INTERVIEW: Keith Gordon Wakes the "Dead," and Resurrects Love and Politics in the Movies
by Anthony Kaufman
(indieWIRE/2.25.2000) — Does love last? Does politics matter? Is one more important than the other? These are some of the questions posed by filmmaker Keith Gordon in his latest film “Waking the Dead,” a movie filled with so much altruistic spirit and melancholic romanticism it seems from some other era. Beginning, in fact, in 1972, when handsome young Coast Guard officer Fielding Pierce (Billy Crudup) meets flower-powered Sarah Williams (Jennifer Connelly), the film chronicles their emerging love, and the politics that eventually separates them. The film has been in the works since 1991, was produced in early 1998 by Jodie Foster‘s Egg Pictures, and had its world premiere at last season’s Sundance Film Festival.
Director Gordon, who is responsible for a trio of under-appreciated, sophisticated gems “The Chocolate War,” “A Midnight Clear,” and “Mother Night” (all of which deserve at the very least second viewings), got his start in front of the camera. You might remember him as the gawky teenager in such 80’s classics as “Christine,” “Dressed to Kill,” or “Back to School.” But his career as a director — adept at working with actors and creating scenes of devastating power — makes all that seem like a far away memory.
With “Waking the Dead,” a film “about loss, not Hollywood loss, but real loss,” fans of the film seem to be divided along the lines of those who’ve been in love, and those who haven’t, according to Gordon. “It’s interesting what a Rorschach test this film particularly is,” he says. “And what you can start to tell about people’s reaction to it. And for the people who are very cynical about it, you go, ‘You really need to fall in love.'”
indieWIRE’s Anthony Kaufman speaks to Gordon about the time it takes to make a personal film, producing-directing, staying under budget, and the politics of living.
indieWIRE: There is a real time that it takes to make movies, especially when you’re doing it independently, when you’re doing a project that’s personal?
Keith Gordon: Sure, it always seems to. “A Midnight Clear” was 4-5 years, “Mother Night” was 5 years, this has been 9 years. It’s getting longer; I think my next film is slated for the mid-century mark. But it just seems to be the nature of the beast with these movies. What I try to do, to the best of my ability, is to keep a few different projects in the air at a time. So that, even though each one may take a number of years, any given one might happen. Like “Waking the Dead”, this is something I’ve been involved with since ’91, but I finished “A Midnight Clear” and made “Mother Night” in the mean time. Hopefully, I’ll get better and not worse, and will make films a little more often, but I’d rather make one every 3-4 years that I’m proud of than one every year that I’m not. I’ve never had a big thing about volume of output.
iW: I seem to remember a project you were interested in back after “A Midnight Clear,” about some guy getting lost in the DMV. . . ?
Gordon: Yes, about a middle class black guy who gets a parking ticket, goes to fight it and ends up on Death Row. Yeah, that project I finally gave up on – and it’s actually now being developed at a studio. It’s that typical thing where they’ve now gotten rid of the first writer, they brought somebody else in, and they’re making it into an action-chase comedy. I have nothing to do with it anymore. . . . That’s typical of what happens in Hollywood. And that happens over time; there are projects that you finally move on from, or in that case, the writer wanted to move on from. He said to me, ‘Listen, I want to make some money, and they’ve got some people who want to option it.’ And I basically I said, ‘I can’t say, yes, stick with me, and take no money.’ But I also wasn’t going to say, ‘Well, I want to be with it if it turns into a Norm McDonald comedy.’
“I’d rather make one [film] every 3-4 years that I’m proud of than one every year that I’m not. I’ve never had a big thing about volume of output.”
iW: There is a parallel theme in “Waking the Dead” of the character of Fielding selling out. As a filmmaker, you are wrestling with that, as well.
Gordon: Constantly, constantly wrestling with it. It’s the only art, except maybe Cristo’s, that takes millions of dollars to do. So you have an enforced bastard marriage of art and commerce. And I don’t really hate the commerce people, because it’s not their fault. I mean, you’re asking them for millions of dollars! It’s money! They’re worried about what’s going to happen to it. If I wanted to, I could go write a novel or paint a picture or direct some theater, so I understand there is a commercial aspect to this business and the trick is, how do you walk that line? As Fielding faces it or anybody who tries to succeed, even moderately, you’re always going to be giving up something. And the question is when are you giving up so much that it’s not valuable anymore. I don’t have the answer; I kind of go by my gut.
There’s a three-hour and twenty-minute version of “Waking the Dead.” Now, no one would have gone and seen it. I wouldn’t have seen it. It would have been the most overly indulgent and boring to most people. Except me. So I could see somebody who’s a real, anarchist artist type saying, ‘Screw it, put out the 3 hour and 20 minute version. You like it and that’s all that’s important.’ Then I go, I’m telling the story to communicate to other people. That’s part of my goal. So is that selling out or part of the art form?
iW: You were able, though, to maintain some elements that are rare in film. Both shooting in sequence and having an extended rehearsal period, these are two things that people don’t have the luxury for in this business.
