Waking the Dead Filmmaker Keith Gordon Bucks the Hollywood System

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:53

    Keith Gordon

    At 17, he played the young Bob Fosse in All That Jazz. The following year, he costarred in Brian De Palma's Dressed to Kill as the son of philandering socialite Angie Dickinson. Gordon continued to act through most of the 80s, in everything from The Legend of Billie Jean to the Rodney Dangerfield comedy Back to School, in which he played the mortified son.

    In 1987, he made his debut as writer-director with The Chocolate War, a dark, ironic fable about prep-school social structures as a microcosm of grownup politics. He followed that up with his 1992 adaptation of William Wharton's novel A Midnight Clear, a haunting, bloody World War II fable in which a platoon of young grunts with genius IQs tried to carve out a makeshift peace with a platoon of German soldiers in a wintry forest.

    His third film, 1996's Mother Night, adapted the Kurt Vonnegut novel about an American intellectual and outsider who willingly becomes a propagandist for the Nazis. Though the film was criticized for not capturing the sharp, ironic edges of its source, it had lovely passages of snow-swept European angst, and gave Nick Nolte one of his most rewarding roles.

    His latest, Waking the Dead, adapts Scott Spencer's 1986 novel about two lovers who stay together from the Vietnam era through the mid-70s, despite being on opposite sides of the political spectrum. Though outwardly Gordon's most direct and simple film, in some ways it's his most unyielding and mysterious. It's a love story and a thriller, but it doesn't give the audience an easy time on either count. The lovers can be abrasive and self-centered at times, and they're equally likely to fight in public as to moon over each other in private; when a tragic event leaves one of them presumed dead, Gordon refuses to disclose whether one lover's suspicion that the other is alive is proof of an afterlife, evidence of a Vertigo-like deception or simply evidence that sanity is a fragile thing.

    Billy Crudup is superb as the hero, Fielding, whose strong principles are partly obscured by a craving for social acceptance. Jennifer Connelly plays Sarah, who's as infuriatingly self-righteous as she is ideologically committed to radical liberalism. Their easy charisma and powerful sexual chemistry could make them both matinee idols. The film's mood is of a piece with Gordon's other work. Warm photography in the 60s flashbacks gives way to a colder, bluish look as the fates close in on the lovers; medium shots and long takes give the actors room to breathe; and, as is the case throughout Gordon's oeuvre, desolate, snowy landscapes create a dreamlike, melancholy mood, conferring mythic status on the characters even as the plot isolates and crushes them.

    Though Gordon has achieved a degree of autonomy and integrity, he's still at the mercy of the Hollywood system, which places layers of agents, lawyers and middle managers between him and the actors he wants to work with. Waking the Dead wouldn't have been made without the help of Egg Pictures, run by Jodie Foster, a fan of Gordon's movies who helped shepherd the project through the studio minefields. Gordon took a tiny part in the wretched Julia Roberts-Nick Nolte comedy I Love Trouble specifically so that he could get the script for Mother Night into Nolte's hands (his line was, "Yeah, she's cute, isn't she?"). Nolte, who quickly agreed to do the film for peanuts, was surprised to learn that his agent had told Gordon that the actor wasn't interested.

    I interviewed Gordon at Essex House.

    The film is very delicate. I'm curious to see how people react to it.

    It's interesting. [At test screenings] some people love it and other people hate it. I have yet to discern any trend I can make sense of. The only thing I can discern is that really young males seem to have a hard time with it. I'm talking under 22. But except for young men, the reactions have been generally positive, especially among women, and beyond that, highly individual and impossible to predict. It seems like people who are young and cynical don't respond to it. People who are older, or who have experienced some sort of loss, tend to be more open to it.

    It's in the same vein as a film like Topper or Ghost, but it took me a while to figure that out. It's unyielding and mysterious. It doesn't give people the validation they want. You know, "Yes, it's really a ghost," or "No, it's all in his head."

