night and put your name and Vonnegut’s together I had visions of you two meeting on the set of Back to School.
KG: We did but the reality is that I’m really very shy around people that I admire a great deal. So, on Back to School I probably said ten words to the guy. You know, "You’ve always been one of my heroes." And he mumbled something like, "Oh, thank you." That’s probably as much as we talked. It wasn’t until I had dinner with Kurt with Bob that I was able to talk to him on sort of a human- to-human basis, and by that point we were already starting to try to put the project together.
CdC: I’ve heard tales of Nick Nolte being a dogged researcher. What did he do to prepare for the role of Howard W. Campbell Jr. in Mother Night?
KG: Oh, man, what didn’t he do? From the first rehearsal, Bob Weide and I came in and Nick had prepared folders of things that he had already put together; a timeline of the novel, the script broken down in chronological order (as opposed to script order), photographs of real German playwrights from the era and biographies about them, photographs and bios of people who would have been involved in the German Arts Ministry, his own biography of Howard Campbell that went beyond what was in the novel, information about spies and propaganda, oh, just all kinds of stuff. Amazing stuff.
Things came out of that research, like when we started rehearsal I was pushing Nick more towards being very dogmatic when he was doing the radio broadcasts. And Nick said, "I want to play you something." He played me old recordings of Arthur Godfrey; the American, avuncular, nice guy. Nick said, "I want to be the guy who seduces instead of the guys that scream. Let me save the screaming for the one at the end." He was absolutely right: that all came out of him sitting down and listening to the real propagandists who generally were either yelling into the radio or were very monotone. Sometimes research allows you to break with reality for something better, but you’re doing it in an intentional, informed way.
Beyond clothes and hairstyles, though, Nick brought a more poetic vision, literally and figuratively, into the rehearsal process. I remember there was one rehearsal where all we did was listen to Nick read some of Anne Sexton’s poetry because somehow her work really spoke to him about the character and the story. It was just breathtaking. The fact that he’s not done books on tape is really sad. He has an incredible voice.
He has a very childlike mind and I mean that in the best sense in that he’s very open to things. He doesn’t lock himself in to seeing the world one way. New things will hit him all the time.
Then add to that he knows film inside and out, but doesn’t let that make him stiff. He’s a brilliant technician. We’d be doing a scene and he’d say, "You know, I’m casting a shadow on Sheryl [Lee]’s face here. If I move a bit, she'll cast a shadow on my face which says much more about what’s going on in this scene." And none of us, even the D.P., would even see it. He managed to do that but also be free and improvisational at the same time.
I think a lot of actors treat the medium as their enemy. They resent the camera; they resent the lighting; they just want to play the scene. Having been an actor, I can understand that. The artificiality of it can be very frustrating. Nick would almost never get frustrated. He’d be the one saying, "Listen, if the camera’s there, what if I sit this way and kind of turn my back and you’re really just seeing the back of my head. Then on this thing I can turn back into the light." And I just sit there thinking, "Shit, he’s smart! This man should be directing!" I’m sort of surprised he hasn’t but it’s just not something that interests him on a personal level. He’s that sort of actor where he really understands what the shot is doing, what the scene is doing, not just what his part is doing. For a director, that’s a blessing. But it’s only a blessing as long as the person’s as smart and as open-minded as Nick. I’m sure there are other actors out there who think they’re that smart and who use that to drive everyone crazy.
The other thing that was amazing with him (and a big lesson for me) was the subtlety he’d do things with. There were times—some of the best things he does in the film—where I wasn’t sure we were getting it. I couldn’t see it with my naked eye, but the camera would and that’s how much he knew what cameras could do. My favorite moment of him in Mother Night is when he’s frozen on the street. Watching it from standing right next to the camera I was thinking, "I don’t think he’s doing enough. I don’t know if we’re going to have a scene." When I saw it in dailies I thought it was just amazing. He knew what having his face filling the whole screen and what the little stuff behind his eyes was going to do. Luckily, we shot that late enough in the process that I trusted him.
CdC: So, working with Rodney Dangerfield was probably an identical experience, right?
KG: Oh yeah! (laughs) Rodney and Nick! What can I say? Two of a kind! Rodney’s probably the other end of the scale. The only thing I was frustrated about with Rodney (that I also found touching and sad) was that he seemed to be kind of an angry guy. We think of him as such a funny man but he’s had a very rough life. I think he really does feels that he doesn’t get any respect. I got along with the guy but he just wasn’t the guy I grew up with watching on Johnny Carson. Nick he wasn’t.
I think a lot of credit for Back to School has to go to Harold Ramis who came in and did a great rewrite on it. He took the comedy up a whole other level. And I think Alan Metter [the director] did a great job. Alan’s sort of disappeared; I don’t know what he’s doing. But not only was he dealing with Rodney, who was a handful, but Robert Downey Jr., who was a handful...
CdC: How was Downey on the set?
