Adrian Lyne

Adrian Lyne has been called a visual stylist. Visual stylist. It’s a label that has become somewhat of a cliché in film criticism, inevitably applied to any moviemaker who can take the medium beyond the workaday standards of the average studio potboiler.

A compliment, perhaps, but one that generally puts the emphasis in the wrong place. To be sure, there are many moviemakers who are gifted with a certain visual signature, and Lyne is among them. Spielberg once said something to the effect of “the difference between watching a film on television and watching the same picture on the big screen is the difference between observation and inspiration.” Many people go to see a movie as much for the dazzling field of issues/46/images as for a well-spun narrative. But while the great visual stylists can inspire us to go to the movies, it’s the good storytellers who keep us in our seats. Adrian Lyne is first and foremost a storyteller—a sharp, often provocative storyteller—who has repeatedly kept audiences coming back for more.

Though a longtime resident of the French countryside, Adrian Lyne got his start directing commercials in his native England. Despite misgivings about the medium, he managed to turn circumstances to his advantage: “I’ve always hated advertising, but I treated commercials as little films. I wasn’t remotely interested in whether or not they sold the product, it was just a fabulous way for me to learn how to do it.”

“It’s always those bits and pieces—the abrasive things—that people remember. Hanging onto that stuff is part of it; you have to go to war on these things.”

This period in Lyne’s career saw him creating whatever opportunities he could to learn and practice his craft. According to Lyne’s current assistant, Andrew Cohen, Adrian “has an observational style and obsession with little bits of behaviors that indicate a lot more than they may seem to. For Adrian, those ‘little’ details of behavior are sometimes the meat of the scene. That’s why he insists on shooting his own insert shots: because most people don’t pay attention to behavior like he does. In the end, you realize that Diane Lane might be saying she doesn’t know something—but the way she’s stirring her coffee says she does. In other words, her behavior is betraying the truth. Those telling moments of behavior are what Adrian seeks to elicit and record.”

His films are layered with pictorial flourishes and textural details that pull you into the world of his characters. To the extent that he has a style, it’s a style very much in pursuit of story. The issues/46/images are about something; they are leading you somewhere. Pleasing to look at, and shot with a discerning eye, Fatal Attraction, Jacob’s Ladder and Lolita, in particular, are examples of Lyne films that work because the visuals are always there to serve the story and performances. A champion of actors, because after all, “it’s their film,” Lyne sees his work with them as central to what motivates him. He remarks: “People say, ‘Oh, you do pretty movies; you’re good visually.’ Of course I care about that, but what I really care about is the acting, the performances.” Think of Glenn Close and Michael Douglas in Fatal Attraction; Jeremy Irons and the neophyte Dominique Swain in Lolita; or Tim Robbins in Jacob’s Ladder. Perhaps not always recognized as such, this fellow is a wonderful director of actors.

Richard Gere and Diane Lane in Adrian Lyne’s Unfaithful.

A one-time trumpeter in an amateur jazz band, Lyne the film director still has a bit of the jazz instinct in him. As long as he has a basic structure to rise from, he can improvise and find new material in the moment. “He sees actors do certain things and wants to record it—to capture behavior as it happens,” says Cohen. “That’s why I think he shoots a lot of his rehearsals, because he doesn’t want to miss anything.”

When MM spoke with Adrian Lyne, he was in Los Angeles doing post on his latest picture, Unfaithful. Starring Richard Gere, Diane Lane and Oliver Martinez, Unfaithful begins as a tale of infidelity and deceit that unravels into the dark waters of murder. A warm and outspoken conversationalist, Lyne talked about the origins and influences of the new film, the ups and downs of directing a career in Hollywood and how he intends to show us a side of Richard Gere that we’ve never seen before.

MM: Can you talk a bit about your new film, Unfaithful?

AL: It’s very loosely based on a French film called La Femme Infidèle (1969), directed by Claude Chabrol. It’s always been one of my favorite films and I thought for that reason that I shouldn’t touch it, but I did (laughs). Unfaithful is the story of a man (Richard Gere) who finds out that his wife is cheating. I think that what’s unusual in the movie is that I’m showing Richard Gere in a way that he really hasn’t been seen before; he’s a man who is hard done by and doesn’t have the sort of swagger that you associate with Richard. We worked very hard on everything—the way he walked, his behavior and so on—to change him from what you might expect of him, to this man—this husband—who is cheated on. It’s the sort of subject that always interests me: jealousy and the language of suspicion and guilt. I think it interests people.

