USA, 2003. Rated R. 98 minutes.
Ed Burns, Rachel Weisz, Dustin Hoffman, Andy Garcia, Paul Giamatti, Donal
Logue, Luis Guzman, Brian Van Holt, Franky G, Morris Chestnut, Ethan Embry,
Tommy Lister, John Carroll Lynch, Louis Lombardi, Robert Forster, Leland
|Grade: B||Review and interviews by Carlo Cavagna|
'm working on a Sunday morning; I had to bend the laws of physics to get here; I haven't had enough coffee; I am being denied Dustin Hoffman. The press junket for Confidence, the new movie about con artistry from director James Foley (Glengarry Glen Ross, At Close Range), is not off to a good start.
We'll still get to talk to Foley and stars Ed Burns, Rachel Weisz, and Andy Garcia, of course, but for some undisclosed reason Hoffman is bypassing the roundtables of print and online journalists and speaking only to the radio people. Could it be that he forgot about the start of Daylight Savings and the clocks moving forward, just as I did until about forty-five minutes ago? Still groggy and unshowered, my cursing and screaming stopped only when I arrived breathless at the hotel. I don't hear any movie stars cursing and screaming in the corridor, though. More likely, the endless junket interviews finally wore on Hoffman, and he just needed to take a break. That's understandable. How many dozens of times can you answer the question, "So, how did this project come to you?" without falling asleep in the middle of your autopilot response?
Speaking of the roundtables, they're jammed with journalists. There is no space in the room to which I have been assigned, so I drift next door where there are still a couple seats available. It seems the allure of Hoffman is too much for the press to resist, even though his last great film was--what? Fifteen years ago? And that's only if you consider Rain Man to be great. Andy Garcia hasn't been doing much lately, either, not since The Godfather, Part III or maybe When a Man Loves a Woman. He was the big rising star who never quite rose, who is contenting himself now with supporting roles (Ocean's 11), though he later will disclose that he has been working for years on an impressive-sounding project about the fall of the Batista government and the rise of Castro in Cuba with a big-name cast. Production begins next winter.
Edward Burns, too, seems to be adrift. The Brothers McMullen was an impressive debut, but among the films he has directed, it's probably the best. Ash Wednesday came and went last fall without anyone noticing or caring, despite the fact that it co-starred a post-Frodo Elijah Wood. His other recent acting work has been in the service of stinkers like Life or Something Like It and Fifteen Minutes. Of the four leads, only Rachel Weisz's career is thriving. The two Mummy movies, Enemy at the Gates, and About a Boy were huge, and she's got Runaway Jury (John Cusack, Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman) and Envy (Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Christopher Walken) due out soon. Plus, she still finds time for acclaimed smaller films like Sunshine, Beautiful Creatures, and the upcoming The Shape of Things by critical darling Neil LaBute (In the Company of Men, Possession). How she finds time for it all is a mystery that her rather disjointed interview will not solve.
Dustin Hoffman messes with
Rachel Weisz's... mind in Confidence.
Perhaps Confidence will change things, at least for Burns, who has a long career ahead of him. As consummate grifter Jake Vig, this is an Edward Burns we haven't seen before--a well-dressed L.A. player with all his insecurities squirreled away. Unlike the characters Burns writes for himself, Jake knows how to get what he wants. We later learn that Confidence was originally set in New York, which would have suggested a more typical and harder-edged Burns, more apt to dress in dark leather than designer clothes. Garcia is somewhat atypical, too, as a disheveled, ill-shaven, hangdog FBI agent Gunther Butan, hangdoggedly pursuing Jake and the corrupt cops (Luis Guzman and Donal Logue) who figure into his schemes.
The film begins with Jake and his crew (including the ubiquitous Paul Giamatti) pulling off an easy con only to realize the money they've swindled belongs to a scary local crime boss known as The King (Hoffman). A corpse or two later, Jake is at The King's doorstep, offering to pay him back via another con. Along the way, Jake adds lovely pickpocket Lily (Weisz, doing an American accent) to his crew.
As with any caper movie, feints and double-crosses ensue, but the twisting plot sacrifices little comprehensibility or logic for the sake of shocks and surprises. That, in itself, is unusual in the tried-and-true confidence game genre. Original or no, Confidence delivers its engaging material with brisk pacing and breezy style, helped along by Foley's noted aptitude with actors and dialogue, so well displayed in Glengarry Glen Ross. As the actors later explain, Foley is the consummate actors' director. Each richly realized character incorporates far more detail than the genre requires.
The disappointment I feel about Hoffman's absence stems not just from wanting to meet the star of The Graduate and Midnight Cowboy. This is Hoffman's most unusual performance in many years. The King was originally written as a bulky and intimidating owner of a pool hall, but with the casting of the diminutive Hoffman, the role obviously had to be re-interpreted. As I suspected watching the film, the re-interpretation was left largely to Hoffman, who found differentways to be intimidating.
Hoffman's choices are counterintuitive and brilliant for that reason. Instead of overcompensating for his small stature with more aggression or threats, we learn that Hoffman drew inspiration for the King's appearance from his gum-chewing, spectacles-wearing, self-admittedly touchy-feely director. Altered to be a strip club owner, The King gets under Jake and Lily's skins with inappropriate familiarity colored by ambiguous sexual innuendo. He comments on their appearance, he touches them, and he gives menacing advice in a concerned tone like, "Sometimes style will get you killed." His anxiety over two strippers doing a lesbian show while billing themselves as sisters is priceless.
With these thoughts going through my head, I wait with the other journalists… and wait… and wait, well past the point when I need not have remembered about Daylight Savings kicking in. Junkets always run late. Finally Rachel Weisz walks in, and the interviews begin. Oddly, they touch on Confidence only a little. Weisz covers all her recent projects, Foley and Burns go over their entire careers, and Garcia talks a lot about sequels, including the possibility of a Godfather, Part IV.