Gordon: That’s one of the reasons why I’m a producer. Because I don’t want to have to argue about those things. I know what’s valuable in terms of the way I work and what it really costs. What’s so sad is that certainly the rehearsal thing — it’s nothing. The cost of that is nothing. And the time it saves. Forget art. On a truly producerial level, there is probably no better decision I made to bring the film, as we did, under budget. Time you spend on rehearsal with a couple of actors, what are you paying for? A few hotel rooms, and some per diem. Maybe it cost us $25,000. Well, that’s half a day’s shooting. The hours that we saved, by having worked through scenes, knowing how they were blocked… — the speed with which we moved all came out of that rehearsal process. So beyond being artistically right, I also think it’s financially right. Hollywood’s big problem is often being penny-wise, pound-foolish. They’ll waste millions of dollars on nonsense, but $25,000 on a rehearsal period?
I also think in terms of shooting in sequence, I was lucky. There are films where you just can’t. It’s just in this case, we were able to because it was contained enough. We were shooting all in one city. And there were times we compromised. Every scene wasn’t in perfect sequence. But I was also blessed with having wonderful other producers and a first AD who knew it was important to me and to the actors, and who busted their asses to make it happen. But it did cost us some money and some efficiency. Maybe it cost $50,000. But how much do you spend on so many things for a movie that cost 10 times that. And yet what quality it brought to the performances I can’t even guess at.
iW: And while you were shooting, it also sounded like you took the extra time on set with your actors?
Gordon: Sure, but then you’re trading that off by being efficient in other ways. I wouldn’t cover every scene from 80 angles. The scene on the subway that we improvised was ultimately one shot. So it’s a question of knowing where it’s important to be liberal with the spending of your time. I used to scare my other producer, because I went way over budget on film. I’d shoot tons of takes and print a lot of it. But I’d know I’d save money in other places. By finishing days earlier, by going we don’t need 300 extras — you just do that.
“I don’t think there’s much politics left in our theater, in our film, in almost anything. But the problem is there’s not much politics left in our society.”
iW: Being a producer and a director, it seems you have it under control. But that takes a unique director to have both those minds working at the same time.
Gordon: I guess it does. Sometimes, I think I’m too much of a producer for my own good. There are times, I think, I cheat a little bit. Because I’m so nervous about going over budget. And this is a personal neurosis, but I always feel like as long as I’m on and under budget, I feel like I’ve got the moral high ground with financiers. That if they ever come to me and say, “Well, we want to change the ending, so there’s a big kiss and they live happily ever after.” But as long as I can say we agreed to make this project and I’m under budget and under schedule, leave me alone. I feel very morally strongly that I have to live up to that. So there are times that I’ll pull the plug earlier than I wish I had. But I err in that direction when in doubt. I just don’t think it’s right on these kinds of movies. I know that people make these films, because they feel the risk is manageable in relation to cost.
iW: Can you speak about the balance between the deep human story of loss in the movie and also the strong leftist political issues it brings up?
Gordon: Well, that was a tough balancing act. It changed through writing the film, shooting the film, and editing the film. There was no one perfect balance. It was really more like feeling jazz music, in what the right balance was. I know sometimes, because of my interest, I would start pushing further into the politics. But when I started editing towards the politics, it would suddenly feel very dry and unimportant – and even the politics would feel less important; and that’s the interesting thing. I had intellectual friends who’d say you should have gotten more into the issues about Chile and explain more. And then it became a history lesson; this is a movie that’s teaching me something and suddenly the politics felt less important. It was one of those wonderful cases of less is more. The bigger issue is the politics of living. That was what I liked about Scott’s book is that it was really about the politics of your moral choices in the grand scheme of things. And that was something we had to keep refining in the editing.
Stuart Kleinman, one of the other producers, would say remember that this is first and foremost something you fell in love with because it reminded you of you and your girlfriend. And every time he’d say that, it would be like “bing” – clarity. And Jodie [Foster] would do that sometimes, too: ‘the political stuff is really interesting, but that’s not why you made this movie, is it?’ And I’d go, ‘Right,’ without ever wanting to lose it, because, yes, it is very important, but it had to be important within the human context.
iW: In “Mother Night,” you had a similar balance between politics and love. And I feel like much of American film lacks a political stance, a challenge to the status quo or the ability to take on a cause. Do you agree?
Gordon: Oh sure, I wish there was more politics in film. I wish there was more politics in most of art. I don’t think there’s much politics left in our theater, in our film, in almost anything. But the problem is there’s not much politics left in our society. I think that that’s both a cause and a reflection. In a way, I agree with the woman who starts yelling at Fielding, saying, “you people think your elections are politics, life is politics.” And I do think that, ultimately. And that’s one of the points of the film, that we’ve so isolated our politics that we don’t see everything that we do – the cars we drive, what we eat, what companies we buy things from, what movies we see – are all political acts.