Adapting to Directing

Adrien Brody and Keith Gordon
Adrien Brody and Keith Gordon on
the set of The Singing Detective.

As an actor, Keith Gordon made a splash when he portrayed a young man homicidally in love with his car in John Carpenter’s Christine. He also had memorable roles in Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill and Home Movies.

Gordon’s finest moments, though, have been behind the camera. He’s made a niche for himself by adapting challenging novels and proving their stories could become compelling cinema.

His 1988 directing debut, The Chocolate War, followed Robert Cormier’s popular novel about a Catholic schoolboy named Jerry Renault, who runs afoul of the school’s administration and his peers when he refuses to sell candy for a fundraiser.

Gordon followed that film with his haunting 1992 adaptation of William Wharton’s A Midnight Clear, which starred Ethan Hawke, Gary Sinise, Peter Berg, Kevin Dillion, Frank Whaley and Arye Gross as a group of American soldiers in the Battle of Bulge. Gordon earned an Independent Spirit nomination for his script.

Gordon’s other directorial efforts include his takes on Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night and Scott Spencer’s Waking the Dead. His last movie was a big-screen reworking of Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective, and he’s currently working on another film with Ethan Hawke called Billy Dead.

Gordon presented his first two films at this Spring’s Kansas City Filmmakers Jubilee (www.kcjubliee.org). Between presentations, the director took the time to explain how he’s been able to disprove the old saying that the worst books make the best movies.

Dan Lybarger (MM): After watching all the films you’ve directed, I’ve been struck by how your protagonists are either unable to deal with reality or are trying to remake it.

Keith Gordon (KG): Yes. That seems to be something I’m very drawn to and I wish I could give you a really articulate reason as to why. I wish I could also claim to be so sensitive to my own psyche that I knew that going into stories. That is among the things that people have pointed out to me where I had to go, “Wow! That’s true!”

I don’t say to my agent, ‘Find me a story about somebody who’s disconnected with reality.’ It just seems that those things speak to me because I have my own troubles with reality. Look at what I do for a living—I create a reality. In creating movies, you’re creating your own version of reality. In some ways, I’m doing what my characters are doing in trying to figure out how reality works. Clearly, it’s a theme that means something, but it’s so not conscious when I’m first drawn to something.

With me, it’s very visceral and chemical. I just read a story and go, ‘Oooh! That’s a cool story. I like it.’ Or I can imagine that as a movie. I can see the shots in my head. But I don’t know ahead of time that I’m going to be drawn to it. You’re absolutely right—that is a theme.

MM: You’re working on an Isaac Asimov story, The End of Eternity, now.

KG: That was really brought to me. It’s the first thing I’ve ever really done on commission. On that, I’m not attached as a director; I was just hired to write the script. That’s a totally different thing. I don’t see that as part of my body of work in the same way.

It’s been a good experience. The people have been nice and it’s going to pay my rent for the next two years. But it’s not like this is my baby and this is my vision of the universe. That one doesn’t really count, I think. The other thing I’m working on is Billy Dead. That character has a warped view of reality. That would hold true there. And A Thousand Days, which is another piece of mine, is very similar. It’s about an older man who’s looking back and trying to make sense of it all. Whatever the reason, it seems be where my heart goes.

MM: When I talk with people about your acting gigs, they say “Hey wasn’t he in Christine? Wasn’t he in Back to School, too?” When I mention the movies you’ve directed, they might have caught one on cable.

KG: That’s the reality of my career, and that’s probably the reality in most filmmakers’ careers. Somebody like John Sayles has been lucky enough to have a couple of his films break through, although some of them haven’t. But there’s a lot of us out there like Charles Burnett, and people just don’t know their films. It’s frustrating, but not that frustrating. I don’t worry about it too much. I’m so happy to be making the films I want to make. I’m so lucky to be telling the stories I want to tell that if I can do that and make a living, I’m not going to bitch about how many zeros they gross at the box office.

If something breaks out, great! But that’s not what I do it for. Because the reality is, even if one of my films did much better, it’s not going to make the next one much easier. The sad reality of it is, generally, even if you have a success in the indie world, that only makes it easier if you want to make the same movie again.