[Note: I later learned that Hoffman's absence was indeed due to a Daylight Savings Time screw-up.]
Q: Did you always want to be a femme fatale?
Weisz: What girl didn't want to be a femme fatale? Course! Yeah! I love noir as a style. Just getting to play in that style is just fun. It's heightened fantasy world, it's not a naturalistic real world. Everyone is extra fabulous, and extra mean, and extra glamorous. It's fun. It's escapism.
Q: Do you have a favorite femme fatale?
Weisz: The person I was kind of studying for Lily--for this character--was Gloria Grahame. I thought Gloria had the right--she was bad. At a time where the other girls, like Jean Harlowe, weren't being quite so sexy, she was being really sexy and bad. I didn't think she was the greatest actress, but she just had--she was bad!
Q: You're in good company in Confidence. It's a great cast.
Weisz: Yeah. It's amazing. When I read the script, it was just James Foley and Ed Burns attached, and I wanted to work with both of them. Then Dustin Hoffman came on board. I was like, "Oh my god." Andy Garcia, and Luis Guzman, and Paul Giamatti. All these amazing actors.
Q: Do you get nervous meeting people like that?
Weisz: Of course. Terrified. Dustin--he's so disarming. He disarms you within a second, and I'm just putty in his hand.
Q: Is this film more of an acting exercise than something like The Mummy? Or are they equally as challenging?
Weisz: This would be much more of an acting exercise.
Q: I would think going against blue screens or green screens would be really tough to act against.
Weisz: Yeah… it's tough in a different way. Hm. The Mummy is more cartoon-like, I would say. It's fun. But you're more tested opposite Dustin than a blue screen.
Q: You seem to have largely become a film actress. Have you given up theater for the time being?
Weisz: No… I did a play with Neil LaBute, The Shape of Things, and we made a movie of it that's coming out in May.
Q: And you produced it?
Weisz: The film, yes. Co-produced it with other people. It's a black comedy--a very black comedy--I suppose you could call it a romantic comedy--I don't know if you know Neil LaBute's work. It's a black comedy set on a student campus. I play a student that's kind of like a punky, anarchic, angry arts student who falls in love with Paul Rudd. It's about how couples try to change each other.
Q: You're in a million great movies coming up. Runaway Jury--
Weisz: Well, we'll see if they're great!
Q: Who do you play in Runaway Jury?
Weisz: The female lead. Marlee, she's called. I play opposite John Cusack. It's another Grifters kind of thing. We're going up against Hoffman and Hackman. Hoffman is the good guy in this, he's the benevolent attorney, he's idealistic. Hackman plays the evil jury selector. I had to go toe-to-toe with them. It was terrifying.
Q: You're getting a lot of opportunities right now. How are you choosing them?
Weisz: With great discretion! I don't know. I just read, and read, and read. How I choose…you just read something and think, this is a world I want to enter into, this is a character I want to play, and this is a story I want to tell. You have to really want to do that, because it's three or four months. It's a big commitment. You follow the passion. Where you have passion, you go.
Q: Marlowe, with Jude Law--what's that?
Weisz: That keeps cropping up. That's not happening. That's on the imdb or something.
Q: What about the Barry Levinson movie?
Weisz: Yeah, that I did after Confidence. That will be the next out after Shape of Things. That's a comedy. It's a very broad comedy. I play opposite Ben Stiller. We're married. It's set in the Valley, in LA, and Jack Black is in it, and Christopher Walken, and Amy Poeller from Saturday Night Live. She's married to Jack Black. Amy and Jack are married, me and Ben are married, we're best friends, we each have two point five children. And…uh… [sighs] I'm so crap at pitching. Basically Jack's a dreamer, and he's always dreaming up inventions, and he dreams up this invention of a spray can that you spray on dog shit, and the dog shit disappears. It's called Va-Poo-Rize. So he's always dreaming up stuff, and he says to Ben, his best friend, "Invest. Give me two grand." And Ben's like, "No," and I'm saying, "Honey, invest! It's a great idea!" And he won't invest. And so [Black and Poeller] become gazillionairres. They don't move out of the neighborhood. They knock down the little house and build a huge palace. It's called Envy, so you get the idea. It's a bit of a fable. It's really fun. It's pure fun.
Q: Are you done with The Mummy movies? Would you do another one?
Weisz: Sure, get the family together again! Nobody's talked about it. Steve Sommers is doing another movie now, with the great Australian actor Hugh Jackman--Van Helsing.
Q: Okay, so you're doing broad comedies, and you're doing more sophisticated comedies like About a Boy, and you're doing big special effects movies, and Confidence. Where are you most comfortable as an actor and what do you find most challenging?
Weisz: I'm probably most comfortable when I'm most challenged. I like to be challenged. I love doing comedy. It's one of the greatest joys in life. It can be very hard, but I love to do it. I don't know, I feel very lucky that I haven't had to choose. After Envy I went into very serious Grisham courtroom thing. It means I never get bored. I'm really lucky.
Q: What's your favorite scene in Confidence?
Weisz: I love the scene between Dustin and Ed where Dustin's messing with him, when he says to him, "Too much style can get you in trouble." When he starts coming onto him, he starts flirting with him. Ed's this macho cool guy, and Dustin makes him so uncomfortable. You can just feel Ed blushing. I love that scene.
Q: You said you wanted to work with James Foley. What were your reasons for that?
Weisz: Yeah. I loved Glengarry Glen Ross, and I particularly loved At Close Range. I just thought that was just a phenomenal movie. I love how he casts characters, and I think he has a really great sense of style. It's always very stylish, but there's raw emotion. And I think that's a great cocktail, to have style and raw emotion underneath.