MM: Are you concerned that the audience may lose sympathy for the characters, considering the story?

AL: At the end of the second act, the husband kills the lover and the movie could very well be over because you are left with a husband who is a murderer and a wife who is an adulteress: two people who ostensibly we have very little sympathy for. Happily, you really do sympathize with them and want them to stay together. The last act is about how Diane Lane deals with the fact that her husband is a murderer and the ramifications of that: whether or not they can stay together and make it work.

MM: This film is like an R-rated version of David Lean’s Brief Encounter—which was a far more restrained depiction of infidelity.

Glenn Close and Michael Douglas begin an illicit affair in Fatal Attraction (1987) [Photo credit: Teegarden/Nash Collection]

AL: Well, Brief Encounter is certainly one of my top five favorites of all time. I looked at Brief Encounter very closely, to be honest. I had a lot of dialogue with the studio, which was very anxious to have us portray a couple who were ‘missing’ something in each other; a couple who had been together for a while and had lost contact.

MM: They wanted a marriage in trouble?

AL: Yes, but I didn’t want that. Where’s the drama in that? Of course she should have an affair—so should he! So I avoided that, which was a risky kind of a route because you don’t know whether you have a last act or not, after the lover is dead.

MM: You must want to indicate to the audience that it’s not premeditated—that she’s not looking to have an affair.

AL: In Unfaithful we have them being blown together. It’s an interesting sort of analogy—two people being blown together by a storm. And I’ve got a good windstorm—but it has a sort of inevitability and potentially can be very corny.

MM: I’ve always enjoyed the little nuances in your films; the way you add texture to a scene with a very quick cutaway or bit of detail.

AL: I think people notice that stuff. I was watching Monster’s Ball, which is a fabulous movie. It’s just a little gem: beautifully shot, and shot in a way I never would have done. It made me feel very old, really, because it wasn’t eccentric for its own sake, it was just very original. There is a moment in it when Billy Bob goes into a diner and asks Halle Berry for an ice cream—a tub of ice cream—and he asks for a plastic spoon. He wants to eat the ice cream with a plastic spoon rather than with an ordinary one. The plastic spoon thing just crops up another couple of times in the movie at key points. This idiosyncrasy—it just makes the movie. The plastic spoon makes the movie! It makes it specific and wonderful. It’s in the details, and hopefully I’ve got quite a bit of that.

MM: To what extent do you work out these details before you begin to shoot a film?

AL: Before every film I’ve done, I have an ideas book. I write stuff down that I’ve seen that I think might be good in the movie; just bits of observation. Some of it’s visual—locations and so on—but over the years it’s changed and now it tends to be more bits of business, more dialogue, actually. You pull from everywhere. I saw a film a long, long while ago where this woman is lying on a bed, anticipating making love to a guy for the first time, and he hadn’t come in yet. She is shaking physically, trembling with excitement. It was the most erotic thing—much more erotic than when they actually did it. So I hung on to this. I thought, I have to do the trembling thing. That’s the core of the scene; that’s what people will remember.

It’s interesting how you glean things. There’s a bit where Oliver Martinez’s character has Diane Lane read a bit of something in Braille. He makes up a little story as he is steering her hand along the bumps on the page. I thought it was a delicious scene. Originally, it wasn’t a Braille book at all. One of the executives at the studio suggested the Braille thing and I grabbed it. I thought, this is great, because of all the physicality involved. Somebody said that I’m a bit like a sponge, grabbing things here and there, soaking stuff up. You have to be, really.

MM: It’s funny to hear you mentioning getting a good idea from an executive. It’s so rare to hear a moviemaker say something nice about an executive.

AL: And I say it with my mouth open because it is rare. Their every instinct—and I have to say this is without exception—is to iron out the bumps, and it’s always the bumps that are the most interesting stuff. You might have a bit where the kid lifts the lid up while he’s peeing and they all think ‘Oh, that’s disgusting. We don’t want that in the opening scene.’ And, of course, it gets a huge laugh. It’s always those bits and pieces—the abrasive things—that people remember. Hanging onto that stuff is part of it; you have to go to war on these things.

