“At first I didn’t know people could say those things about you,” Alan Rudolph intimates with a smile. “With all my films it’s always been the same-make the movie and then just duck.”
Rudolph’s quiet wit and easy, self-deprecating humor have the intended disarming affect, but the soft-spoken charm belies an artist confident enough in his own vision to make a career out of thumbing his nose at critics, commercial success, and even the conventions of film language. The director of such films as The Moderns, Equinox and Trouble in Mind sat down with us last month to talk about his new picture, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, starring Jennifer Jason Leigh. His hopes for the movie were high, but like a fat stand-up comic who makes his girth the butt of the joke, Rudolph has no problem pointing out the element in his previous films that has kept him from attaining the kind of bankable, auteur-hero status that even some of his less talented contemporaries enjoy.
“Reality is a rather negotiable item,” he says, unrepentant. “And the truth’s not a very commercial enterprise.”
Juxtaposing reality and truth in an effort to explore one while deciphering the other has been the connecting thread through all of Rudolph’s work. He takes mischievous pleasure in using his poetic contractor’s license to politely enter the home of our imaginations and, while safely inside, tear through the joint with a hammer and bucket of paint to create an abstract design we had no idea we were paying for. When the dust settles, some like the result and are willing to capitulate to this new, stylized landscape where reality is hazy and behavior usually slightly askew; some simply do not. But, as David Cronenberg once suggested, if entertainment gives us what we expect and art gives us what we do not, then Alan Rudolph may truly be the Picasso of American motion pictures.
Mrs. Parker, a loose biographical portrait of writer Dorothy Parker and her association with the famous Algonquin Round Table of the 1920s, represents a marked departure for Rudolph in that it is his first effort to tackle a story based on true events.
“The experience was absolutely liberating,” he asserts. “Thrilling. I’ve been pretty much backward my whole life, and for my latest film to be the first I’ve ever done based on factual reality … it’s a pretty amazing experience. Usually it’s the other way around-you start by adapting things, or you trust life enough that you think ‘Oh, I should just try to represent that.’ But by some genetic quirk I’m the opposite. For the films I’ve written on my own I’ve had to invent all my own realities in order to feel comfortable. So for me it was a thrill – I’d actually like to keep trying it.”
Rudolph cautions against linking Mrs. Parker with The Moderns, even though they have many surface similarities, (There is a romantic quality to the films which both feature large ensemble casts and deal with literary figures of approximately the same era.) and he is emphatic.
“I don’t think they’re anywhere near alike. We shot them both in Montreal. But certainly my approach was entirely different. The Moderns was a dream film. With Mrs. Parker, as a filmmaker I could feel different muscles being exercised. I would consciously remove those impulses, those leaps I usually make. Some people have certain problems with me, and I didn’t want it (Mrs. Parker) to be an easy target. I took a much more complicated approach. Not only did we have to be true to certain facts, but the film I wanted to make was the intimate film, which of course is not recorded. There’s no way to find out certain things that would give this film substance. I told (co-screenwriter) Randy Sue Coburn we don’t want to do “Dorothy’s Greatest Hits.” I didn’t want to put out one of those Hollywood biographies where people can go ‘Oh, this is the moment she became Dorothy Parker.’ Life doesn’t work like that.”
Rudolph’s desire to make the film grew out of a lifelong familiarity with the Algonquin Round Table through his father, who was a friend of Parker’s longtime confidant and fellow Round Tablet, Robert Benchley. Her platonic love affair with Benchley (played by Campbell Scott) was one of the more stabilizing influences in Parker’s tumultuous life, and Rudolph devotes a lot of attention to their relationship in the film.
“At Cannes the Bulgarian press asked me why I did this film, and there are no glib answers. You’d have to introduce American history. In our cultural history, the Algonquin Round Table is in the top 50. These people were the first media. At one lunch were three of the most widely read journalists in the world. (Heywood Broun, Franklin P. Adams and Alexander Woollcott). The next day in a column if one of them said ‘Tim’s a great guy,’ then suddenly you’re a great guy to everybody. Life was more innocent back then, but in a way it was more complicated. Dorothy Parker was really the first modern American woman. She could out-drink, out-think and out-fuck all the men. And out-write them.
“I really wish there was this epiphany, but all I can tell you is what pushed me over the edge. I was at a bookstore and I saw a postcard of Dorothy Parker, and I thought about it, about the Algonquin, about my personal life, and I knew then I’d do it.
“Everything’s a film idea if this is what you do … if you’re hooked. I’ve always been secretly confident that I’d never run out of film ideas, because I’d never had one. I just live my life, see things the way I do, and what I’m always looking for is just a notion to hang it all on.
“I purposely used to think about recycling old movie ideas but combining them with some kind of inner text because it didn’t really matter what the film was about on the surface. I realize how I’ve made the same film for the last 20 years, and I’ll keep remaking it. I hear a lot of filmmakers saying that these days. Woody Allen, in his own way, that’s what he does.
“I sit in my house in solitude most of the time, writing. The way culture reaches me is in bursts. I’ve always protected something, shielded myself from commercial bombardment. I don’t even watch the news, although last night I did. It was very interesting. I see what America is now. The first three stories were the summary of the American condition. There’s a collective madness. The news is such a false sense of order for people. Everybody wants order in their lives. Bank robbers drive on the correct side of the road. Porn actors use proper grammar.