Q: Any unrealized ambitions?
Weisz: Yeah! Millions!
Q: Why did you make Confidence?
Garcia: Well, I like the script a lot. Like Dustin, my character as written was later changed. It's hard for me to say because it spoils the movie. Basically my character did not function in the way it ends in the movie. He is a federal agent. He was always a federal agent. But in terms of how he functions with the other people in the story, that was not there. To me, there was a flaw in the storytelling, because it didn't hold up. So, I suggested what you saw, and they liked it, and then I worked with the writer on some of the scenes. It wasn't a complicated thing, but you have to make the leap of faith to say, "Okay let's change it." Once I did that, I said, "Okay I'll do it." What struck me about the guy, really, that excited me, was just the fact that he was from Tampa. I grew up going to Tampa, I had family there, and I knew characters from Tampa that were like this guy. I just wanted to get into those cheap seersucker suits and cheap cigars. I said, "I know who this guy is. I know he's got a racing form in his pocket, and ashes in his breast pocket of his coat because he puts the cigar in sometimes backwards, and he doesn't shave." You know, that whole thing. That excited me. I'd like to play him again actually. If we do well, maybe we could do another one.
Q: Oceans 11 was also a con game movie. Is this a genre that you like?
Garcia: Yeah, when they're well written, they're great. They're a lot of fun.
Q: Do you have some favorite films in that genre?
Garcia: Topkapi, Rififi, Ocean's 11. [laughter] The Soderbergh version. The other one, it was fun to see those guys, but it doesn't hold up very well as a story.
Q: Confidence was your second movie with Dustin Hoffman.
Garcia: I didn't work with him on this movie. I mean, we're in the same movie together, but I put it in my contract that I didn't want to see him ever. We never crossed paths on the set. I see him enough in real life that I can't--no, I'm just kidding. There is nobody that I would like to spend more time with than Dustin. I have a great admiration for him and he just--I don't know, he makes me laugh. Too much.
Q: How did you first meet him?
Garcia: I met him in a movie, I mean, we did a movie together [Hero]. I met him as a fan first, you know, as a young actor being inspired by his work. The Graduate, and then Midnight Cowboy, I thought that was one of the most extraordinary one-two punches in the history of film.
Q: Is there somebody else that you admire as much as Dustin Hoffman?
Q: I missed his last movie.
Garcia: I remember one time we were going into the Golden Globes, and I was there with my little daughter. I was presenting an award there. I'm going in, and someone grabs me and says, "Would you talk with Joan Rivers a moment?" Ugh. And that politeness thing comes into play, and you say, "Okay." Then I go, and she says, "Hi, is this your beautiful daughter?" and then she says, "Who made your dress?" to my little daughter. She was twelve years old. My daughter says, "Emilia." Seamstress, you know. And then she turns to me and says, "Who would you like to meet tonight?" And I said, "Is Gandhi here?" She looked at me and went [muttering], "Gandhi, er, Gandhi… what award is he up for?"
Q: There are stories that they're thinking of doing a Godfather 4. Have you heard anything from Coppola about that?
Garcia: No. I have not heard-- You know, there was a moment there where Francis did want to have Mario write a script. I'll take responsibility for suggesting to my agent, who also represents Leonardo--because I knew Francis had this story that he and Mario had worked out, to do a parallel story of a piece of the book that has never been told, which is the Thirties. In the Thirties, Sonny Corleone was married. Maybe Leo in his early twenties could play him, and then he would do a parallel story with my character in the future, you know, running amok, demented, in a… bathrobe. I don't know. So I said to my agent, "Maybe Leo would be interested, and if so, I know Francis wants to have Mario write a script." Anyway, it accelerated. This was a very interesting movie because Bob De Niro could have played the Godfather, and Leo DiCaprio could play Sonny, and you could get another couple young people to play Michael and Fredo, and Tom, Bobby Duvall's character. On the one side of the movie, you have the demographic they're looking for, you know, young kids, and then on the other side you have a demented guy doing whatever he has to do. And you can actually bring Al back because he died a very old guy, so you could have him do a couple scenes with me. But Mario passed away.
Q: Do you think Francis would ever do it with somebody else?
Garcia: Well, Francis could write it. Part of that first part has been written already. I know there are scenes that have been written because even when we were doing Godfather 3, there were things that they had worked out. That did move forward. There was apparently an interest, and then when Mario died, that sort of fell by the wayside, and then after that I've never really heard anything more about it. I've asked Francis about it, and his attitude is, "Yeah, you know, we can do it, but they have to hire me, I can't hire them." The curious thing about Godfather 4 is that every single person that I encounter, every day, I get people asking me, "When's Godfather 4 coming?" The fascination to me is, with all the movies that Paramount makes and takes risks on, they have this franchise that people are desperate to see, and I wonder why they don't want to do this movie. It doesn't have to be a 200 million dollar movie. It can be a normal film. I notice such an appetite for it, and there's so much potential commerce surrounding it. It's really curious why they haven't taken a proactive initiative to say, "C'mon, Francis let's do it."
Q: What about Ocean's 12? George Clooney says he's dying to do that.
Garcia: I haven't got a call. I don't know if I'm still gonna be chasing those guys.
Q: It seems like they left it kinda open.
Garcia: You know, that's the only note I had when I read the script. I said, "Steven, I wouldn't let George go if it's not for a specific reason." I'm not just gonna say, "Okay, it was you, or it wasn't you. See you later." I let him go because he's gonna lead me to the money. So that's why he wrote those two guys, my two goons, to follow him. George knows they're being followed, and that's fine, but at least you can justify why I let them go. But whether the other movie is me following them all around Europe taking them out one by one, I don't know. I remember we did a press junket in Rome and Steven's eyes came out of his head. He'd never been to Rome. He said, "I could do another one here."