MM: How do you know when to cut your losses?

AL: You never cut your losses. You can’t.

MM: How should a new moviemaker navigate that territory, given the fear that ‘If I push too hard or fight too hard, this is going to be the last film I make’?

AL: Before I started my first film, which was actually Foxes, with Jodi Foster, I rang up Howard Zieff (Private Benjamin, My Girl), who was a very famous commercial director, and actually quite successful as a feature film director. I said, ‘What would you tell me? Give me some advice before I start this film.’ He thought for a long while and finally said: ‘Be on it at the end.’ Meaning, don’t get replaced—which certainly is the harsh reality of your first film.

MM: You have to win a few points before you can get your own way.

AL: Well, I think just the fact that you are making your first film is a huge step. It makes it incredibly easier to make a second—unless you fuck up majorly. Foxes was a movie that didn’t do a lot of business but it didn’t do too badly critically and eventually they offered me other things. The interesting thing was that next I tried a film called Star Man, which Michael Douglas was producing.

“Somebody said that I’m a bit like a sponge, grabbing things here and there, soaking stuff up. [As a director] you have to be, really.”

MM: Star Man was eventually directed by John Carpenter…

AL: Yes, all sorts of people worked on it. And we all got sacked until John Carpenter. During this period I was offered Flashdance, which I thought was just horrendous—I thought the script was awful—and I turned it down. That’s difficult to do when you aren’t making any headway. Then I turned it down a second time. The third time it was offered to me I realized that, six months later, I was no nearer to a film. So I thought, maybe I can make something of it. Maybe I can make the dances interesting. In the end I think you’ve got to be careful not to be too precious; you can wait forever if you wait for exactly the right thing. Then, when you have a success it’s much easier to do what you want. I loved the novel of 9 1/2 Weeks and everybody said, ‘You’ve got to be nuts to do that. It will be like committing professional suicide.’

MM: Why is that?

AL: Well, to be honest, it kind of nearly was (laughing)! All kinds of people warned me because it was a sadomasochistic love story. The novel is just wonderful—fascinating in its possibilities. There are bits and pieces of the movie that work, but I never did get a true sense of the novel. It was a failure, really.

MM: Was Fatal Attraction a turning point for you in any sense? It feels like a very tight film, almost like you were coming into your own.

Tim Robbins emerges from hell in Jacob’s Ladder (1990) [Photo credit: Teegarden/Nash Collection]

AL: I suppose it was kind of a turning point in that the film became almost part of the language a bit. People talk about ‘zeitgeist’—which I’ve never completely understood—but that’s what they said endlessly about it, that it summed up the period.

MM: To some degree I guess most directors specialize in or seem to revisit certain themes. Your work tends to deal with characters who, in one way or another, cross the line or violate some code related to how we should behave around sex.

AL: People always say that but the interesting thing to me was that Fatal Attraction had pretensions, anyway, of being a Hitchockian thriller.

MM: And it is.

AL: Well, I hope it is. But what people take away from the movie is not Glenn Close putting acid on the car or even the last 10 minutes when they are flailing around in the bathroom. What they remember is Michael fucking her over the sink early on—which was like 30 seconds—(laughing) and another 30 seconds of them making out in the elevator. You know what I’m saying? And that’s what people take away from the movie. But there’s another two hours and five minutes! And I guess it worked, or they wouldn’t have gone to the movie. So, I think that when they say, ‘You’re obsessed with sexuality’ I think…

MM: …they are?

AL: Yes, I think the truth is that people are. We are. The world is.

MM: How do you create an environment for your actors to deal with strong emotions—or sexuality—in front of the camera, so that they are relatively comfortable?

AL: I always have the least number of people possible on the set. If there are two cameras, I always do one of them. One thing that I always do, which sometimes makes them laugh, is that I’m there sort of like a cheerleader. I’m always quite vocal in supporting them. It’s almost like I’m doing it with them, without being corny about it. I always think that the main worry with actors is whether or not they’re looking any good, so I always sort of steer them.
If one thing they are doing is looking good I literally say, ‘Good, do it again, do it again’ in a kind of a fervor. It sounds silly but it can work because the idea of two actors going at it in a kind of stony silence with people filming it is a bit depressing, really.

