One of the most exciting interviews we enjoyed at this year’s Sarasota Film Festival was our exclusive sitdown with legendary actor/director Peter Bogdanovich, comedienne extraordinaire Charyl Hines and young director Will Slocombe, in town for the world premiere of the heavily-buzzed-about Pasadena. You can pick up highlights from the interview in the June issue of SRQ magazine. Here, we have an extended transcript of our meeting where we talk about everything from the cinematic quality of modern television to the need for greater gun control regulations! Trust us, there is plenty of good stuff that we couldn’t fit in the magazine.
From the beginning of this movie, there are figurative elephants in the room, topics weighing on characters. How did you approach that making the film?
Peter Bogdanovich: I just did what Will told me to do. He wrote the words. I remembered the words. He said walk over there. That was about it.
Cheryl Hines: Come on!
You fit Poppy so well.
PG: I think it was typecasting.
CH: Peter is right. It’s basically all in the script, so you find out when we first read the script what happens and the history that’s being brought to the table when all these characters come together. Knowing what has happened in the past and what’s about to happen, it definitely makes everything feel loaded and there is a lot going on inside that you are trying not to let escape because its going to be Pandora’s box if the lid comes off and there is trouble. It’s just trying to keep that lid on.
PB: There is a lot of tension between all of the characters. A lot is underscored, which is true of dysfunctional families. They don’t deal with anything. It just sort of simmers underneath the surface.
This sounds like any holiday dinner.
Will Slocombe: We have all been there, where it’s like, just pass the gravy.
PB: That’s why it’s good.
Tensions play out gradually, especially with Deborah. It’s easy at first to see her as a villain who broke up this family.
PB: I liked all the characters. They felt human and real. It turns out they are, based on Will’s family to a degree. They read real, and that’s why I wanted to do this. It was real and it was about people, not about cartoons or comic book characters. 50 people didn’t get shot. It was a very human story. Those are rare, by the way.
CH: I liked the character of Deb because she is in the middle of this family. She is trying to protect poppy from the kids because everybody wants something from him. She wants to love him and wants to keep the peace and to get through this weekend, and to have another good 10 years until everybody gets together again. She is trying and trying, and then it gets to the point where even poppy is making it impossible for her to love him, until she says What am I doing here? And I think that happens in life. Especially the older you get, when you get mature.
PB: I wouldn’t know.
CH: I don’t know if that’s how you say it, but as you go through life…
PB: You ripen.
CH: When you meet people and they have a history. There already has been a story established and now you are involved with that person and all the people who are behind them that they bring to the relationship. I think that’s interesting, That’s what happens when you have your first or second wife or your first or second husband, they come with people attached, kids and other exes, and other stories and histories, and it’s complicated.
Will, to what degree is this your life on screen?
WS: The characters are fairly autobiographical. My father was in the Pentagon for a couple years; in the movie he is a foreign policy expert who knows all this jargon about Iraq, which is the only time that Peter actually emotes and checks in. Or I should say when Poppy does. I have two older sisters from my dad’s first marriage, and I love them. Ideally, everybody in the movie is flawed but everyone is sympathetic. That’s what I want.
So you’re Jacob?
WS: I don’t owe a lot of money, I never went to law school. I’m not in debt. The situation of the movie is completely in service of the story. I don’t know if all this stuff would happen over the course of three days in LA. But there are these real people in this narrative, dramatically structured situation. Hopefully you get something.
You’re so young to write this.
WS: It took me 29 years to write.
Peter, you are so famous for work from the director’s chair. Do you have the urge to just take control?
PB: I try very hard to divorce myself from director part. Right now I’m in show business as an actor. So it isn’t that difficult for me to just zone out on the director. If sometimes the director gets in the way of the performance or something is bothering me as an actor, I will say something. But if it’s just he wants to shoot it this way or that way, I try not to even know what is happening. I did occasionally give Will a little bit of a hard time, but it was only because he was bothering me as an actor, not because I objected to his direction.
WS: There is a scene where Peter has to cry, and I wondered how that was going to go. There was a lot of preparation, it was very difficult and emotional. Usually when you shoot a movie you want to shoot it all one way at the same light. But we didn’t relight, we didn’t reset Peter as an actor to stay in the same place, which Peter was outspoken about.
Talk about directing.
WS: I really think I knew what I wanted. I was confident. I had written the script, and I tried to be as polite as I could, and what I really wanted to do was to get to know these people. I knew we wouldn’t have any rehearsal time, so I would try and set up time for a lunch, or a long phone call or to go to dinner and just sit down and build a trust and relationship so it’s not just some weird young megalomaniac telling you to walk around. It’s this guy you trust. The first thing that would come up at all of these dinners was family. The thing about writing a movie about family is that it’s all universal. I’m not going to go into specifics, but every time I would sit down with people, we could share and we could communicate. I think it was personal to everyone.
Cheryl, we are used to seeing you in stuff that is purely funny. This has some humor but has a different tone than a sitcom.
