INTERVIEW: Griffin Dunne is "Famous"
by Anthony Kaufman
(indieWIRE/ 08.21.01) — Griffin Dunne knows what it’s like to be a struggling actor in the Big Apple, hungry for recognition, a juicy part, or at least a commercial spot to pay the rent. In the late 1970s, he came to New York to become an actor and follow in the footsteps of his hero Al Pacino. But things didn’t quite work out that way: Dunne became, along with Amy Robinson, a producer of films, as much as an actor in them. After “Head over Heals” (1979), their company Double Play went on to produce John Sayles “Baby, It’s You” (1983) and Martin Scorsese‘s “After Hours,” which afforded Dunne his most famous role (aside from “An American Werewolf In London“) as the hapless word processor Paul Hackett caught in a Kafka-esque SoHo nightmare. Other producing gigs followed (“Running on Empty,” “White Palace“) and then came directing in the late ’90s, with two studio films, “Addicted to Love” and “Practical Magic.”
Now with his latest directorial project “Lisa Picard is Famous” (opening in New York on Wednesday), Dunne returns to his youthful dreams of fame, but now one step removed. Written by and starring two unknown actors (Nat DeWolf and Laura Kirk), Dunne plays a documentarian tracking the travails of these aspiring spirits as they try to make it big. One-quarter fiction, three-quarters truth, “Lisa Picard is Famous” shows what Dunne calls “the ludicrousness of what they’re doing” — a ludicrousness that he knows first-hand. Dunne spoke with indieWIRE’s Anthony Kaufman about producing verses acting, final cut and Final Cut Pro, and making movies in New York since the 1980s.
indieWIRE: You have a history of producing. Is there a reason you have moved away from that?
Griffin Dunne: I produced six movies with Amy Robinson since the very early ’80s. On every movie I’ve done as a director, I look at the producers and having done it, I don’t envy them, at all. I’m so grateful for what I’m now doing. As a director, I’ve been able to combine with what I’ve learned as an actor and as a producer: it melds quite nicely into what I feel like I should have been doing all along. I still produce, by the way, a couple of projects that I’d like to produce and direct, because I have ownership of the material. But I remember feeling as a producer I felt like the guy who called the caterer and got the band; I had to work the party while everybody else was having a good time. I found the shooting, the actually making of the movie, kind of tortuous. If Amy and I had really done our jobs well, there wasn’t much for us to do. Except show up for lunch. And hang out, and then hear the endless, “Oh, the producers are here; it must be lunch” line. Which people still think is hilarious. So I really just got frustrated by the nuts and bolts of it. However, I love and continue to love finding new material, being responsible for discovering a new actor or a new director. Amy and I had a real talent for putting together the people who should know each other, putting together that party. That part I still love.
iW: In “Lisa Picard is Famous,” you got to discover some new talent. And considering you’re an actor, it seems what better movie for you to direct?
Dunne: The material and the subject matter is something I know a lot about. My hunger and desperation, being an actor, an out of work actor — my memory of that is as fresh as an open wound. And what also interests me about it is shooting it digitally and having it be a roving, small crew and showing the peripatetic, unstructured lives of actors trying to get a job, any job, selling anything. So I thought it was a good mix of this new technology and very suited to the subject.
And Nat and Laura, meeting them really clinched it for me. I felt like I was able to do a movie that was following people around who were at the periods of their lives of what they were playing. It had a very immediate feeling; it feels very real because it is. When we were meeting, they would go out on auditions. They had just come from auditioning for a laxative commercial. But they were just gifted enough to have perspective on the ludicrousness of what they were doing. But their hunger and love of acting was still the same. And I like them enormously. And they had a great sense of humor about themselves and understood the situation, so it felt like the right thing to do.
iW: After making a couple of movies in the studio system, was this a refreshing counter move to that? Or on the other side of the coin, was there anything frustrating about it?
Dunne: Every movie is wildly different. So many of the problems are the same, but they take on different guises. So if anything took getting used to, it was assuming you could get something when things are not at your fingertips. But at the same time, never having final cut before, I really learned an interesting thing for any studio executive who is reading this: that if a director has final cut, it’s actually easier and more interesting to listen to notes. Because you still have the notes process — I’ve always been interested in hearing what people think of the movie — so I’m not defensive during the screening process. Whatever I can learn or whatever idea I can steal is great. But it’s easier; you’re more open-minded when you know you’re not listening to ideas with a gun to your head. And you can give and take.
iW: On “Famous,” you had several different formats. Was that especially complicated to edit?