Q: Where are you with your personal project, The Lost City?
Garcia: I'm doing it at Lions Gate, and we have pre-production in the fall, shooting in the winter. The first week of January is the target right now.
Q: What's it about?
Garcia: It's about Havana and the turn of the revolution, the microcosm of a family, a story of impossible love. [laughter]
Q: Who else is in it with you?
Garcia: Assuming they're all available when we go, Bobby Duvall plays one of the main antagonists in the movie--one of the Batista police--and Dustin Hoffman is going to play Meyer Lansky. Benjamin Bratt, Javier Bardem, Benicio del Toro are going to be in it.
Q: Che Guevara, Castro--are you going to show them?
Garcia: Che Guevara is in the movie. Castro is in the movie. Batista. All the usual suspects.
Q: How long have you been developing this?
Garcia: Since I left [Cuba] in 1961. I was turned on to the writings of G. Cabrera Infante probably in the late Seventies. His books, Three Trapped Tigers, View of Dawn in the Topics, and Infante's Inferno, they all deal with life in Havana, especially cabaret life in Three Trapped Tigers. That was the inspiration for it, as a parallel to movies like Casablanca and Doctor Zhivago and Cabaret, where you have the scenario of what happens to a family in a time of political change.
Q: What is the Cuba of the future that you see?
Garcia: Well, a democratic Cuba.
Q: Do you think it could happen?
Garcia: Sure. It will happen.
Q: But you don't see a free Cuba with Castro, though. It's going to take Castro dying.
Garcia: That's a physical impossibility. There's no freedom while he's there. He won't go, but eventually every dog has his day.
Q: But is it true that your film casts a very honest light on Batista's regime? It doesn't build it up and whitewash it the way some films have and made him the hero, as opposed to Castro the devil. They're both kind of devils in their own right.
Garcia: Well, no, Batista had a very brutal totalitarian dictatorship. Ironically, the country economically was flourishing. They had the third largest per capita income in the Americas. But, the problem was that basically-- When Batista came into in '52, it was a coup, and he abolished the constitution, and became a dictator. Immediately civil protests broke out, which led to, eventually, after seven years, he fled. But the whole point of the revolution was to restore the constitution and the democracy. Little did we know that a year later, Castro declared himself-- You know if you look at the newsreels, it's very fascinating. Castro, time and time again, even at the United Nations, said, "I am not a communist. I am not a communist. I am not a communist." And then one day he says, "I am a communist." Personally I don't believe he's a communist. He's a Fidelista. Communism or Marxist-Leninism is the façade which he had to operate under in order to get help from Russia and do what he needs to do. But the movie [is] told as a love story, which is, you come together, and then you're torn apart because of political ideologies.
Q: Where are you going to film this?
Garcia: In Florida and in the Caribbean.
Q: How long have you been working on this?
Garcia: Oh, over ten years, over fifteen years, maybe. I've been excited about this for many many years.
Q: Did you know from the beginning that this was something you wanted to do? Did Foley bring this to you?
Burns: He didn't. My agents gave it to me. Read the script, loved it. Two things jumped out--great dialogue, and no one ever casts me to play these kind of guys. So I jumped on a plane, came out here to meet with Foley. We worked our whole New York Irish thing, and he gave me the part.
Q: Rachel Weisz said she is intimated when she meets people like Dustin Hoffman or Gene Hackman. Do you ever have that anymore?
Burns: Without a doubt. Dustin--when I was [in] film school, The Graduate and Midnight Cowboy are two of the films that made me want to make movies. So Dustin has been a real hero for a long time. So the night before the rehearsal--I'd never met him before that--you're nervous, knowing you're going to go out the next day and play one on one with Michael Jordan. You're going to lose. But the good thing is, you show up, and you're not playing against him, you're playing with him. Dustin really is that kind of actor. He's all about working together and especially this part--Dustin's part was originally written for a 250-pound New York Mafioso who owned a boxing gym. The whole dynamic between our characters was that he was a physically intimidating guy. So when Dustin came on board, you still needed to have that physical threat, but he couldn't do it by sheer size. In that rehearsal process, with Jamie, Doug Jung the screenwriter, me and Dustin, we'd rehearse the scenes as written, but then Dustin would ad lib or improvise to try to find how he was going to be a physically ominous character.
Q: Is that how he came up with the homoerotic thing?
Burns: There was one line in the original script that kind of insinuated something, and he latched on to that. I think it was when he said, "Let me read your palm." During the rehearsal I got really uncomfortable with him touching me in such a tender way. [Laughter]
Q: It almost doesn't matter whether The King is actually gay or bi. Being the con man that he is--that's how he was going to get to you.
Burns: At no point in the script is it ever said. I think Dustin's approach was he didn't even want to know. He was just going to play it. There was a scene where he's touching Rachel, 'feel my heart,' all that stuff. There was a line that got cut out afterwards where he sort of asks that question. "Which one of you two do you think I'm attracted to?" It ended up getting cut out because, again, they didn't want to say. Why even address it? Leaving his ambiguity ambiguous with the audience serves the film better.
Q: Did you have a lot of freedom with your character, like Dustin did?
Burns: Being a writer myself, I like to stay true to what the author has written. I'll play with it a little bit, change a line of dialogue here and there. The only thing that changed was that the script was originally set in New York and for budgetary reasons moved to LA. At the time I wanted to stay in New York and shoot there, since that's where I live, but when it came to LA my character changed considerably from being a jeans/leather jacket New York grifter to this slick, dapper LA incarnation. For me as an actor, it was a good thing to get out of that whole New York thing. The other thing with that character was that in the past, even the parts I've written for myself, even Private Ryan, I have been able to draw from my personality. This character, I couldn't do that at all. I had to create this guy from scratch.
Q: Did you get nervous when Steven Spielberg called you for Saving Private Ryan?
