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Hollywood Spotlight - Interviews [Gordon, Keith]

INTERVIEW



BACKGROUND
Interview With: Keith Gordon
Focus: Waking the Dead, Theatrical Release
Title: Director / Producer / WriterCompany: NA
Interviewed By: Sean KellyDate: 3/18/2000


        A ctor, writer, director, producer Keith Gordon is at it again, ladies and gentlemen. With the completed production of Waking The Dead set to release this Friday nation-wide, Gordon agreed to meet with DCN for an in-depth look at the life and times of a filmmaker for a unique, inside perspective. We are proud to report this condensed version of the meeting between DCN and Keith Gordon and invite our readers to read the full transcript as well. The following material contains content of a creative dramatization nature as well as excerpts from the actual transcript, and is for entertainment purposes only.

I first met Keith the night before, at the time, unbeknownst to me. During a quick word with a promotional contact, I was briefly introduced to a gentleman who stood quietly against the wall observing, “this is Keith.” “Hi, nice to meet you!” It phased me several minutes later as the same man headed towards the front of the theater to get audience reaction and questions regarding the film which we had just seen, Waking The Dead, was none other than Keith Gordon. Oh THAT Keith. Self-kick. No matter, I had missed nothing other than a first impression. What’s in a first impression anyway?

But there I was the next day, back for a second impression, at the top of a mid-scale hotel in the heart of San Francisco. With sweaty palms and a light, woozy feeling from an abrupt stop on the elevator, I was armed with my notepad and recorder, I knocked on the door, anticipating a swarm of secret servicemen to come flooding through and frisk me. Well.. it wasn’t that bad, but the imagery had entered my mind.. briefly. While I was not met by a group of scantily clad women with golden skin, Keith Gordon was there and greeted me with a smile and a handshake; he remembered me. (Great. Yes, I’m the one who shook your hand then ignored you like so much cold beef hanging on a nearby meat hook.) Anyway, at the time, a smile and a handshake seemed customary enough to think to myself, “hey, this guy’s just like me!” Very quickly, however I began to realize that this man was a professional intellectual contender, and that I’d have my work cut out for me if I was to crack him. Actually the previous evening at the film screening, I had noted Keith as being extremely intelligent, thoughtful, witty and fun: all the ingredients of a great conversationalist, so I knew in advance that I’d be in for an interesting time the next day. I had also made a mental note of Keith’s tremendous use of body language and hand gestures to convey his point, as well as how quickly he spoke, and hoped I would be able to keep up!

Upon arriving, after settling in and properly introducing myself, my company, what we do, for who and why, we began talking about recent movies, websites and DVD. I decided to begin my assault with personal information about Gordon; while there is some information available here and there, nothing as yet in the words of Keith himself, and what better way to arm myself than with personal bits of trivia? So when I asked about his early life leading up to his interest in film, here’s what he had to say:

“Well I was born in New York, I grew up, the first years of my life near Yankee Stadium. As that got rougher and rougher because that's what became the infamous South Bronx, my family moved into Manhatten and grew up in the upper-west side. I first fell in love with films at around age seven. My dad took me to 2001 (A Space Oddysey) on its opening weekend, not knowing that it was an existentialist drama about aliens, space and the universe. Thinking that it was a G-rated movie with rocket ships, he knew I'd like it. What was interesting is that I DID. I didn't understand it, but I thought that it was incredibly cool, and the fact that I couldn't understand it is probably what drew me to it. I was like, what WAS that? And he'd take me back to it over and over again. And I think that was what developed my taste for stories that are a little more challenging, a little bit off, you know made the audience have to think. And I became a movie buff more and more as I got through my teens. Started making really bad videos and super-8 movies and started forcing my family and friends to be in them and had literally closets full of unfinished, you know.... Then when I was in high school, I was in a school play, and somebody saw me and said well, do you want to come read for this professional play? I did, I got the job. I was in the professional play, someone saw me in that and said do you want to come read for a movie? Which was Jaws 2. Which I got the job in that. I spent eleven months on location on Jaws 2, which was a terrible film, but it was a great, again, beginning of a film education. And it had never been my dream to be an actor, but I suddenly had this acting career going. And I tried to use it as a kind of paid apprenticeship. I tried to use working with these directors on these films as a chance to learn about films and film making and how that all worked.”

Aha! My cleverly devised ploy worked, just as expected. My next cunning move was to identify what driving forces motivate such an individual in becoming successful, so I inquired as to whom Keith’s inspirations are. He returned a plethora of names like Kubrick, Beethoven and Edward Monk, front and foremost in film being Stanley Kubrick. I now see the level of cerebral detail into which Gordon’s film Waking The Dead delves, and according to the accounts of others additional films such as The Chocolate War and A Midnight Clear. Such depth can be discovered through careful, comprehensive analysis and can be compared to the works of Kubrick and others. Keith disclaims being as good a writer as Kurt Vonnegut, but Gordon’s own brilliance shines in his recountance of the tale. Tricky!