“But it’s false. Why doesn’t Peter Jennings just say, ‘Well, it’s chaos out there.’ America is playing itself out right now. A woman is charged with murdering her two kids, a guy is accused of killing a doctor, and a football star is charged with murdering his wife. Dorothy Parker was a person who basically got famous and was celebrated because of some things she said. We’re so far removed from that culturally. Now the news is dominated by people’s violent and eccentric behavior. You almost have to murder someone to get celebrated.
Mrs. Parker is classic Rudolph in that it includes that inner text with the director’s consistent themes of love, culture and happenstance that mark the best of his work. Adding the element of authenticity gives the movie an accessibility that was missing from some of the films Rudolph previously authored, and may allow him to reach a wider audience.
“Sometimes it’s frustrating,” he says. “I have no illusions about my film leverage in the world. It’s like getting this film financed. Nobody wanted to make this film. Ira Deutschman finally wanted to make it, but couldn’t finance it on his own. It was a very small budget, but whatever it is, when you’re talking about me someone always says ‘Well, where are you gonna get the other half? I could come up with a budget of 20 cents and someone will say ‘Here’s a dime. This and a dime will get you a movie.’
Rudolph’s close friend and mentor, director Robert Altman, ended up producing the film. The two first met while Rudolph was working as an assistant director in Hollywood and was called to do Altman’s The Long Goodbye in 1973. Rudolph then scripted Altman’s Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1975) The following year Altman produced Rudolph’s first film, Welcome to L.A.; he produced Remember My Name in 1978 for Rudolph, who speaks of his colleague with unabashed adulation.
“It’s always been a thrill to be associated with Bob Altman, and that I even know Bob, because he’s a true visionary, Rudolph says. “And I’m so thrilled about his . . . I won’t say reemergence, because he never left, but his rediscovery by the press. I talked to him last week, and just saw a rough cut of his new film, Pret – a – Porter (now called Ready to Wear). It’s a hoot, really funny. He applies his take to everything he does, and he can’t change. And he’s had some huge successes. The great thing about Bob now is he finally knows he can do anything. Of course he also knows the struggle, but I think there’s a part of him that knows he can do whatever he wants from here on out. I mean, he always has, but I think now they’ll be asking him what he wants to do. Which is the one question that I never… that most filmmakers never hear. Given the ideas I want to make, I don’t think I’ll ever really get there.
“I just realized coming over here in this very political season how much filmmaking is like politics… every two years we’re looking for more money, fiction is our way of getting at the truth, and we all seem to celebrate strange bedfellows.”
Altman became interested in Mrs. Parker while the two directors had dinner one night during the filming of Altman’s The Player, in which Rudolph reluctantly agreed to play a director pitching a movie idea to studio exec Tim Robbins.
“Of course there was no scripted dialogue, and it was at the end of an eight-minute opening shot, so no pressure there, and it was scary as hell because Tim was just like those guys, you know how they look right at your shoulder, and whenever you say anything to them they just say ‘heh.’
Altman and Rudolph seem to have similar sensibilities about working in Hollywood. For certain films, working within the system is a necessary evil, but the resulting product is almost always superior when the studio is not calling the shots.
“Certainly that’s true with me. But I don’t think it has much to do with me. It’s the system itself,” Rudolph laughs. “But I’m very different from Altman, although where we overlap is really strong. A lot of it has to do with a sense of individuality, of freedom. I think we both have a certain regard for the truth. That’s what I got from Altman. You’ve got to find your own truth. There’s nobody like him. There’s not a filmmaker working, whether they know it or not, certainly no American, who hasn’t been influenced by him. His techniques are revolutionary. And they’re very simple and basic, too. You can’t imitate what he does at its core because that’s his vision alone.”
Altman introduced Rudolph to Jennifer Jason Leigh, and “in 30 seconds I knew it was her. She knew a lot about Dorothy. She surrounds the soul of a character; she really knows a lot about acting. And she has this great instinct as a human being to seek the truth. And so she’s not comfortable being a celebrity, or a star. I said ‘I want to do a film where the scenes are basically about the emotion of the character, the very thing you can’t research. But I want us to surround that private place that we want to explore. I want to surround it with everything that we can that is accurate.’
“And she became Dorothy Parker. Not to that fanatic stage where off-camera she wouldn’t break character, because Jennifer doesn’t work that way. She doesn’t waste her talent. She doesn’t waste it posing in nightclubs, and when she goes on tour and becomes the famous movie actress… from all my observations it seems that that’s a performance.
“I think I could get to the high rung on some quiz show about Dorothy Parker, but as soon as we cast Jennifer I said ‘OK, you’re the expert on this role; what you bring to it I’ll accept. We didn’t stick to the script, we followed it. And most of the time, certainly around the round table, the actors didn’t even know if we were filming.
“But they had to go through such a transformation as these characters, everybody was so convincing. Something happened to these actors. They hung out together, they became inseparable.
“The film you see is the director’s cut, but the best version would be the actor’s cut, which would be about four hours. The film doesn’t have a plot, because people’s lives don’t have plots. Except when they’re dead (laughs).
“Jennifer and Campbell found in each other people who approached something very important as honestly as they did. I think it’s a world-class performance. People will have to overcome their expectations of the category MOVIE BIOGRAPHY, with a big dramatic curve to it. This is more like the face of the portrait.
And I don’t know if anyone will like the movie, but I know at the center of it is greatness. MM