    I grew up at a time when it wasn't this odd division between art films or independent films and so-called "real movies."

    "Real movies" in the Hollywood sense, meaning movies with a big budget and stars.

    Right. When I was growing up, real movies were The Conversation or Don't Look Now or Klute or Days of Heaven. You went to the movies knowing you might be challenged or not given an easy answer, or shown something ambiguous. It's only fairly recently that this has become a quote-unquote daring thing to do.

    Fielding, the young politician hero of Waking the Dead, is this guy who has an attraction to this counterculture girl who's outside of the mainstream. And yet he is pulled, because of his talent, in the direction of the establishment. Because of where you are right now as a director, did you identify with Fielding?

    Absolutely. That's part of the reason why, when I read the novel, it spoke as deeply as it did to me. But when I started thinking about it as a project to do, I thought, "Isn't that also true of most people regardless of their profession?" I mean, most people reach some kind of crossroads in their lives where they think, "Well, this isn't the nicest or most moral or most whatever thing to do, but it's good for my job, it's good for my career." It seems to me that Sarah is as much an extreme person as Fielding is. They both need to find a middle ground. Fielding ends up at the end of the film struggling to find a way to exist within the system and still have some integrity. It's rarely possible to say, as Sarah might, "Screw the system, I'm going to go live on a mountain someplace." That's not practical. Life is all about finding a middle ground.

    In 1992, when you were doing publicity for A Midnight Clear, you were quoted as saying, "I'd rather not live as well as the Hollywood elite and do things I care about than make films that are garbage and have a mansion on the hill." Do you still feel that way?

    The reality is, I live perfectly comfortably. I'm not starving. I don't need a Porsche. I don't need an Armani suit. I don't need a 4000-square-foot mansion. I love my wife. I love working on things I care about. It's weird. In Hollywood, they have no perspective on money. My agent will say to me, "You've got to make some money!" And I'll say, "Are you kidding? I'm making more than 99 percent of this country."

    Is there a degree of condescension when you talk to studio people or money men? I get this mental image of a studio executive putting an arm around your shoulder and saying, "You do good little films, kid. Now come with us and make real movies."

    I have those conversations all the time. To me, real movies are things that come from my heart. What would not be real is doing something just to make a buck. There might come a point where I've got two kids in college and Free Willy 12 might start to look pretty good. But I'm not there yet.

    Do you really have more freedom working on a limited budget, or is that a cliche?

    You don't have as many people second-guessing you. And you have a moral stand you can take. If I made Waking the Dead for $70 million starring Tom Cruise, morally I couldn't look the studio in the eye and say, "Let's go with ambiguity. Let's leave it up to the audience to decide." I'd be spending their money and they'd have every right to make sure they got a film that appealed to as many people as possible. By making the film for $8 million, you can make your stand and still have a shot at finding an audience. I've been lucky in that the studios I've worked with have been attuned to that philosophy. They like those kinds of movies. The tradeoff is freedom for cash. I like the freedom.

    You live in L.A. now, right?

    Yeah. I'd love to move back here. I grew up right near Yankee Stadium. That area became fairly rough. You know, "the South Bronx." But when I was a kid it was a working-class area. As it got rougher, my family moved into Manhattan. My parents still live on the Upper West Side, on 83rd St. Same little apartment for 32 years. I went to P.S. 9, and then I went to Dalton. On scholarship.

    An important distinction.

    One you have to make right away. Otherwise when people hear you went to Dalton, they immediately get a picture of your life.

    I pictured a rowing team.

    We certainly did okay, my family. My father was in theater. But by Dalton standards, I was the scholarship kid. I didn't have the sneakers that came out that week. The stereo in my room was a small, inexpensive stereo, not some monstrosity. The weirdest thing was, when I first started going there in the fifth grade, the kids were never allowed to come to my house because I lived on the west side.

    An east side bias?

