Two Girls and James Toback
by Tom Cunha
While writer/director James Toback’s career spans over two decades, his
projects have always been few and far between. So few, in fact, you
could count them on both hands. In addition to his Oscar winning
screenplay for “Bugsy,” he has written and directed “Fingers” (1978)
with Harvey Keitel, “Exposed” (1983) with Nastassja Kinski, “The Pick-Up
Artist” (1987) with Molly Ringwald and Robert Downey Jr., among others.
His latest venture is the talky twentysomething dramedy “Two Girls and
Guy,” where he once again pairs with Downey in the tale of a two-timing
cheat who comes home one day to find himself being confronted by the two
women he’s spent the last ten months lying to. Taking place entirely in
a SoHo loft between the three characters, the film accurately examines
the fluid boundaries of sexuality in the late-90’s, something rarely
touched on in mainstream film. Arguably Downey’s best performance to
date, Toback wrote the role specifically for him. A low-budget film that
was picked up by Fox Searchlight last year, it hit a road block when the
ratings board slapped it with an NC-17 due to a rather frank (and
extremely pivotal) sex scene between Downey and Graham. Toback discusses
that scene, Downey, sexuality and why he works so sporadically.
indieWIRE: I understand you wrote this part specifically for Robert
James Toback: I did. I knew him very well because I had done “The
Pick-Up Artist” with him, which was his first lead role. I felt, and I
think he did too, that we didn’t go nearly as far in that movie as we
would go together. There was this sense we had, all the way through the
next decade, of possibly getting together and doing something else that
was a bit more ambitious and radical. After 4 or 5 years it became
possible in my mind that we just weren’t gonna do it. The more time goes
on, the more you think maybe its just not gonna happen. Then I saw him
on television in handcuffs and it was so sad and strange to look at this
lonely, defeated, humiliated figure that I thought, “When he gets out of
wherever he is going, he will probably will be ready to do something on
a level of depth and complexity that he’s not done before.”
So I figured that I’d probably be a good person to do it with him and I
wrote this movie for him.
I honestly don’t believe that I would have made the movie if he had not
been in it. But also having written it for him, I don’t think anybody
else could have played it. I don’t think it
would have been a good movie with anybody else. It’s just too demanding
a part. Too many different things were required. But he did want to do
it right away and then it was a question of finding the two actresses.
We were lucky there, too, because we got new, fresh, uninhibited, wild
iW: There had to be a lot of chemistry between the two females, and
there was with Heather Graham and Natasha Gregson Wagner. They were both
very attractive, but in different ways.
Toback: Exactly. That was part of the idea. The idea that a guy has been
saying exactly the same thing for ten months to two women who are
totally different from each other is much funnier and more interesting
than if he’d been saying it to two women who are alike.
I think that I always knew I’d get two physically different types. In my
mind I always thought there would be one tall, one short; one blonde,
one dark; one quick and spunky, the other more mysterious and austere.
Until I saw both of them, I didn’t know who they would be. I wanted to
meet Heather from seeing “Swingers.” She came in at the end of that
movie and I thought she made the movie. Natasha to me was in a different
league because she was Natalie Wood’s daughter and reminded me so much
of Natalie Wood. I had a crush on Natalie Wood that went beyond
anything I’ve ever had for anybody else. From the age of fifteen to the
age of twenty-three or twenty-four, I had an obsession with Natalie
Wood. I didn’t want to meet her, it was too dangerous. Natalie Wood was
my radiant romantic dream vision and here you have Natasha who is so
eerily like her that it’s spooky. So I thought to have Natalie Wood
revisited with Heather Graham is a great combination with Downey. And
they all got along, from the first second, which is essential if you’re
gonna be in one location for eleven days with three people shooting for
fifteen hours a day. Improvising. Trying different things. It’s good to
have people get along in any movie but most of the time if you’re gonna
have a sixty day shoot all over the place, it doesn’t matter that much
if the actors like each other. You can get by. This movie couldn’t have
been made unless the three people really hit it off. You couldn’t
separate yourself. We were all together for eleven days for fifteen
hours a day and to have had even an irritability with any of the people
would have been totally counterproductive.
iW: It sounds like you were working under a pretty intense schedule.
Toback: It was both very intense and pressured and at the same time it
paradoxically was very relaxed because we didn’t have any of the
interruptions. The real problem with normal shooting, and its a big
problem, is the interruptions. And they’re necessary cause you’re going
to different locations often in the same day, so you’re loading, you’re
unloading, you’re lighting, you’re relighting, you’re adding this,
you’re changing that and you can’t get any rhythm going most of
the time. Also, you’re not shooting in sequence, so you’re constantly
just getting there. I think it means that you end up shooting far
longer than you need to because you constantly have to get back up to
speed. Whereas what we did was show up at 7:00 in the morning with no
interruptions, unless we chose to have one. Basically we’d shoot for
fifteen hours in a totally relaxed way. It almost felt like a home
iW: Do you prefer that style?
