Compromising is not the first word that comes to
mind when describing writer/director James Toback. Since the release
of his first film, 1978’s Fingers, Toback has been butting
heads with censors while bringing audiences a sense of “reality,”
no matter how grim it may be.
His latest work, Harvard Man, is based on the Harvard grad’s own experience
with LSD while he was a student in the 1960s. Starring Sarah Michelle
Gellar, Joey Lauren Adams, Adrian Grenier and Ray Allen, Harvard
Man continues in the Toback tradition of mixing newcomers with
seasoned professionals, allowing actors the chance to infuse a bit
of their own personalities into their characters.
Articulate and outspoken, Toback recently spoke with
MM about the autobiographical nature of his work, the problems one
faces by being fiercely independent and why you’ll never find him
behind the camera on Lethal Weapon 13.
Jennifer Wood (MM): What was the impetus
for your latest film, Harvard Man?
James Toback (JT): I had this catastrophic.
as soon as I start to use any word, its impotence overwhelms me.
I mean, catastrophe, disaster, cataclysmic devastation-none of it
even does vague justice to what the experience really was. It was,
for eight days, the erasure of the self. The elimination of the
self. Which is to say that the ‘I’-which I, like most people functioning
in the world, had assumed exists in some absolute way-is in fact
a sham, an artificial construct.
All of a sudden the reading that I had been doing,
the philosophers whom [the professor] Chesney is teaching in Harvard
Man-Heidegger, Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein-there’s a whole
tradition of the self as an imposed structure over a void that is
the natural state of consciousness. It’s one thing to understand
that analytically and to be able to get an ‘A’ on a test in which
one is writing about it, and it’s another to be viscerally aware
that that’s the truth and not to have a self. You can’t function
in the so-called ‘real world’ and not have one. Maybe for an hour
or two, certainly not for a day. As the line goes in the movie,
‘there are some people who are in straight jackets and some who
are chanting in the hills and the mountains of Nepal.’ But I didn’t
want to do that; I wanted to continue to function in this mundane
world and all of a sudden and I found I couldn’t for eight days.
It remained an experience that I knew that if I ever
found in art in which I was sufficiently skillful, it would have
to be the subject of my work. And when it turned out to be film
about seven or eight years later, it was what I was really writing
about and making movies about all along: it’s what’s at the heart
of The Gambler, and that last image of The Gambler I
think conveys that. It’s certainly all through Fingers and
it’s the image of Harvey Keitel at the end, haunted. It’s the image
of Nastassja Kinski’s eyes, vacant at the end of Exposed.
The Big Bag is a movie about that subject, literally. But I
hadn’t really done it about LSD itself. I had done it as the result
of extreme behavior in other lives, in lives that were either invented
or based on people I knew or read about. But I hadn’t done it literally.
So Harvard Man was finally a way of taking that experience,
that LSD experience: the glorious, beautiful, richly colorful, hallucinatory
ecstasy of it, and then the crack-up-the loss of self and the voices
that haunt him and dramatize that.
I felt that Harvard Man had to be a contemporary
film and I was sort of waiting for-I sound ghoulish-but I was waiting
for acid to make the comeback I knew it would make (laughing).
MM: What are some of the biggest problems
you encounter as far as financing goes, not just on Harvard
Man but with all your work? People seem reluctant to admit that
your portrayals of teen life and college life are, in fact, realistic.
JT: Absolutely! In fact I’m always amused more
than anything else with the arrogance of people who have led sort
of puny, shriveled lives telling me that what I am writing about
couldn’t happen and isn’t real. When in fact, if anything, it’s
a shrunken version of the life I’ve led. The people who talk about
college life now, as if they know something about it, are so divorced
from it and outside it that they don’t have a clue. I mean there
isn’t a single undergraduate among hundreds that I’ve talked to
about this movie, whatever the response to the movie has been, who
feels that the movie is not connected to the reality they’re living
or observing in some way.
MM: Do you have a specific audience in mind
for your work? Your films are often about teenagers or younger adults,
but do you think that the same people who are going to see American
Pie are watching your movies, as well?
JT: Some yes, some no. I’ll give you an example:
Sarah Michelle Gellar, who sort of sought me out after seeing Black
and White and Two Girls and a Guy, said ‘Anything you
want me to do, I’ll do.’ Which was fortunate for me because that’s
what got Harvard Man made. She told me that she had a screening
of Black and White for her friends, and that they all went
crazy for the movie. Well, I would say that a lot of her fans would have also. But on the other hand, I’m sure she has a lot of
hardcore fans around her age who would not have liked it.