KG: He was great! Funny, inventive, but he was also completely burned out. He was shooting Saturday Night Live at the same time; flying back and forth across the country six times a week. So, if he wasn’t doing drugs, I don’t know how he survived. Robert is very manic and I really like him. I got along with him great. But Robert really was like his character. The thing that Alan had to do was direct that energy. Robert could be brilliantly funny but if he got off on a tangent he could be not funny at all. Alan had to be very careful not to clamp down Robert’s completely improvisational madness because it was brilliant sometimes. Between that and Rodney, who never liked to do more than one take and was really cranky, Alan had a lot on his plate. I thought he did a great job of balancing all those things and keeping the movie both human and funny. That’s something I don’t think Rodney’s had so much in other things he’s done.
CdC: Out of your body of work, in both acting and filmmaking, what are you the most proud of?
KG: I guess I'd have to say the film I just finished, Waking the Dead, but that’s without the virtue of time. It was certainly the most complete experience—a very emotional experience. I really loved the people I worked with; my cast, my crew. When I look at the film I see a step forward in maturity. But. I might not have the same answer in five years from now. My tendency is always to be proud of what I’m doing now because I see the steps from the things before. In time, I’m sure the flaws will also become clear too.
As an actor, it’s much easier to be objective because none of them are "my" films. Probably the best thing I did as an actor was a play that I did in New York that not many people saw (a few thousand at most), done at the Brooklyn Academy of Music called "Gimme Shelter". It’s an English play that Des McEnuff (who’s now moved into feature films) directed and it was written by Barry Keeffe who wrote The Long Good Friday which I love. I thought it was an amazing piece of writing.
In film acting, I think the thing that I’m most proud of is Christine. It was a fun mix of everything. It was Jekyll and Hyde and it was over-the-top in that sort of odd Kubrickian way. Not that it was a very deep piece but, then again, most of what I did in film wasn’t very deep. I mean, I was proud to be in All That Jazz, I think it’s a great film but I didn’t have that much to do. Likewise, I was proud to be in Dressed to Kill but it wasn’t like I was carrying the movie or anything like that. It really all depends on what lens you look at it through.
How’s that for a really long-winded answer to a really simple question? I hope you have a lot tape. I guess I sit here too quiet all day!
CdC: Conversely, what’s the thing that you’re least proud of?
KG: I would say, without any hesitation, a little comedy TV movie called Combat High. It was just really not funny! And, there’s really nothing worse than being not funny in a comedy. I didn’t have a bad time doing it but it was really in the category of "I Needed A Job." Like I said, I enjoyed myself and the good news out of it is that’s where I met Wally Ward who’s now Wally Langham who ended up as one of the leads in The Chocolate War.
I'd probably follow that with The Legend of Billie Jean, which is not as actively embarrassing. It’s too bad because it was actually a very good script that went through a Hollywoodization process which turned it from a funky almost social satire into a way too self-serious (and consequentially kind of laughable) portrait of a rebel movie.
Again, it wasn’t miserable to do and I don’t think that I’m bad in the movie. I just think it’s a movie utterly lacking a theme or coherent vision. It had one but just before shooting started the studio decided that it didn’t like what the movie was saying. Even the title; when I read the script originally it seemed like a joke. Like it was playing off the pomposity of those kind of teen rebel movies because Billie Jean was kind of this dimwitted, weird girl who becomes a hero because of the way the media portrays her.
But those aren’t my movies, so I don’t have to care in the same deep way. That’s the benefit of being an actor. You want to do good work and you want to be in good things but on a certain level it’s not your responsibility. You try to do your job the best you can and if the movie doesn’t come out great, it’s not your shame. And, conversely, if the movie is great, you can’t really give yourself the credit either. On a career level, of course, you want every movie to be great and to make five hundred million dollars so you can get the next job.
CdC: Did you always want to be an actor or was filmmaking your ultimate goal?
KG: I think the first passion was about filmmaking. That started for me when I was very young. I think my life started to turn when I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey on opening day in New York. I was this seven year old and I didn’t know what the movie was about but the fact that I saw something so intense and couldn’t figure it out drove me crazy (in a good way). And that became a real defining moment in my life. I started watching a lot of movies and reading a lot of books that asked questions that addressed complicated scenes. I found myself drawn to filmmakers like Scorcese, Coppola and Nick Roeg.
I didn’t know how I'd ever get to be a director. Since my father is an actor, I could understand how people did that. But I got really lucky. I was in a school play and somebody who was casting a professional play saw me and they had me read and gave me the job. Off of that I got an audition for Jaws 2 and got that job. Suddenly I started working as an actor and it was great but there was part of me that always tried to think of it as a way to get back to filmmaking.
CdC: How did you finally "make the jump"?
KG: It was a couple step process. I was always writing scripts and making awful Super-8 films and videos when I as a teenager and as a young actor. Then I met a young guy named Mark Romanek who’s become a huge video and commercial director. He worked as the second assistant director on Home Movies and we struck up a friendship. He showed me his student films and I loved them. He was trying to put together a first feature and he came from a family where there was enough connections to money to start to piece together some financing. He came to me with an idea that he had and a character for me to play and we wrote this script together. It took about a year to write and another year to put all the casting and financing together. The result was this weird little movie called Static.