According to Keith, novel-to-film adaptations in screenplays are delicate business. It doesn’t mean simply changing the wording around slightly in order to make sure the camera is pointed in the right direction. It’s the careful process of elimination of huge amounts of story line, subplots and details which, if all were included in the film, would add up to a movie 14 hours long! As a screenplay adaptation writer, it is Gordon’s task to ensure that the full, rich story evolves naturally and in sufficient detail - all in under 2 hours. Interestingly, this topic led to the discovery of a new factoid for me: the WGA (Writer’s Guild Association) has some rather quirky regulations regarding who gets credit for what. According to these rules, the credited screenplay writer for Waking The Dead is noted as Robert Dillon III. Who the heck is Robert Dillon III?

“Well Robert Dillon is somebody who wrote "a" screenplay years before I did for other producers. You know this book was written in 1985 so the book's been around a long time and various people owned it. I never met Robert Dillon, nor did I see his script but the Writer's Guild has a very strange rule. I mean Writer's Guild decides who gets credits on films. And they have these very arbitrary, bizarre rules, which makes some sense on original screenplay writings, but makes no sense on adaptations, because basically they're written so that everything favors the original writer. Now with an original screenplay, that makes sense because then it doesn't matter how many people re-write it, that person who first had the idea should get the credit. With an adaptation, Robert Dillon didn't author this, Scott Spencer did. So the fact that we both did an adaptation on the same book, and there happen to be similarities, it's like well it's the same book, of course there are going to be similarities. But yet under the rules, whoever uses an element of the book first - a scene, a story point, the plot - gets all the credit for that element. So basically whoever gets to a book first will likely end up with the credit for the script. Whether or not that script was used, whether or not the ideas were used, whether or not it was ever seen by other people involved, because of course it's going to all be similar. And if that person, you know, wrote a story about a guy named Fielding and a girl named Sarah, and she dies - I mean it was a very different approach. His story was in chronological order, it had a big Hollywood, happy ending on it, it focused much more on the political side, much less on the love story, it really got into the intricacies of the political campaign, but because of the way the rules work, I would have had to prove that over fifty percent of my script was original to me, which was impossible because it wasn't! So it was kind of a situation where it was like okay, well I guess this guy's going to get the credit but it's kind of weird.”

His life-long dream of directing and producing movies, Gordon has achieved some sense of accomplishment. Although he started out as an adventurous, amateur hobbyist, and ended up a highly respectable actor in the lead roles of several prominent features, only in recent years has he reached a landmark in his dream. Having directed and produced several films of his own, Keith Gordon is well on his way as an “up and coming” filmmaker extraordinaire. Keith says that he considered his early years as an actor in film as a sort of “paid apprenticeship”, keeping his eyes and ears open and asking many questions, taking time to understand everything that was going on around him during the production. His observations sure seem to have paid off; by way of studying the work of others, Keith Gordon has made his way into the position of a noteworthy director working with modern film crews in which the cast and crew all have respect for one another and work together well. He noted that during the filming of Waking The Dead, the sight of Jennifer Connelly nursing her five month old daughter on location now and then made for a sort of hushed tone over the entire filming process. For that reason, thought probably not exclusively, production went smoothly and calmly without a trace of flared tempers or irateness that may arise from time to time during the making of a motion picture.

Something that Keith seems to enjoy is playing the part of producer in the film Waking The Dead. Working closely with an elite task force of co-producers (Stuart Kleinman and Linda Reisman), from time to time Keith was able to get away from the unimaginably immense task of film production to actually direct. I inquired as to just what was expected of him as producer, and here’s what he had to say:

“On this film I made a deal with Scott Spencer taking his book around after he got the rights back from Warner Brothers, I had the material. I made the deals with the actors. I made the deals with the crew. I mean in terms of, not the legal deals, I mean there's ultimately lawyers who fill out the hundred page contracts, I mean I don't do that, but I do the initial negotiating with Billy Crudup's agent, with Jennifer Connely's agent, with all the supporting actors' agents, with the key crew, the cinematographer, editor. You know I talk to them or their agents, you know discuss this is how much money we've got, this is the kind of credit we can give them they come back and say well we want this or that, and I say well we can give you this, but we just can't give you that. Basically do all that stuff. I help design the budget. Again, there's a line producer who does the actual, physical working out of this massive, multi-page budget. But they will sit with me and say well how much money do you want in this area, how much rehearsal time will you need, how many extras are you going to need how many, you know and then we together go okay, well if we put everything I want in, the film's going to be this much over budget. Okay now how do we cut it? And that's usually what you do is you design a budget first that's your wish list and you're way over budget and then you okay now how do we trim this back down to get to the figure we've got to get to which in this case was about eight million dollars.”