    It was surreal. I wrote a never-to-be-produced tv pilot that was based on these two kids' fantasy worlds. They went to a school that had that Dalton-style, surreal view of the rest of the planet.

    In a weird way, that description of your childhood parallels the situation you're in now, professionally. You're not wanting, by any stretch of the imagination. You're satisfied in your work and home lives. Yet in the circles you travel, you're considered somehow?

    Unambitious. Yeah. It's very odd and very sad.

    Is acting something you were never totally attached to? Was your eye always somewhere else?

    It was on doing exactly what I'm doing now.

    Does it strike you as significant that you played the young Bob Fosse in All That Jazz, and in Dressed to Kill you played this gadget freak and photographer who was essentially?

    ?the young Brian De Palma. That's interesting. I hadn't really thought of that in quite that context.

    It was like you were being anointed even though you didn't know it.

    I tried to use those jobs as a kind of apprenticeship. I was a film buff as a kid. I saw 2001 as a kid with my dad. I don't think he knew what he was getting into. I think he thought it would be a film about rocket ships. It blew my mind. I didn't understand it. But I think I understood that I wasn't supposed to understand it. I made him drag me back five, six, seven times.

    There is a certain Kubrickian quality to your movies. The silent images with no sound, only music. The way you'll hold a shot for a very long time on characters that are not speaking, just thinking.

    I saw A Clockwork Orange 20 times. I saw The Shining 20 times. I internalized them. I steal things from Kubrick without even thinking about it. Sometimes I look at my movies and think, "Oh, hey, that slow zoom?I stole that from Barry Lyndon." Other times it's conscious. Before I'll do a film I'll watch certain films over and over again to get myself on a certain mindset. Before making A Midnight Clear, I looked at The Shining a lot, because of the cold and the snow, and I watched Barry Lyndon for the sense of small people in a big world.

    I have prepared a list of Gordonian elements.


    Number one, war and how people are shaped by war. It recurs through all of your movies. Number two, what it means to be a man and an individual as opposed to part of the machine or the institution. Number three, snow. Number four, adaptations of novels. And number five, New York.

    I can see New York elements in some films, but that's one you'd have to stretch for. There might be a reference to New York in The Chocolate War, but otherwise it doesn't fit that item on your list. All the others I think are very clear. I can't speak for any other director, but I don't set out to do recurring themes.

    A lot of storytellers don't. It just happens.

    You're dead-on about snow.

    Why snow?

    There's something about snow that is very magical, in a cinematic way. But it can also be very creepy. It can distort your perceptions. And in falling, it creates this thing you can only half see through.

    It hides the world.

    And yet it's pretty. Darkness, which is the thing films traditionally use to create mystery, is purely creepy. There's nothing that pretty about darkness. It's just dark. Snow functions in much the same way as darkness, and yet it's also got a beauty and a sense of salvation, if you want to get pretentious about it. We're vulnerable in it. We're not designed to be out in it.

    The Nicholson popsicle at the end of The Shining.

    Snow makes you cold and small. There's something about Billy Crudup walking through the snow in Waking the Dead, something very young about that. He always looks like he's nine years old in that shot.

    I love the scenes in Eyes Wide Shut of Tom Cruise walking through New York in the cold. To me, somehow it captured not the actual experience, but the memory of it, or the dream of it. I know the film was shot in London on sets, that the streets are too narrow and the signs are all wrong?

    Like that matters.

    Roger Ebert was bitching about that aspect of the critical reaction on his show a couple weeks ago. He pointed out that Rear Window was shot in Hollywood on a set, but it's one of the great New York films.

    Like in Rear Window, the artificiality of the settings in Eyes Wide Shut contributes to the unique atmosphere. If Kubrick shot it in a prosaic, real way, it wouldn't have been a Kubrick film. I'm still not sure why so many people didn't understand that. The very title Eyes Wide Shut implies "dream" pretty heavily. That's why the artificiality was essential and wonderful. He created a world that was like the New York you'd see in a dream.