Burns: Spielberg I didn't even get to meet until the day before shooting. So that was also another terrifying experience. And the De Niro one as well. First rehearsal [for Fifteen Minutes], I walk in; I've got a knapsack with me; I got my cup of coffee. He's there; I'm a little late because of traffic. You never want to be late for Bobby D, or Dusty, or any of these guys. So he goes to shake my hand, so I switch my coffee, and as I'm shaking it, the coffee spills out onto my shirt. Just not a very cool move in meeting Bob for the first time.
Q: What did he say?
Burns: The thing is, they're not Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman after the first five minutes. They're Dusty and Bob--guys that you work with, and guys who are not aggressive. They're guys who want you to do good work. I think if you're a young actor and you show a lot of interest in trying to get better, and feed off their energy and their craft--they get off on that. They want to do good work. They want you to do good work. Especially with Dustin, since so much of that character had to be created in those rehearsals, for me to get to be a part of his process, as he shaped another one of those very cool Dustin Hoffman characters--that is the dream.
Q: Are you still working on A Sound of Thunder?
Burns: That's done. We finished shooting, but they've got a year worth of special effects. The whole movie was blue screen. It's a Ray Bradbury short story science fiction time travel film with Ben Kingsley.
Q: Who do you play?
Burns: I play the scientist/hunter. [Laughter] In 2040, you'll see, we can travel back in time. I lead very wealthy people on safaris hunting dinosaurs. Ben Kingsley plays sort of the evil, you know, big corporation CEO guy.
Q: How did you raise money for your first movie [The Brothers McMullen]?
Burns: I raised ten [thousand] from my dad, five from a friend of his. This was the only person we knew who had five thousand to invest. When the film ended up making money, this guy just could not believe that this cash was coming his way from the investment. And the others--since we made the film over the course of a year and a half, I put in about fifteen hundred of my own money, and then it was five hundred here, three hundred from my sister--
Q: How did you ask people?
Burns: First we put together a limited partnership. We were gonna try to raise fifty thousand dollars with five thousand dollar shares. The only guy we got was this one friend of my dad's. So we had five thousand dollars. My dad said, "Okay, I'll put in five." I said, "All right, we don't have a limited partnership, but we do have ten thousand dollars. I'll go shoot a couple scenes, and then we'll use a little trailer to raise the rest of the money." But I knew based on my super-low budget films in film school, "I'm just going to try and shoot as much of this movie as I can for ten grand. See how far I can get. Not going to worry about it looking good." Because I knew if I went with the trailer, and tried to make it look pretty or slick, I'd get a scene done for ten thousand. So I got almost half of the script shot for ten grand. Then once we were there, I convinced my dad for another five. I basically got us near the end, and then there were like, two or three days left for fifteen hundred or three thousand.
Q: How do you think you've changed? Was it better back then or better now, for you?
Burns: Well, it's funny. I was just talking to my brother on the phone. He asked where the junket was. I said, "The Four Seasons." He said, "Well where are you staying?" I said, "Oh, at the Hotel Bel Air." He said, "Why are you staying there?" I said, "Oh, because we got the dog with us, and it's better for the dog." He goes, "Do you realize how sick your life is?" You know, traveling with your dog--on planes, not on a road trip to the Jersey shore! That's just weird. Then he asked how much the rooms were--fortunately I'm not paying for them, Lions Gate is--and I told him, and we both thought about our first apartments. He lived in DC and I lived in New York. And we [thought about] how many months we could live in our apartments for what one night costs. I've got something here for five days. We could almost live a year in that studio apartment in DC for what a five day stay at the Bel Air costs. Man, life has gotten strange. But then we said, "You know what the sickest thing is? I wouldn't say I'm happier now or happier then." It really doesn't change. Certainly I'm glad I can stay in a nice room, but as my brother said, "Hotel valet--you know when that's cool? When you're living in that shitty little apartment in DC. That's when it would really be like, 'Wow! Check this out!'"
Q: How do you pass that first brush with stardom without losing your mind? It seems that you came out fine.
Burns: Umm…I was 27. That's the difference. I think if I was 21, I would have gone crazy like some other guys. But I had already done my thing like that, and fortunately there weren't cameras all around.
Q: Do you hate the intrusion on your personal life?
Burns: Well, I worked as a production assistant on Entertainment Tonight for four years. So I think maybe I have a more realistic outlook on that whole side of the business. It sucks; it's never fun. However, you get into this business, that is part of the deal. It might be unfair of me to comment on it because I don't get followed by paparazzi. I don't have the Leonardo DiCaprio or Ben/J Lo experience, ever.
Q: But certainly you and [supermodel] Christy [Turlington] is a high profile relationship.
Burns: Not in the same way. Maybe the fact that we live in New York is a slightly different deal, but that being said, I'm just thankful I don't have to deal with it on that level. There's some people that just can't make a move without cameras around. It's a drag, but it is part of the business. The upside of what we get to do--well, first of all, I assume that 99 percent of the people in this business love what they do. You fight so hard and for so long, you spend all your parents' savings to make a movie just because you love it, and now the reward is that you get to continue to do what you do. I get to get up in the morning, write a screenplay, and unlike the first five years of trying to get into this business, where you don't even know if you can get someone to read it, I'm guaranteed to get someone to read it. Let's say maybe eight times out of ten, I'm going to get maybe two and a half million dollars to make the movie, and that's better than not making the movie. So with all that comes this other little bit of garbage. I'm willing to do it.
Q: So are you planning on tying the knot this year? It's off and on, allegedly--
Burns: Yeah, you know, I read page six of The New York Post religiously. However, you can't trust them. We're happy, we're together, it's all good. She's at the Bel Air with the dog. But there's no--
Q: You have her walking the dog? What kind of dog is this?