Keith goes on to describe several of many different things that can be done to reduce expenses in order to balance the budget such as changing scene views so as not to require so many extras to be paid, or not having so many additional cars in the street. Gordon compares the number of details overseen by producer, from on-call doctors to security to parking the trucks and coordinating costumes, scheduling, budgeting, set design, filming, equipment management, crisis handling, the list goes on and on, saying, “It's just enormous I mean it's like running a war. It's an enormous undertaking.” Not exactly words to make me want to jump up and start filming my own first movie, but definitely words to the wise.

After quite some distraction, I attempted to redouble my efforts in my relentless verbal barrage. And so I asked Keith, the only way I knew how, what would he say is his most important advice that he could give to aspiring filmmaker students? He explains, “First is to be very honest with yourself about what kind of films you want to make. If what turns you on would be to do Armageddon, then that's going to be one career path. If what turns you on is to make truly experimental movies about you know where.. actors don't say any dialogue and it's kind of a silent movie done in a modern way, that's going to be another career path. You want do what I do which is somewhere in the middle which is to make personal movies, but with the hope of reaching a fairly large audience, that's another career path. And I think not enough young filmmakers think about, well what is it I'm trying to do, and who am I trying to reach and how commercial really is that, because that's going to effect how you go about trying to make it happen.” He went on to say, “I think the biggest single thing is tremendous patience. It took me nine years to get Waking The Dead made, it took me six years to get Mother Night made, five years to get A Midnight Clear made. You're not going to get.. it's not going to be easy, it's not going to come together the first time. You will meet people who will promise you the sun the moon and the stars. You will meet con people, you will meet people who will tell you that they have money who don't have money. You will meet well meaning people who lose their money, you will have deals fall apart at the last second, you will meet star actors who will tell you they're interested and then change their mind at the last second, it's just what comes with the territory. It's not you, it's the game. The game sucks. But if you want to make these kind of movies, unless you're wildly independently wealthy and can pay for it yourself, you will play this game. You will chase star actors. You will have studios say, yeah we'll make this movie if you get Actor X, you get Actor X, and the studio will say, well now we want Actress Y to go with him. You know all this kind of stuff will happen, and the key thing is to maintain your patience, and maintain your belief in what you're doing.” A feeding frenzy, indeed. It seems incredible that anything at all gets accomplished in filmmaking with so much real life drama to deal with. He finished with, “And then I would say that if you get to make your movie, the most important thing is to follow the advice of I believe it was François Truffaut but I don't know if this was his quote.. some filmmaker, said the way to be a great director is to know exactly what you want at every moment of the film out of every element of the film and have absolutely no ego about giving it up the second anyone has a better idea. And that is crucial `cause you've got to know what you're trying to do, but if you don't take in what your actors, designers, cinematographer, everybody around you, if you don't take in their brief brilliances, their talents, their points of view, you're a fool, because no one has made a great movie on their own.” Well he certainly seemed to be at no loss for words on that one. At worst, he needed only regain his breath after that volley.

Keith sounds like a reasonable and sharp guy. I began to wonder what type of interaction he has with his actors, whether he micro-manages down to the last detail, or broadens the options and encourages improvisation during the scene. And he came up with an interesting analogy to the business of directing, “The best analogy I can think of would be like the coach of a basketball team, or any sports team. You're very involved. You create the plan, you get the players into shape, you put them through drills, you work, you get to a certain level, but on game day, they've got to go out and execute, you know, you can't take the shot for them. And you can't decide if they're open or not to take the shot. They've got to do it. But, you're very involved, but at a certain point, they've got to take the final step. And it's very much like that in directing.” Going on to describe this preparatory process, “You do a lot of homework, you do research with them, you practice the scenes, you talk about the scenes, you re-write the scenes to make them more comfortable… so the art of a director is walking that line of directing them enough to get what you want, but leaving enough freedom to get the life to be there. And a lot of things are better than what you think you might want to happen I mean you know, all the great directors, even people we think of as control freaks Stanley Kubrick, you know the whole thing where Malcolm McDowell sings Singing in the Rain that came out of something that happened in rehearsals, that wasn't something that was planned ahead of time. It was an idea that Malcolm did and Kubrick went that's great, you know let's use that. So if you don't give your actors freedom, you won't get those wonderful ideas from them that make the scenes better.” I have always been a firm believer in team work and group contribution to large projects, and Gordon’s view only strengthens my own, so I guessed there to be no points scored on this topic.

