Director Bette Gordon’s new feature, Handsome Harry, will premiere this Saturday at the world-famous Tribeca Film Festival. Gordon is a veteran moviemaker, having been involved in the industry for more than 35 years. With an all-star cast that includes Steve Buscemi, Jamey Sheridan, Campbell Scott, John Savage and Aidan Quinn, Gordon’s latest film tells the unique story of Harry (Sheridan), a lonely Vietnam vet who has seemingly lost the ability to love. When he receives a call from fellow Navy vet Tom (Buscemi), who is on his death bed, Harry decides to go on a journey to seek forgiveness from a comrade he once betrayed and for a crime he committed a lifetime ago, hoping to relieve the guilt that has been eating at him for years.
With the Tribeca premiere quickly approaching, MovieMaker had the opportunity to chat with Gordon about her latest project.
Mark Hurley (MM): How does it feel to have Handsome Harry premiering at such an exclusive event?
Bette Gordon (BG): It is always rewarding to see your work appreciated by others. I also love the moment when you are in the movie theater, the lights dim, people get very quiet and the first image appears on the screen. It’s thrilling, secretive, seductive. I will always love watching movies in a theater; I love the collective experience.
I am also thrilled to be at The Tribeca Film Festival, since I have lived in the neighborhood since the 1980s. In fact, when artists like me moved to Tribeca, nobody knew it even existed. At night the streets were empty—it was like living on a Hollywood backlot of what old New York was supposed to look like. The spaces were large and cheap back then; you could do innovative work, have great parties, discover corners of downtown Manhattan that would make great locations and feel the breeze from the Hudson River blow into the window.
MM: How did you come across this project and how were you able to cast such an impressive group of actors?
BG: My good friend and colleague, Nick Proferes, wrote the script and asked me to collaborate with him. I was drawn to the male characters in the story because of their rawness, possessing a male energy reminiscent of actors I grew up watching and loving, like Lee Marvin, Ben Gazzara, Steve McQueen and William Holden; men who didn’t say much but exuded a physicality and a deep internal life. I was also attracted to the idea of masculinity as a way of examining gender dynamics, which has been a consistent theme in my work.
I had worked with Jamey Sheridan in my previous film, Luminous Motion, and we got along very well. When I read Handsome Harry, I immediately thought of Jamey. He possesses a kind of restraint that was perfect for the character. His performance in Ang Lee’s Ice Storm was outstanding. He had worked with Campbell Scott on Long Day’s Journey Into Night on stage, and they became good friends. Both Jamey and Campbell saw Handsome Harry as an opportunity to work together again and explore the the themes of identity, friendship and betrayal. The ensemble feel of the piece led me to actors like Steve Buscemi, Titus Welliver, Aidan Quinn and John Savage, all of whom have a rough energy. They’re edgy but down-to-earth.
MM: You have a long career as a moviemaker and started at a young age, but you often take several years off between films. Can you talk a little bit about why that is?
BG: I usually take a while to develop a project. Whether it is an original script or an adaptation, the writing process takes time and re-writing is an essential part of the process. I enjoy the development phase, the time when everything is possible. You can dream and make the film in your head several times over. I want to make films that I am passionate about because it does take a long time to raise the money, and you have to hold on to your emotional commitment and belief in what you’re doing even when everyone says “no”, believing that someone will say “yes”.
I have also spent time on two projects that didn’t happen, after a few years each. One was an adaptation of Sparkle Hayter’s detective pulp novel, What’s A Girl Gotta Do. It’s frustrating when you invest yourself fully and then have to move on when you can’t find a way to make the film.
I also teach directing in Columbia University’s graduate film program. It is very exciting to discover young filmmakers and to mentor them as they develop. It’s a way of thinking on your feet as well, using your visual skills and problem-solving along the way. When the lightbulb goes off for someone I’m teaching, it makes me feel great. I’m proud of some of the filmmakers and directors I have worked with, including Courtney Hunt, who made Frozen River, and Cherien Dabis, whose recent film is Amreeka. I also am energized by the filmmaking community of other teachers with whom I work at Columbia—people like Eric Mendelsohn, Tom Kalin, Katherine Dieckman, Frank Pugliese, Andy Bienen and many others.
MM: What do you hope for in the future of your moviemaking career? Do you have any specific goals or visions?
BG: I want to continue to make films that tell stories I am drawn to. I love the collalborative experience of working with talented people—production designers, cinematographers, editors, sound designers, composers. At every step of the process, new relationships are formed that add something special to the final result.There’s a book that I have my eye on, a psychological thriller by a British writer, that I would like to option and I have always wanted to direct an adaptation of Marguerite Duras’ novel The Ravishing of Lol Stein. And I’d like to direct a comedy one day as well (to work with an actress like Frances McDormand would be fantastic). I am very excited by what is going on in cable television today and would love to direct episodes of strong shows like “Mad Men” and “In Treatment.”