Dunne: It was complicated for a number of reasons. It was a tough post-production, because 1.) I shot a lot. I was under the delusion that since it’s digital, you can shoot as much as you want. It is still time consuming and it still costs more money. And I shot a lot; I never even said “action” or “cut,” because I didn’t want actors to feel like they had to key up. I didn’t want them to be aware of the camera. We would have a camera running that no one knew about it, anyway. And William [Rexer], my D.P., was just incorrigible. Sometimes he would shoot long after I thought we were shooting. And 2.) I think we were the first picture to cut on Final Cut Pro. So we were the guinea pigs, because we got a deal on the system. But with that comes all sorts of technological problems I couldn’t begin to describe. It was the first time that so much tape had to be downloaded into the system. So we were used to it crashing a lot. Or seeing the scene up to a certain point, before the scene froze. But the kinks did get worked out. And we fell on the sword for a lot of pictures that came after us, so I’m looking for my plaque.
iW: So “Famous” seems to be very much a New York movie, and you’ve made movies in New York for a long time now. What do you think about New York as an indie movie town?
Dunne: New York means so much to people. If you’re inclined to leave the nest, New York is where most people think they have to go, and it’s been that way since the first skyscraper. I remember my earliest images of New York came from movies, and I couldn’t believe that people lived on top of each other in tall buildings. And it’s taken on different forms in movies, of what it represents. In the ’20s, it was glamour and gangsters and floozy-broads drinking out of shoes, but when I was growing up in the ’60s, like in “Midnight Cowboy,” it represented a place where the rudest people in the world congregated. It was the meanest city in the world. And people would say they’d never ever go to New York and it was disgusting. So each decade, it’s taken on something else. Now, it’s the safest place on earth, second to Orlando — and it’s starting to look a lot like Orlando. There are just not other cities where you don’t need a car, where everyone is reliant on public transportation, where we’re all in each other’s faces. And the movie immediately captures that.
If movies are set in New York, they really should be shot in New York. And I’m going through this on my next picture, “Nails Right In,” where I’m making a picture that’s set in Brooklyn, but I’m shooting 10 days in New York and the rest will be in Toronto. And I’ve gone from “absolutely no way, this can’t be made in Toronto” to “let me look at the pictures” to “okay, the corner of that building is like that.” Fortunately, it’s Brooklyn as opposed to midtown Manhattan. But I’m going and I’m doing it for one reason alone: money. And that’s a shame. New York has made tremendous concessions for independent pictures, they have the East Coast council, which makes deals for smaller films, but if you’re over that; as mine is in the 7 to 10 [million dollar range], it’s almost like you’re treated like a studio picture — but studios don’t make pictures for 7 to 10. So there is a figure where it’s almost close to impossible to make the picture. I’m being told it saves money to shoot in Toronto, because of tax benefits, the crews are cheaper, but what I save in the bottom line, I lose in a million other ways. I’m working with two crews. As soon as I’m getting my rhythm in New York, I’m picking up and moving to a whole new crew that I’ll be less familiar with.
iW: How do you think the filmmaking scene is different now than it was in the early ’80s?
Dunne: I feel like Raoul Walsh; I’m not quite that old. It’s such an old person’s question, but I understand. In the ’80s, I can’t say that Amy and I were aware of an independent film community. We could only get a certain amount of money for our pictures, which made them low budget movies, but they were distributed through studios. I wish I knew Jim Jarmusch at that time, but I didn’t really, so there wasn’t as much of a community as I feel there is now. It wasn’t, to my regret, as chronicled and conscious. There weren’t Bravos and Independent Film Channels; I don’t think people were that aware. Independent film magazines were like trade manuals. Those in the trade only knew them, so it just wasn’t as self-conscious as it is now. Now, I feel like there’s a whole parallel universe out here; it’s a whole new genre of films that are as profitable and accessible. It’s its own industry.
iW: Do you see yourself working in between mainstream and independent?
Dunne: I’ve always been schizophrenic; I’ve never been interested in limiting myself. I came to New York to be an actor and I became a film producer first. I only got to be able to act, because I gave myself a job as a producer. Then the first picture I directed was much bigger than anything I ever produced. So I kind of like the surprises. And I like being able to go back and forth, and I don’t really care if it’s a small budget or big budget or studio or independent, as long as it’s got a story that’s compelling and there’s enough money to make the picture. I’ve been very lucky that I’ve been able to hop around. I’m in five guilds; that’s a lot of dues to pay. So I have to keep on working.