By this point, I knew that I was contending with a champion and that he wouldn’t go down easy, so I pressed on, “I've always imagined that the filming of a strongly sexual or emotional film might have effects on the personal lives and relationships of the cast & crew. Now did Waking The Dead have any such personal affect for you or any of the other cast and crew members?” He immediately came back with, “Sure, I got engaged to my wife during the pre-production. It was Thanksgiving because it was our 10th anniversary of being together. And I thought well it's been 10 years and I'm making this romantic movie, and she kind of inspired me to make this movie, so I proposed to her when she came up to Montreal. So it had a great effect for my life.” He continued to explain, “And.. in terms of Billy and Jennifer playing lovers, you know everybody always just it's such a funny thing that everyone assumes that people who play lovers have to be lovers. And yet they don't assume that if you're playing a killer, you have to be a killer. I mean they like each other and they were very fond of each other which is very important because they respect each other and they work together well, but they both have relationships, and you know Billy's been in a very long term relationship, you know, just because you act heat, doesn't mean the heat is really there.” That’s pretty much what I was looking for. Often times, you’ve got to wonder if playing intensely romantic or sexual scenes in movies has any level of impact in the personal lives of actors who are involved in a relationship or marriage. For Billy Crudup or Jennifer Connely, it would seem that it is “just a job” which has no profoundly adverse effect on their own personal lives, whereas for Keith Gordon, it turned out to have the impact of a lifetime.

After a short, embarrassing spell of staring blankly into space as I tried with all my might to come up with something - anything - intelligent to say, I spurted out, “Do you have some sort of specific message or something that you want to do with your production and directing or do you just want to be able to express yourself through film in general?” Hmm. Maybe it wasn’t as eloquent as possible, but my attempt at stalling seemed to work. Keith replied with, “In terms of message, there's no one message for me. I guess I'm interested in making people think about their lives and questioning their lives and questioning choices that they make, `cause I think that's the most interesting thing that dramatic art can do.. whether it's theater of film or television, I think if you can make someone think about what they are doing and why, that's really valuable. But it's not like I have something I think people SHOULD do I mean other than think about their lives. I guess if I have a message for people it would be to be conscious, sort of think about your life, don't just go through your life on automatic pilot, you know life is precious and it goes real fast, and whatever conclusions you come to are your own private conclusions but I guess it would be please, God, look in the mirror or look out your window look at that poor person on the street, you know, look at your parents, look at your children, and just try to be aware that you're alive for a very short time.” A powerful statement, even if not concisely stated, but then he’ll admit, “Hey.. life isn't very concise.”

Back with a vengeance, I was certain I would finally stump him with the linguistic prowess of a technological junkie in a digital media revolution, “Okay, let’s talk about DVD.” “Okay!”, he replied. Great. Bad sign: he knows what DVD is. It looks as though I have nothing on this guy. Eyes narrowing, brow furrowed in concentration, I shot out, “What do you think about it?” Without delay, he came back, “Oh I love it!” He began to describe the various aspects of DVD that he appreciated from superior video quality to extra features. I asked him what his plans were for DVD. To my satisfaction, he responded that he was planning a commentary track for Waking The Dead, and that he had just recently completed the commentary for A Midnight Clear which is due out on DVD soon. He also had several choice picks of additional “cut scenes” to be added to the Waking The Dead disc which he had previously described as, “There are scenes I thought were wonderful scenes, that I was sad I felt didn't work to help the film enough to keep them in the movie.” So I’m sure we’ll be seeing some of those.

And it was here, that finally, after all my persistence I was able to strike him on a point that he had not yet thought of, “Well you know, I thoroughly enjoy deleted scenes, and I think most people do, but something that we don’t get to see very often are outtakes such as bloopers and gag reels. What do you think about including some of that type of material?” Well, I know, it was a small point, but at least it was something. He responded with, “I really hadn’t thought of that.” He mentioned that in fact they had produced a sort of post-production gag reel which was only a few minutes in length and included several outtakes, bloopers and one-liner inside jokes amongst the cast & crew, but made the point that, “honestly how many times can you see an actor screw up a line and it still seem funny?” Point, and counter. Oh well, I gave it my best shot. Maybe we’ll see some additional materials on the Waking The Dead disc which are a bit more attentive than the traditional commentary track and deleted scenes. Admittedly, while deleted scenes are great, and I could listen to Keith Gordon all day on a commentary track, they are somewhat commonplace, and it’s nice to see something different from time to time. [Editor’s Note: DVD’ers won’t argue with my motto when it comes to putting production materials on disc: The more ... the better!]

Well, in wrapping things up, I thanked Keith profusely, and there were no hard feelings after the battle of wits. His cool demeanor had me thinking that I was the only one fighting in an imaginary battle in the first place, but I’m sure that in some, “bizarre”, cosmic way, he picked up on it - some how. All of us here at DCN send our best wishes to Keith Gordon and his wife, congratulations on a film well done, Waking The Dead, which opens in theaters nation-wide this Friday, March 24th, and keep your eyes peeled because, who knows, that guy standing quietly in the shadows at the theater just might be someone you know!


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