CdC: ...which is terrific!
KG: Oh, well, thanks! You’re one of eleven Americans to ever see that movie. Twelve now that you’ve seen it. It never really got released in the States. I mean, it played Film Forum in New York and one week in one theater in L.A., but it never got a true release. It did really well in Europe, though. It played forever in London and got terrific reviews there. In the States the reviews were more mixed. It predated the time of people making lots of those kind of oddball independent movies. I can see both sides with that movie. I see the parts that I’m really proud of and the parts that are pretentious. Depending on what someone wants to pick up on, it can go either way.
CdC: Not getting a proper release for your films seems to be quite a trend for you!
KG: That seems to be my fate in life. But I wouldn’t trade my luck. I’ve gotten to direct four movies and produce one, all of which have been the films I’ve wanted them to be. So, I wouldn’t trade that for bigger releases. But, would I like to have it all? Sure. If something had to suck in the process, I guess I'd pick that. Because, ultimately whatever the film grosses, it doesn’t change the experience of making it and of the film being true to my vision. It’s sort of commercial importance and changes how easy it is to get the next one made but I'd rather have fewer people see something and really get into it than put something bland out there that a lot of people see.
CdC: Being a stuck-up film critic, I was looking at your oeuvre and trying to find some motifs and themes that run throughout. Looking at Mother Night I saw the use of Bing Crosby’s "White Christmas" and the setting of A Midnight Clear at Christmas time and even the spot in Waking the Dead that I’m at now is going on at Christmas. So, what’s the deal?
KG: Well, I’m a big Stanley Kubrick fan and I knew one day he was going to have a lot of Christmas stuff in Eyes Wide Shut so that’s just an homage to him. (laughs)
With a lot of those thematic kind of things, my experience is that you’re always consciously aware of it. I grew up in an Atheist/Jewish family in New York so it’s not like Christmas is a big meaningful thing in my life. A lot of the Christmas themes just come from the stories that I’ve happened to become involved with.
If I was writing completely original screenplays then I would say, "Yeah, that is weird." But, it so happens that these three books that I fell in love with all have Christmas subthemes. Only in A Midnight Clear is it overtly thematic and even then it’s not like I looked at it as a story of Christmas but more as a story about the insanity of war; my chance to do sort of my version of Paths of Glory. With Mother Night, Christmas is only a minor ironic subtheme. "White Christmas" wasn’t originally going to be over the opening titles. It was only when we were looking for a way to make that opening scene where Nick Nolte’s walking through that prison and have that Vonnegut twist. We tried "White Christmas" in the opening. When we saw the Israeli flag with Bing Crosby crooning over it and these depressing shots of an abandoned prison it set up a weird schism so now we had a prison movie about irony.
In Waking the Dead, again, Christmas is a tiny subtheme. There’s a Christmas tree shown once or twice because it does take place in the winter but, for me, if I was going to talk about a seasonable theme in my work, I'd say it’s winter.
It’s not that I’ve chosen to make films about winter, though I do think there is something magical about it. It’s a time with snow falling, where it’s very hard to see everything. The world is turning cold and blue, people hide inside and hibernate. The themes I’m interested in which are often about loneliness are things that show up in stories and things that attract me—those aren’t warm, summery themes. The fact that you have Christmas smack dab in the middle of winter just helps the chances that it’s going to show up.
CdC: Oh, those film theorists. We’re always just reaching for stuff.
KG: Don’t get me wrong, I actually think that those theories have a lot of validity. I just think very few filmmakers or artists of any kind are consciously aware of those themes. I don’t think very many people set out to make a film on that level but your subconscious is certainly drawn to things over and over again. I’ve read some really interesting stuff about people’s movies and themes that run through them but even with someone like Kubrick—I don’t know how much he sat around going, "Okay, I’m going to do a lot of symmetrical shots to display my dismay over the attempt to create an ordered approach to the universe that human beings keep making." He probably thought symmetrical shots were cool; he know instinctively that they were right at the moment. There’s no question that they have a meaning when you watch his movies but I think most artists work from a more visceral place. At least my experience is that my gut will tell me where to put a camera.
When you’ve got a crew of seventy or eighty people with art directors and gaffers and all sorts of people who are having subtle influences, things may be happy accidents. I’m a great believer in the general theory of auteur filmmaking in that there is one vision behind it all, but on the specifics I just know from being on movie sets (certainly DePalma is a very specific filmmaker) that you have a bunch of people around you that are bringing their talents and vision to the film. A lot of the details that people would just ascribe to the filmmaker may not have been the filmmaker’s idea at all.
CdC: So what can we expect next?
KG: I just got a release date from USA [Pictures, formerly Gramercy] for Waking the Dead. It’s due (at the moment) to come out on March 3rd, 2000. Also coming out around the same time should be the Mother Night special edition DVD with deleted scenes and audio commentary but myself, Bob Weide, Vonnegut, and (with a little luck) Nick Nolte and Alan Arkin, too.
Article revised and available in the Impossibly Funky Collection
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