CH: I do get stabbed. But it’s not funny. The guacamole. That was an interesting thing. It is a different approach, especially from a lot of comedies I have worked in. When I was working with Larry David, he would say things. In a scene where we would be going to bed at night, I would say, well aren’t you going to kiss me goodnight? He’d say, no, it’s not funny. But if you’re a loving couple, wouldn’t you do that? Eh, nobody wants to see it. Ok. So he was very focused on the concept that if it’s not funny, nobody wants to see it. On Curb, it was really just comedy, although now on Suburgatory, we have some more sincere moments that are dramatic, which I like. With Pasadena, t was just a completely different tone, which I also like. I like that Will wrote a script that was a bit tragic and funny at the same time. You can’t help but laugh at these people because they are making bad decisions and they can’t help themselves. You watch it thinking, oh yeah, I do that sometimes or I know that family or that’s my brother and that’s my sister. So yeah, it’s a different approach. When I would shoot Curb Your Enthusiasm or Suburgatory, sometimes I would drive home and think that was some of the dumbest stuff. I don’t know what I just did. That was the craziest day of shooting. I can’t believe I just got stuck in a car wash. But driving home from Pasadena, I would think, wow, that was such an interesting day because we were all in this house together in Pasadena going through real life moments that were created. There were some moments that were pretty crazy, but they weren’t laugh out loud funny.
Are there moments from your own lives to draw from?
PB: As they say in acting class, you find the character in yourself. Of course in the many things, you find your story and then you add this story to it. You find things in your own life and they feed you. I’m not too dramatic about it.
CH: I’m the peacemaker in my family, the peacekeeper. Let’s all settle down.
PB: That’s what you did here.
CH: That’s what I tried to do. It worked for a little while.
Cheryl, you have UCF background?
CH: I graduated with a theater minor and a major in television and radio production.
I’m sure we saw you at Universal.
CH: That’s quite possible.
Peter, with a career working as an actor and director and the shift in era of films from 1970s until now, what changes have you seen?
PB: Even in the ‘70s, things were starting to slip. The Golden Age ended around 1962 when they killed Bugs Bunny. I’m only partially kidding. The ‘70s was a kind of resurgence of something, but all of the directors who came of age in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s were influenced by the Golden Age of Hollywood. As we moved further and further from that Golden period, we’ve lost a lot. As Orson Welles said to me in the ‘70s, we are debasing the audience. He didn’t see what happened in the ‘90s and 2000s, but the debauchery and the body count keeps rising. We are debasing the audience. These killings that keep going on, these mass murders, that we are debating in Congress, what to do when it is quite obvious what to do…
CH: I’m curious, what should they do.
PB: They are very influenced by movies and video games, where the body count is horrendous. It can’t help but desensitize people to the idea of murder. I had a murder in my family and I tell you with one person getting killed, you don’t need more than one to destroy you. So I think that Hollywood and video games, these big Hollywood movies, are definitely responsible for some of the graphic things happening in our society. What would I do? I’d ban the assault weapon. I’d ban high capacity magazines that carry more than 10 bullets. Certainly we should have background checks. You have to have a license to drive a car. You certainly should have a license to own a gun. It’s just insane. People talk about the Second Amendment. Well when the second amendment was written, they had muskets that took a minute to reload. One shot. OK. Hold it. Don’t move I need a minute to reload and shoot you. It’s just insanity. They keep talking about the Second Amendment but the Second Amendment was written in 1776.
WS: I don’t want to get into an arms control debate. What I am saying is that this is a funny movie. You either have gigantic comic book movies with a gigantic franchise, or you get movies like Pasadena. I think the sad part is that someone like Peter, he used to live in that middle ground where a studio would fund an intelligent adult art film. That’s much harder to get these days. For every Good Night and Good Luck, there are 15 action movies. I think that’s the real problem.
Movies like Annie Hall today feel like arthouse films. Paper Moon might be an arthouse film today.
PB: I never made a movie for an arthouse. I tried to make movies for the general public. Look at The Merry Widow from 1934. That was made for a general audience. Or Trouble in Paradise was made for general audience. You watch it today and think what happened? Where did the intelligence and the sophistication go that was so understood and appreciated in that movie? What happened? How did we get so dumbed down to the point where really the most interesting stuff that’s happening in film is on television where you have series like Mad Men and The Sopranos. Homeland and Breaking Bad are much more interesting than any movie I have seen.
CH: They are investing in television now because screens have changed. It used to be that you could only go and see a movie on a big screen. Now it’s different.
PB: They watch them on their iPhone.
CH: They watch them on their iPhone. So, the likelihood they watch a movie on the big screen that they could watch on their iPad, that’s why they keep making these tentpole movies, because they want to see the special effects that are more interesting to see on a big screen. For me, it’s not more interesting, of course, but they get to watch Homeland on an iPad and it’s just as good as if they were watching it. Things change.
PB: In 1968, I released a movie called Targets, which is about a kid who shoots his wife and mother, then goes and shoots about 30 other people. It was based upon a real story. I’d love to say that the movie is not relevant anymore, but that’s not the case. It is more relevant today than it ever was.