MM: Are there politics in working with stars? Some of them I’m sure will come onto a picture with certain demands and expectations.

AL: You show them that, ‘This is all I’ve got. I will spill my guts for you to make this good without any mask.’ When you say that and they understand that there isn’t any kind of war between you, then you tend to get the same thing back from them.

MM: Sort of the way it is in life…

AL: That’s right. If you are prepared to make a fool of yourself for them then you usually get that back. I think that there are points where you become so close to an actor, you know them so well, almost as well or better than their spouse. You have to know them, warts and all.

MM: How do you develop that rapport?

AL: You sit in their trailer with them a lot, talking. That sort of thing. But I don’t spend a lot of time socializing with the actors. I think you are knighted by the project and you both desperately want this thing to be good.

Jeremy Irons pursues his teenage step-daughter Dominique Swain in the second film version of Nabokov’s classic tale, Lolita (1997) [Photo credit: Teegarden/Nash Collection]

I remember with Tim Robbins, we were doing a scene in Jacob’s Ladder where he’s kind of in hell—the whole film is a process of him dying—and he’s in a kind of hell hospital where he’s screaming ‘I’m alive’ and they’re saying ‘No, you’re not; you’re dead.’ He’s clinging to life, essentially. I was watching him do this and I was crying because I was very moved by it, and I couldn’t see properly because I was crying. And I looked to the side and saw that my operator was crying as well, and so was the cameraman. After the scene I walked with Tim across the parking lot and his face was bloodshot from yelling and crying; he just spilled his guts for me. We walked in total silence and then I remember saying, ‘You know, you were really good.’ There was a long silence and then he said, ‘I know.’ It’s a moment that nobody who’s not a director will ever, ever understand. I really love the guy. Not in a sexual way, but when you get that close to somebody via the scene, there’s nothing better on earth.

MM: How do you prepare once you have the script more or less where you want it? A musician will practice a piece, a dancer rehearses the dance. How do you prepare to shoot?

AL: I wish you could see my screenplay. On the left-hand side of the page I have my assistant put in all of my ideas. Sometimes, I’ll have him take an image out of a magazine that in some way relates to how I want to shoot something. There’s a scene in Unfaithful where Diane Lane is in the bath and eventually Richard Gere gets in with her. I knew how I wanted to shoot her: there was a particular shot of a woman I’d seen in a photo magazine and I knew that the opening shot of her in the bath was going to be that. So I got my assistant to stick it on the left-hand side of the page of that particular scene. With computers, we can do a sort of computerized page of notes, including—in black and white—that picture. My screenplay is like a patchwork of stuff on the left-hand side and that, I find, really works. The trouble with making notes and stuff is that you forget: you open your notebook after you’ve shot the movie and think, ‘Oh, Christ, I wish I’d done that.’

MM: You mention your assistant quite often. For some directors, the relationship to an assistant is a purely functional one. How would you characterize your relationship with your assistants?

AL: I have a very particular relationship with them. Casting the assistant for me is really important, and I’ve been very lucky. On Flashdance I had a guy name Casey Silver who ended up as the head of Universal; another guy, Jonathan Nossiter, ended up winning a prize for one of his films, Sunday, at Sundance. To be honest, I’ve tended to have a closer relationship with my assistant than with the producer; it’s not quite true, but it feels that way at times. They’re out there all the time, getting CDs or gathering reference or whatever. I’ve got a bright kid now, Andrew Cohen. I saw a lot of applicants and he had actually done a spec commercial and it was really good; well-cast and well shot. I thought, ‘I’ll use this kid ‘cause he’s actually done something rather than telling me what he’s gonna do.’

MM: What are your plans for the future? What’s after Unfaithful?

AL: Just to go back to Provence and stare into space (laughs). I haven’t done that many films and I always try to take a break in between. I try to avoid going like a lemming from one to another. I think it’s good to go fallow a bit. I’m lucky because I’ve had movies that have done well and I’m in a situation where I can. MM