Toback: I wish I could do only that because you don’t end up wasting
time and energy on things that not only have nothing to do with the
actual making of the film, they are interferences to it. You don’t have
to worry about all these logistical problems that otherwise really bury
you. Making films is a totally mechanical and inartistic process most of
the time. You try to sneak in a moment of inspiration here and a moment
that works there. But the odds are so against you. It’s such an
unnatural unpleasant way of creating a work of art. It’s not like you
paint, you have your studio. You’re writing a novel, you’re alone
wherever you want to be. With film is this constant interruption,
congestion. The environment works against it and here the environment
worked for it. The financier, Ed Pressman, I’ve known since I was three
years old. I basically knew that I could trust him not to bother me. To
do what was needed. To give the money. Show up and say, “Can I be of any
assistance?” Usually, sooner or later you have some bullshit
you have to deal with anyone whose putting in the money and its usually
gonna be at a time when you least want it and least expect it.
iW: So he gave you a lot of freedom on this film.
Toback: All. The only question there was money. So as long as we didn’t
go over, there was never gonna be an issue. We actually ended up coming
in a little under. It was a million dollar movie that we made for a
little less than a million dollars.
iW: The interesting thing about this film is that it really captures
sexuality in the ‘90’s. It’s very undefined right now. How did you
capture that so well?
Toback: I’m tremendously interested in these questions. They’re the ones
I’m dealing with all the time in all my movies. I have noticed over the
last four or five years that we’re into this sort of post-AIDS era. For
about 5 years, or maybe even 10 years, you literally couldn’t say sex
without saying AIDS. Every, not just discussion of it, behavior, it was
all “What about AIDS?” And if anyone didn’t say “What about AIDS?,”
people with any kind of intelligence would look at this fuckin’
Neanderthal who doesn’t realize that its AIDS. Ultimately, it might be
safe, but its boring. If all you can say about sex is AIDS, the debate’s
over. The issue’s over. The excitement is over. The fun is over. The
curiosity if over.
I think gradually over the last 5 years that’s kind of loosening. But
what’s happened is it’s loosening and sort of going here and going there
and going there and going there. It’s not going in one direction. Some
people are moving away from it by being compulsive again. Very
intelligent, knowledgeable people are going “Fuck it, I don’t want to
use a rubber.” Other people are saying, “Well, ya, but its AIDS. But on
the other hand, this is OK.” But other people are saying, “Now I gotta
find somebody and I’m gonna be faithful.” So you have almost every
channel being followed by somebody. And you have bisexuality and
homosexuality which finally now, I think, is coming to a point where its
so mixed into the mainstream that you really only have Neanderthals who
are still categorizing it as some sort of aberration. So it’s like a new
geography. You’re entering a new terrain. I think we’re in a really
fertile, interesting, transitional stage sexually as a society and you
have no movies dealing with it at all. You have them literally running
away from it. So I thought it’d be fun to do a movie that addresses it.
I’m not saying they represent the whole world. I’m saying here are three
people who are interesting and attractive and this movie is gonna show
you who they are sexually and psychologically in relation to each other
and themselves. And that seemed to be an ideal thing to do given these
parameters I had about how the movie was gonna be made and also a
worthwhile thing to be doing socially in film because it hasn’t been
done. Then you need the actors who are basically saying to you, “Fine, I
will show you who I am through these characters. I’m not hiding my
sexuality. I’m happy to reveal it.” I think you feel that’s what’s
happening. You look at the scenes, I don’t mean the sexual scenes
between Downey and Heather, but I mean the whole movie. You feel whether
or not these actors are not exactly like these roles their playing,
there’s certainly an affinity there.
iW: I’d like to talk about the sex scene [between Downey and Graham]
because I felt it was one of the most important scenes in the film. It
reveals that her character is competitive and we learn why. Now I
understand the scene has been cut down, is that right?
Toback: I refused to cut a single shot from that scene, they are
shorter. Some [shots] that were nine seconds are now seven seconds. Some
that were six seconds are three seconds. But every single shot that was
in is still in. And I would say that most people seeing this scene, if
only saw the movie once before, will not see that there’s any difference
Fortunately, this idiotic ratings board is constituted in such a way,
that they are not allowed to say to you, “Cut out that shot, and you
will get an R.” If they had been, believe me, they would have because
there was a particularly thing, which was the asshole licking, clearly
bothered this guy, he’s the head of the boards, to the point that he
became obsessed with it. And yet he could not say, “If you cut the
asshole licking out, we’ll give you an R.” I know they would have and I
knew they would have from the beginning, but I was not about to do that.
I would trim a little here, trim a little there, and they wouldn’t go
for it. Finally, they did. Now, the reason they did had to do with a lot
of factors. I felt, from the beginning, that the whole movie rested on a
specificity of that sexual behavior. It didn’t bother me nearly as much
making 10 of the shots a little shorter, as taking one of them out all
together would have. That would have thrown it totally out of whack.