Burns: Seriously, he's the most handsome dog in the word. He's a Boston Terrier named Mickey.
Q: But you're not getting married?
Q: What happened to Ash Wednesday? Did we miss it?
Burns: Yeah. Yeah, you did.
Q: Did it not get released?
Burns: No, it--I'll give you the whole deal on that. It was released New York and LA in October. A one-week release. We got a fantastic review in the LA Times. Got some other reviews that were less than fantastic in the New York papers--hometown papers were doing the right thing by me yet again. [Laughter] Anyhow, it was a big turning point in my career as an independent low-budget filmmaker. Ash Wednesday was the fifth film that I wrote and directed. I've done five now for a combined budget of eleven million dollars. We did Sidewalks [of New York] for a million and shot in seventeen days. The reason for me that Sidewalks works is, we embraced the fact that we only had a million dollars. It was supposed to not look great. It was handheld and choppy. We never tried to hide the fact that we didn't have a lot of money. That's my advice any time I go to a film school or do a Q & A after a screening. Everyone says, "What's the advice you give to a young filmmaker?" I always say, "Don't try to compete with Hollywood. Take your lack of resources and make it work for you. Especially with DV [Digital Video]. You're never going to make DV look like film. It's never going to look like a Hollywood production. So don't even try. Take DV and use what's cool about it to your advantage.
Q: What's cool about it?
Burns: The fact that it's so mobile. It's so tiny. You can get three cameras and shoot all sorts of crazy coverage. You don't need permits anywhere because you can stick the thing under your coat, and pull it out, and get access to locations than I can't get with a big 35-millimeter camera and a steadycam. You can cut it on your laptop in your hotel. You can't do that with 35 millimeter. Or actually you can, but it costs a lot more. The fact that you can bang out seventy-five takes if you want, and it costs nada compared to processing all that film stock. McMullen, Clerks, El Mariachi, Metropolitan, Blair Witch--the list is endless of films that look like crap, because what they focused on was the acting, and the story, and the style, and never tried to compete with Hollywood production value. So that was the advice I used to give, and then I don't listen to it on Ash Wednesday. [Laughter] I got two and a half million dollars. I should have made the movie for eight million. The actors' strike was coming up. I've only directed one movie in four years, and I'm getting antsy. So I say, "Screw it, I'm going to make this movie for two and a half." What I should have done was gone to the Sidewalks style and gone hand held, or even shot DV--made it grittier, more run and gun. Instead I stuck to the original vision I had in my head when I was writing it. I wanted to go for a Carol Reed, Third Man, Odd Man Out kind of look--only in color--and that kind of pacing--almost like what Road to Perdition did in making an art period gangster movie. So when I look at the film, I'd say about sixty percent of it worked. Out of the twenty days we shot, we got twelve days where we had enough time to get the work done. We had eight days, though, where all I see when I watch the movie is, not enough money, rushed, shooting into a corner, not enough light, long lens because it's a period but we can't afford any period cars or to dress the street--so the actors are in focus, [while] 2003 cars and buses are driving all over but they're out of focus so you can't tell that it's not 1983.
Q: Are you writing anything now?
Burns: Finishing up a script now. Can't really say what it's about, other than I heard someone describe the movie recently as a conversational dramedy. I kind of like that. That's, like, my favorite genre. [Laughter]
Q: Have you ever been mixed up with another celebrity, or recognized as someone else?
Burns: Ah, my younger days, I got Kevin Bacon, Matthew Modine.
Q: And what do you say when they say that?
Burns: I sign their autograph.
Q: Did you research cons for the movie?
Burns: We pulled a con. Brian Van Holt, who plays Dutch in the movie, had done a lot of research, so he wanted us all to get dressed up in our wardrobes, go out in LA and pull a con. So we went to a used car dealership, and basically--Brian and Paul Giamatti, really, orchestrated it--we were able to get a car off the lot without a representative, with no money. We then went cruising. I think we were on the 10, we got into an accident, ditched the car, ran, called a cab, went back, didn't tell anyone about it--I'm kidding.
Q: You're dealing with a first-time feature film writer from NYU [Doug Jung]. How did the script for Confidence come to you?
Foley: Yeah. It came in a conventional way; it came from CAA. That's my agency, and they sent me a pile of scripts that are out there. It is, seriously, the worst part of the job--having to plow through scripts, because there's a 99.9 percent probability that they suck. It's painful to turn the page. Then came this one, which didn't suck. I actually wanted to know what was on the next page. I had no idea who Doug was, or anything about it, but I did get excited and called my agent and said, "I want to jump onto this." I also think that, for me, the script was as good as it was because Doug did it on his own. It wasn't something that went through the development process at a studio with ten thousand people having notes and input and stuff. I'm trying to get Doug to write something else, but already he's getting lured into studios and money and doing rewrites and stuff like that, so I keep on encouraging him to go away on his own and just do whatever he wants.
Q: It was supposed to be set in New York. How did it move to LA?