If you want to do something different, I don’t think it’s going to make much of the difference. I try not to hold too much of a grudge against distribution people because it’s all so impossible—it’s like they’re going to Vegas. They roll the dice and what’s going to happen happens. Nobody’s trying to screw up your movie.

MM: You were in touch with a lot of the writers whose work you’ve adapted; you corresponded with William Wharton and Vonnegut and Scott Spencer were on the set and did cameos. But with The Singing Detective, you’re working with a 10-year-old script by Dennis Potter, who died before you even started shooting.

KG: We couldn’t get him to do a cameo because, being dead, it just ruined the whole thing.

MM: Was it tough to work on that film, knowing the primary author wasn’t available?

KG: It was tough in that, first of all, his stuff is so dense. There are a million questions I would have liked to ask him. Luckily, he was very talkative and did a lot of interviews. But I could only use those to get his general philosophies. He didn’t talk about this adaptation very much. There were bits and pieces. You go through a 400-page book and you find three or four quotes about the script to The Singing Detective and you kind of circle those. But generally, it was about art in general or his style in general or musical numbers in general. That was somewhat useful and somewhat helpful, but I was of course sorry to not have him around to be able to say ‘What was your intent here? What were you thinking here?’

The other thing, of course, was that he was a notoriously irascible, difficult, angry guy. So half of me was thinking maybe it’s okay that he’s not around because apparently he didn’t tend to make directors very happy. He would blow up on the set.

MM: When you described working with Potter’s text on the DVD, it’s reminiscent of how cartoonist Robert Crumb describes working with American Splendor author Harvey Pekar. Normally, he’d illustrate text with more imagery whereas Pekar just draws stick figures of people talking, so the artist has to come up with something interesting to accompany the text.

KG: That certainly is Dennis’ writing. He’d just say, “A hospital room.” He doesn’t describe the hospital room. He doesn’t say what it looks like. He’ll say, “A dance number involving doctors” and doesn’t say much more. And you go, ‘Okay.’ Which is great in a way, because it gives you some freedom. But it does mean you have to guess at what somebody who’s no longer around had wanted.

[As a screenwriter] I tend to do just the opposite because I’m writing for myself to direct. I try to write my scripts in a rich way, so that people in my crew know whatever is in my head. Although it’s funny because the script I’m writing now for Tom Cruise’s company, one of their complaints about my first draft, and they seemed happy, was that it was too dense. They said, “My God. You described every color and what the walls look like, the photographs.” I said, ‘That’s because I’m writing it as if I was directing it.’ But as it is now, if I’m writing it and I’m not directing it, that could be almost inhibiting for somebody else, and also they’re not used to reading it.

They’re used to reading a script that zooms along, and I’ll do paragraphs about what a room looks like because I want you to get a sense of the place, like a novel. It’s something I’ve gotten used to doing, but I think a lot of writers are very sparse. Potter, very clearly, cared very desperately about the words and the dialogue and clearly put a lot of thought into that. The world around them, that was sort of up to you to create.

It was also hard because I’ve worked with a lot of writers I respect. They weren’t screenwriters. I love Kurt Vonnegut; he’s a hero of mine. But he was the first to say, “My book isn’t a movie. Change what you need to change.” Potter wrote this as a film and Potter was notorious for hating when people changed his stuff. I felt a little handcuffed but okay with that. I went in to Mel [Gibson, the producer], Potter’s agent and everybody else saying, ‘My intention is to do what he would have wanted. My intention is not to reinvent the wheel.’

Looking back on it, maybe there were things I was too chicken to change, but that is what I felt the deal was on that. It was an homage to somebody I admired and I wanted to make the film he would have been happy with, as opposed to the novel, where I’m already changing it. But even there, I’ve always tried to be really careful about changing the meanings of novels. Certainly with The Chocolate War, there was an important change in the ending, which has remained controversial to this day. I still feel that was the right choice to make, but that’s the one time I went against the author’s original concept.

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