I think the people themselves who would be part of
my movies or want to be go for it. It’s almost as if there are two
cultures; there’s a real split there. And when I watch MTV I’m very
much aware of that. I think some of these people would go really
crazy over my work and some of these people would just say ‘What
the fuck is that supposed to be?’ And I’m not consciously aiming
at anybody. The truth is I have a non-marketers mind, which puts
me out of step with the center of culture today-all of which is
marketing. I really am thinking ‘What’s this movie about? What are
the characters like? How are they, in their behavior and language,
expressing both their essence and reality and the world that they’re
a part of and the themes I’m interested in?’ Then I let the behavior
take its own course.
MM: Being both the writer and director of
work, do you welcome improvisation? Do you want people to stick
to your exact lines?
JT: In every movie except Black and White, [the scripts] were written out at some point. With Black
and White I was not about to write dialogue for Wu-Tang Clan
and tell them to say it. But in the others I have, and I always
want to get at least a take or two in which the scene that is written
is there. But I always also want to get whatever it is that the
actors want to do. And I would say that at least 25 percent of the
time what they come up with in a given scene is at least partially
more interesting than the scene as written.
I often rewrite during takes because when you watch
two or three takes you’ll sometimes see things in the actor at that
moment that will play better. And I think that if you’re working
with people who get excited by that methodology, which is what I
try to do, they’ll give you more than they’ll give when they’re
just being obedient servants of the dialogue. Finally, to say ‘Here’s
what you say. Go out there and say it.’ is something so fundamentally
insulting to the intelligence of the person you’re saying it to
that it’s almost embarrassing to say ‘Let me hire you so you can
be my slave.’ As opposed to ‘Let me hire you so you can shock me,
surprise me, enlighten me and take what I’ve done and improve it.’
If you don’t feel that way about someone, then why are you
MM: Do you write with specific people in
mind or do you like people to approach you, like Sarah Michelle
Gellar. You have a tendency to put a lot of non-actors into your
films, and to cast against type, with people like Brooke Shields
or Claudia Schiffer in Black and White. Is this something
you do intentionally?
JT: I think it is, yeah. I’ve always been interested
in iconographic figures. I have a kind of ‘Carlyleian’ view of history,
which isn’t in vogue now but I kind of like it, where there are
certain sort of iconographic figures to whom one is drawn. All the
people you mentioned are people that affected me in that way at
one time or another. I like the idea of using them as a version
of who they are rather than what they’ve been playing in their life
as a profession, starting with Jim Brown in Fingers, where
the Jim Brown in Fingers is the real Jim Brown. Jim as a
character is a fascinating and complex guy. With Wu-Tang Clan, Claudia
Schiffer, Mike Tyson and Brooke Shields-they’re all people who are
not accidentally famous. There’s something about them that sort
of pops into the center of culture. To get the texture of their
daily lives and what they’re really like, and create a character
for them in which they can speak and move like they really do, to
me is kind of exciting and it gives the film another dimension as
opposed to again just saying ‘Here’s the script, play it out, act
it, shoot it, release it’-the packaging notion of movies.
So part of what I do is that I know who I’m going
to use in a given part, or think I do; part of it is I’m hoping
I’ll meet people along the way who will inspire me. Sometimes I’ll
meet people I want to write for for whatever reason, actors and
non-actors, and then I always feel that these things should be mutual;
that there’s a kind of artistic symbiosis. When I’m solicited is
when I really know things are clicking. For instance, Sarah calling
me, or Ben Stiller seeing Two Girls and a Guy and making
it known that he wanted to work with me. With Brooke it was the
same thing, a kind of ‘I’m available. What do you want me to do?’
It’s not just that it’s flattering, it’s that it suggests that there’s
some sort of connection, that my work has reached them, that they’re
inspired in some way.
The idea of being a john-which is what most directors
put themselves in the position of being, which is to bid high enough
to buy or rent somebody for two months-is so self-defeating in some
fundamental way. What kind of relationship do you have with somebody
who in effect has said ‘Okay for $20 million I will do this; for
$12 million I wouldn’t. For $15 million we’ll never know, because
we never got to that stage. Maybe I would have, maybe I wouldn’t.
$20 million? You got me!’ And now you’re supposed to get something
interesting from that person?