Foley: Yeah. Something I love about movies is that sometimes the best creative results come from practical necessities and chaos. It was set in New York. I accepted that, and first thing Lions Gate says is, "Here's a ticket to Toronto." I did that once before, and it's a dispiriting experience, because a big part of what I like about directing is the visual sense of capturing a place in your own way. Having to go to the streets of one city and make believe it's another--you're just so limited, in trying to trick people into thinking something. It's just a real turnoff. So I was depressed driving home, and it happened to be sunset, and this red light was illuminating some neon signs, and palm trees were swaying, and I said, "Whoa, that's interesting, I've never shot a film in LA. The guys are nomadic, moving from city to city, what if they came to LA?" Suddenly the whole idea of getting it out of the environment of night and dark alleys and gritty, and changing it into the opposite, to bright sunlight-- We changed every scene we possibly could from night to day. The big impact of it was [on] one character, which was one of the most unique and exotic and pleasurable experiences I've had. Dustin Hoffman's part was written as a big 300-pound imposing guy who owned a boxing gym in the gritty Lower East Side. That didn't work for the LA vibe. Me and Doug were flailing around about what to do, and that's why we weren't able to cast it, because how do you cast a part that you don't know what the part is yet? Somehow Dustin became aware of the script, and read it, and he was interested in the dynamics. He said if we wanted to talk about it he'd be interested. So myself and Doug met up with Dustin and had one of these great epiphanal six-hour things where we just thought of every crazy idea, really wacko ideas. Dustin starting working from the process of thinking, "Okay, what would the character look like?" I happened to be all jazzed up and getting excited and being kind of hyper, and I used to wear my reading glasses on a chain around my neck, chewing gum all the time. And he asked me, "Can I borrow your glasses? Do you have any more gum?" He started walking around and he looked in the mirror, and he said, "I got it! I got the character." We had no idea who the character was or where he came from, but he knew what the character looked like and how he walked. We just worked from there. When it came time to do Dustin's stuff, it was the most fun days of shooting I've ever had. I like shooting but I wouldn't call it fun necessarily every day. It was a unique experience because Dustin was there at the birth of the character, so it was totally in synch with his own instincts.
Q: So was it Dustin's idea to come up with the ambiguous homoerotic undercurrent?
Foley: Oh yeah, and what's interesting is that didn't come up at first. It was just me and the writer and Dustin. I'm the worst actor in the world, but [Dustin] wants to work with somebody, so I was Ed--I was a really bad Ed. But then we brought Ed in, and, you know, Ed is a cutie pie, and Dustin started, you know, flirting with him in that way, and that became part of the thing that evolved once Ed was brought into the process. But I'm a big fan of that kind of acting where it's just inspired by whatever unconsciously comes up, and just trying to shape it. That erupted organically out of an interesting problem.
Q: Those stories about Dustin being difficult to work with--where do those stories come from about actors?
Foley: Yeah, I finally figured it out, and it's kind of simple. A lot of different directors are interested in different things that cinema can be. For better or worse, a close-up of a great actor in a great moment is the most exciting thing to me, the thing I'm most turned on by. As a filmmaker, capturing that on your film, looking through the lens and seeing that, really turns me on. What a great actor can do that's unique to cinema is be saying one thing and feeling something contradictory. You can see it--it's something you can't see on stage--but if the lens is in the right place, you see it. So I keep on trying to find films that are character driven, that are about the interrelationships between people and the contradictory nature of things. Obviously actors--great actors--that's what they're interested in the most. If they're working with a director who's focusing on that, then there's a synchronicity. But there's other movies--good movies--that are big action movies where the subtle subtext of the interplay of the actors is not the center of the thing. I'm always curious about asking actors about their experience on other movies because I've never worked on any movies except my own, so I have no idea what it's like, how other people do it. It's very different. There are directors who really have nothing to say to the actors, don't even get to know them--
Q: There are some directors who don't like actors.
Foley: Oh absolutely. I happen to like actors. One of my big things about rehearsing is that I always feel like I want to get to know the actors before we start shooting. So much of directing for me is a communication, which is about feelings or shared jokes or something, or references to something like that. By the time I get to shoot, I always have to feel like I have a familiarity with the actor where their stardom, if it exists, goes away. I have this thing--it sounds bizarre--but when I talk to them I touch them, or put my finger in their ear or something, and there's no distance. Actors feel as if the director is focusing on things that they think are the most important. One of the best moments I've ever had--I start crying about it because I get emotional--there's a scene in Glengarry Glen Ross with Pacino, and I can't tell you the pleasure of-- You do a bunch of takes, and they're good, and then you do take six, and all of the sudden it's the one. Something happens, and I can feel it, and my heart starts beating, and I'm getting nervous--"Is the camera in focus?"--and then you say, "Cut!" Every time you say cut in a movie, the actor's eyes go right to you looking for a reaction. Pacino knew that was the one; we both knew the same thing. You just feel so connected. Then he's leaving, and he whispered to me, "I loved where your camera was. It felt like it was in exactly the right place, and that's why it was good." And you just feel like, "Wow." Life is nice when it happens.
Q: Do you feel that, because of Glengarry Glen Ross, actors want to work with you?
Foley: Well, it certainly helps because actors want to work in a movie that's about their acting--not about their celebrity, but about what it is that they like to do. Clearly if you've made some films that focus on that, there's a sense of trust that this is a director who's interested in stuff that [they're] interested in. In the realpolitik of Hollywood, [if] you work with stars, then other stars feel as if you can do that. The studios think of it as, "Can you handle the star?" which is a concept that seems ridiculous to me. I really believe that the only trouble that happens with actors--and if they're stars they have power to cause trouble--is if they feel the director is just not interested. The way I happen to work, for better or worse, is that I have no storyboards, I have no shot list, I just rehearse with the actors in the mornings, see what they do on their own, then start pushing then a little bit here, a little bit there. I find that if you let the actors do what's instinctual to them in the beginning, then they're very open to your direction, and your reaction to what they're doing, and shaping it. Only then do I look at it and say, "Okay I've watched this scene. What do I notice about it that interests me?" And then [I] put the camera there. After a couple films you get confident about the technical chess game you have to do in editing. That does drive the assistant director crazy, because he'd love to know the shots for the whole day, and I say, "Well I have no idea. You have to wait." As opposed to someone like Sam Raimi--who has made some films I really like, Simple Plan and Spider-Man--he has every shot worked out before he starts shooting, in a book. Every single shot, and every single angle, and every single movement of the actor. There's different ways to skin the cat. But I know that the actors I'm most interested in working with don't jibe well with all of a sudden getting a book telling them, on this line you pick up a cigarette. It's just a different way of working.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about working with Sean Penn on At Close Range?