Fortunately, I never had to do that.
iW: So will we still be able to tell what they’re doing?
Toback: Oh, yeah. It’s exactly the same thing happening, just for
shorter time. It’s not like they’re subliminal cuts. You still see
everything, you just don’t sit on each shot for the length of time that
you did. A different studio might have said to me, “Look, we’re sorry
these people are being such assholes, but you’re gonna have to get an R,
you’re gonna have to get it by this week, and you’re just gonna have to
cut some things out.” Fox, instead of doing that, which I would have
legally been obliged to follow, in effect, they just kept pushing the
distribution day off. I was never really scared of the board cause I
knew sooner or later I would end up getting the R if I hung in long
enough. What I was scared of was the day that Fox might say to me,
“We’ve run out of time. You have until Friday to get an R.”
iW: Was there a lot of improvisation in the film?
Toback: Yes, a huge amount of improvisation. About half the movie now
has some improvisation. There’s one big scene where they’re all in the
bathroom. The next to the last scene. That whole scene was improvised.
What happened was it was the least well written scene in the movie, the
one that didn’t work. I started out by saying to Downey, “Why don’t you
write what you thing you would say here.” Which he did. Then I showed
it to Heather and she said, “Are you kidding, I would never let him get
away with this.” I said [to her], “Just think what you would come back
with and do it. You don’t even have to write it, just come back with
it.” And I said to Natasha, “Just listen and watch, and jump in where
you would jump in.” So we did twenty ten minute takes. We shot two
hundred minutes of that scene and then we edited a ten minute scene out
of those two hundred minutes. And all of it came from them.
iW: I thought that Wagner’s character was going to join Downey and
Graham having sex.
Toback: I was too, actually. In fact, the way I felt about the whole
movie was the way I felt about that scene which was, once you’ve said
basically to the actors “I’m giving you these roles, I’m not just
casting you in them, I’m saying you’re taking it over.” At that point,
you can’t say, “Except, what you’ve gotta do here is this.” So, even
though I would have liked her to try it, I didn’t even want to push her
on it. What I said was “Think about it. Don’t close your mind.
Forget what you know you would do. What do you think you might do here.
What are the possibilities?” And she was so resistant to going in and so
fixed on the idea that what she, as an individual and she as a
character, would do, which is go through these emotions on the other
side. Listening. I was so intrigued in terms of what I actually saw on
the screen when she was doing it, that I stuck with her on it.
First of all, I don’t think I would have been able to force her to
anyway. I don’t think she would have done it. I think that she would
have revolted against me if I’d made her do it. But also, what she was
giving me in return was so interesting, in terms of facial expression,
that I felt it would work, which I do feel. Where I am bothered
sometimes is when you ask an actor to try something and they won’t try
it, and you ask what they have in mind and what they have in mind is not
interesting and doesn’t work. Or where they have nothing in mind. With
this, it was very clear to her that is what she would be doing. As soon
as I saw the first take of what was going on in her face, cause if you
look at the rest of the movie, there is nothing in her face that reveals
her the way she does reveal herself there.
iW: Actually, the way it ended up works very well. There was a point in
the film where Natasha’s character (Lou) tells Carla that she finds her
Toback: Absolutely. I felt that what had to happen was that on some
level you had to feel that if these two women met, from the beginning,
that Lou would be attracted to Carla in a way Carla would not be
attracted to Lou. There has to be an attraction that one feels for the
not reciprocated. That would be an interesting dynamic. And that if I
could cast it in such a way that without making too big a deal of it,
it would be believable that the shorter, darker, spunkier one had a kind
of little crush on the other one that would work well. And that the
crush was not reciprocated. And as soon as I started envisioning the two
of them together, I though “This is gonna work.”
iW: You work pretty infrequently.
Toback: To put it mildly.
iW: Why is that?
Toback: I will only do things that I’ve written, so right away that’s a
big limitation. I wouldn’t know how to direct someone else’s stuff. I’m
living my life into my movies. It’s not that I’m writing, for the most
part, about things out there. I’m writing about things that I’ve
experienced, that I know. To write something that I love, from my own
realm that I’m ready to shoot, that I feel is sustained, that alone
takes a long time. Then, I gotta get the money, then I gotta get a cast.
And I have a kind of radical, indulgent life, anyway, where I’m
experimenting and trying this and moving on. So you put all that
together, and I’m lucky if I make a film every three years, which is
basically what it’s been. The first film was in 1974. It’s 1998. I’ve
made eight films in twenty-four years. It comes out to a film every
three years. I’m not a director first and then the rest. I’m first a
person who lives a certain life, has a way of looking at things, has a
set of experiences that he wants to express and film is the way to do
it. I don’t complain about it. I want to do it that way and I would not
be any good doing it the other way.