I’m all for everybody getting as much money as he
or she can, but somehow I feel a lot more at peace with the methodology
of filmmaking if I’m working with people who are either working
for scale or for a much lower fee. It’s not that I’m trying to get
them down. If the movie had more to offer in the budget then I’d
be thrilled to pay it. But the idea is do they really want to do
it because they want to do it? Then they’re going to do things
they’re never going to do when they think you’re just some idiot
who won them at an auction.
MM: How does your method of directing change
between working with seasoned professionals and non-actors?
JT: I’ve never understood the generalizations
about how you direct actors because it’s like saying ‘How do you
deal with people?’ You deal with people totally differently-each
one is different. There are some people who need a text to rely
on religiously and who get thrown whenever anything is changed or
whenever there is a surprise that they weren’t prepared for sufficiently.
For them I would be a disastrous director. [I’m better] for actors
who are looking to be collaborators and think of a part as a work
in progress, to which they are going to contribute because of the
fact that they are playing the part as opposed to somebody
else. Because finally, any role should be different played by one
person than by another. At least I think so. To ossify a role into
a preordained linguistic niche, and to say ‘If you’re going to play
this part, this is what you’re going to say and this is how you’re
going to do it,’ then you’re into robot virtual acting. The great
pleasure and excitement for everybody-including, eventually, the
audience-is to feel that something was invented. that some inspirational
jolt took place, and there it is right before your eyes.
MM: You’ve had an ongoing struggle with
the ratings board ever since your first film, Fingers. Do
you think that you’re treated differently because you’re an independent
JT: I definitely think that’s always been a
part of it. To suggest that the ratings board is some pristine,
religiously pure body which doesn’t pay any attention to the size
of the budget, the personality behind the movie, the studio or the
distribution company is to engage in a fantasy life that nobody
above the age of nine would take seriously. I would say that, in
particular, I’ve had a rough time with the current head, Richard
Mosk. I don’t know that he still is; I sort of heard a rumor he
isn’t, which would be wonderful.
I didn’t have the time, luxury or moral inclination
to play the game that shrewder and smarter directors play, which
is to submit a cut which they know is unacceptable and then bargain
down to a cut that they actually want. I haven’t done that. I think
they sort of expect you to do that. And when you give them a movie
and say ‘This is it,’ they don’t believe it. They think ‘Well he’s
got to be ready to cut this, this and this.’ But I haven’t done
that and as a result we’ve bumped heads. Also, you get a reputation
and people I think are sometimes seeing things they’re not really
seeing. If you look at Two Girls and a Guy and then you compare
it to Boogie Nights, which they’d rated two or three weeks
earlier. I mean the idea that I got I think 12 NC-17s before I got
an R with that movie and Boogie Nights got an R?
MM: What is the most number of edits you’ve
ever had to do to get down to an R rating?
JT: I think I did about 14 or 15 on Two
Girls and a Guy. I did about 13 on Fingers.
MM: Has it become easier for you to figure
out what will get an R rating and what will garner an NC-17?
JT: It has but I refuse to allow myself to
think that way because then you start censoring yourself, which
is exactly what they want you to do and something they’ve been very
successful in doing. It’s been subtle but the NC-17 rating is now
an illegitimate rating; the X didn’t used to be. Midnight Cowboy was an X, Carnal Knowledge was an X, Last Tango in
Paris was an X. It was perfectly legitimate to go with an X
and studios would distribute movies with an X-happily!
MM: They’d win Oscars with an X!
JT: That’s right. And now, NC-17 is a phony
rating. They know you can’t do it. you can’t show it in theaters;
the malls won’t show it. And everybody blames somebody else. The
studios say ‘Well the owners of the theaters in the malls won’t
do it.’ And the directors say ‘Well the studio won’t do it.’
It used to be in the ’70s that writers and directors
were creating the movies; in the ’80s and ’90s, agents were creating
movies; now studios are creating movies. And they’re getting desperately
ambitious, endlessly greedy writers and directors to say ‘Just tell
us what you want and we’ll do it.’ And actors as well. And listen,
it’s seductive; it’s the way the game is played. And to say I’m
going to play on my channel is an invitation to a head fracture
from banging your head against the wall year after year, but to
me there’s not really a hell of a lot of choice. Because you can’t,
at least I can’t, do what I don’t believe in. It’s hard to
convince oneself that there is an adherent virtue in doing Batman
5 or Lethal Weapon 13.