Foley: Looking back it was a profound influence on me because it was only my second film. I had met Sean because I was casting Reckless [Foley's first film]. I met a whole bunch of guys who were unknown, including Tom Cruise, who I rejected for the movie. Sean and I happened to become friends. It was he who had been approached for the script for At Close Range, and he brought me on. I remember he broke up with his girlfriend at the time and had no place to live, so he was living on my living room couch during pre-production. So, I had the experience of creatively going forward with something in a way where you had a personal connection to the actor, and how effective that was. Also I learned that the big struggle to creatively do what you want to do, you've gotta deal with the realpolitik of the studio and millions of dollars, and their wanting to control things, and have you make things as inoffensive to anyone, which dampens the creative spirit. I learned that Sean and I, him being the star of the movie, if we were a team, then we could do whatever the hell we wanted, because they're not going to shut down the movie and recast it. I was only recently out of film school, so we simply did whatever the hell we wanted, and had no sense of how the audience is going to react, or what if we fail, because I'd never tasted failure. I learned an awful lot about how you have to keep conservatism at bay. I see this in other directors. I love thinking about the careers of directors and wondering why a whole bunch of people like Bogdanovich and Friedkin and Coppola--those guys were just incredible--and then what happened? At a young age it just--pffft. You get influenced by success and failure. At that time I knew neither, so we just approached the movie as if we were making a student film. We did some crazy things because we felt like we could.
Q: Did he suggest you to Madonna for Who's That Girl?
Foley: Oh yeah, a whole part of that experience, too, was [that] I got my taste of being at the absolute epicenter of that part of Hollywood and fame. Oh my god. It was intense. She would come down and visit in Tennessee, and she's at the height of her thing, and they had to close off part of the airport, and we had to deal [with] shooting in the middle of nowhere in Tennessee with hundreds of paparazzi. We had to keep them at bay. We had to hire extra people. But part of what I'm interested in as a filmmaker-- I think there's a genre called the Hollywood Movie that has glamour. My favorite movie of all time is A Place in the Sun with Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift. This is a very serious, very dark, profound story. The actors are cast perfectly, but the fact that they're two of the most beautiful creatures on the planet, and it's shot in the most beautiful way, was right for that story. He was pursuing glamour and money, and it was all embodied in the visual of Elizabeth Taylor. I love when that comes together. That becomes a certain genre that is a Hollywood Movie in the best sense of the word. The ideal thing is to get a great actor who's perfect for the part who happens to have that glamour and is a star. I think Glengarry is the most successful thing I've done so far in that way. You could have made that movie with a bunch of other people who were brilliant stage actors, but to get people who were great actors and happened to be stars, it becomes a different experience that I like. And so I met Madonna and was as seduced by her as anyone. At Close Range when it came out hardly got distribution--it's grown over the years thank god for DVDs and stuff--and all of a sudden [I had] a big Warner Bros. expensive movie. I was sucked into that. It's the one movie I made that I had no right making, because I have no feel for making a comedy like that, but I don't regret it at all because it was a blast. I was friends with her and remain friends with her, and the only regret I had is that I felt like I let her down in terms of the movie not working. But, her odyssey of movies is crazy.
Q: Do you think she's a good actress?
Foley: I think that I wouldn't [say] in the traditional sense of how Al Pacino is a great actor-- But it has always mystified me, because there's a thing she obviously has in videos which is magnificent, a visual thing, and why someone can't translate that-- I think Evita came closest. Desperately Seeking Susan worked. But it's a real particular thing that some of the best minds--including my own--have not been able to crack, and her husband obviously was not.
Q: How was it that you rejected Tom Cruise, and could you call him again?
Foley: I feel like I've been very lucky in Hollywood that I became very good friends with Sean and with Tom Cruise. I still know Tom Cruise. We came close to doing something, we actually traveled together to Moscow in 1987 right after Who's That Girl investigating a true story about a Marine at the American Embassy who was tried for treason ultimately. It was a blast going with Tom to Russia--it was still the Soviet Union--and he was unbelievably famous because of bootleg copies of Top Gun, oddly enough. But the reason I feel lucky is because I'm always thinking, "Okay, what's the challenge to making a good film?" You gotta be cognizant of the system, which involves movie stars and money and relationships, and make it work toward what you want to do. So to meet guys who are nobodies and them know them as they became Somebodies--my relationship to them is a really good one, a real creative one. I have absolutely no distance, and I make it a point if I'm doing a movie and I don't know that person is to get to know them to the point where their movie stardom disappears off the map. A funny example of that was Pacino shooting Glengarry and we had one scene which was an exterior in Brooklyn. I had known Al for a year before we started shooting, and we were waiting for the [assistant directors] to fix the cars in the streets. We're hanging out in his trailer, we're watching probably E! channel. There's a knock on the door, okay, they're ready. So we walk outside, and there's a crowd there behind barricades. We walk out, and the crowd started going "ooo!" and for a good second and a half I got excited, like, "Oo, something's going on! Somebody's here!" And I wanted to see what it was. It took me a second and a half to realize that it was Al. It's something funny to me, and a good thing to learn, that fame doesn't exist. If you're sitting in a trailer with somebody you know, there's no fame, because fame is only something that is reflected by somebody who's responding to it.
Q: What are you going to do next?
Foley: Oh, I wish I had the answer to that. One of my failings is that I just don't have the ability to think ahead. If I'm involved with something for a year, it seems like there's not enough minutes in a day to service that. It comes to this moment when this is over. I'm going to go home and say, "Okay, now what? I'm unemployed, I have no idea." And then I have to dredge through scripts and hope that one of them catches my attention.
and interviews © May 2003 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
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