INTERVIEW: Darkness Falls on New York: Dylan Kidd's "Roger Dodger"
by Wendy Mitchell/indieWIRE
(indieWIRE: 10.25.02) — Now that Neal LaBute is making heartwarming romances with Gwyneth Paltrow, who’s going to give us rough-around-the edges modern male characters? Enter Dylan Kidd, who is making his writing and directing debut with “Roger Dodger,” an incisive character study about a seemingly suave martini-swilling Manhattan playboy. Campbell Scott gives an amazing performance as Roger, a self-centered ad exec who thinks he’s got the ways of the world (and women) all figured out. Roger tries to impart this knowledge to his virginal teenage nephew, Nick (impressive newcomer Jesse Eisenberg). As they journey through nocturnal Manhattan from cocktail bars to seedy back alleys, we see a bit of trouble behind Roger’s confident facade as he even learns a thing or two from sweet young Nick.
indieWIRE managing editor Wendy Mitchell recently sat down with Dylan Kidd to discuss the film’s sharp dialogue and atmospheric cinematography, as well as the beauty of being at the right coffee shop at the right time. “Roger Dodger” previously claimed the Best Feature Narrative prize at the inaugural Tribeca Film Festival; Artisan Entertainment releases the film today.
indieWIRE: You went to film school a decade ago, yet this is your first film?
Dylan Kidd: I graduated from NYU in 1991. I spent a couple of years actually loading cameras for Joaquin Baca-Asay, our cinematographer. I made a short film in ’95-’96. In the last couple years I was starting to get some work doing on-line content. I was basically just an aspiring writer/director who had no career, had never written a script that I was passionate enough about to actually go out with. This is, by far, my first real project. I started writing “Roger Dodger” in late ’99 through 2000. When I finally had a draft that I was comfortable with, I got it to Anne Chaisson, [one of the producers] and we got in to the Nuyorican reading series [in New York]. That was February, 2001.
iW: From there, how did you get it to Campbell Scott?
Kidd: I have to be careful in interviews because sometimes I want to make it more of a Cinderella story than it is. Anne and I were taking meetings, we were trying to get the script out to actors. It was that classic Catch-22 of no money without talent, no talent without money. What do you do?
We had found Jesse Eisenberg to play Nick through the reading so it was even more frustrating because we thought “God, we’ve got this great Nick and we’ve got this great role for Roger.” We weren’t kidding ourselves. We weren’t asking for 10 million dollars to make this movie, but we thought at least with the right chemistry with the two leads, it would really be something great. In desperation, I started carrying the script with me.
I was in a coffee shop in the West Village. Campbell walks in. We had never considered him for the role, but he’s Campbell Scott and he’s great! This guy has a history of taking chances with first-time directors so I gave him the script. I never thought I’d hear from him again but he called two weeks later. Our initial meeting was just to make sure we were on the same page with the movie. And honestly, I might have fudged a little bit and said we had some financing.
But his real contribution as executive producer, and they are many, was in helping us get to other actors. Campbell is somebody who has 100% credibility in the industry with other actors. It’s inconceivable to me that Isabella Rossellini agreed to do this movie without even reading the script just because Campbell called her.
iW: Why did you think that Campbell was right for Roger? I think he gives an incredible performance in this role.
Kidd: I think the main thing that first triggered my gut reaction — and also talking to Anne about it — was that we thought it was really important to have an actor that didn’t somehow telegraph how the movie was going to end. I think people go to independent movies because they want to go to a movie where they are in the middle of act two and they actually don’t know how it’s going to end.
I felt like there were certain actors who would maybe trigger your thinking as to whether the movie would have a happy ending or a bad ending. He is somebody who doesn’t bring a lot of baggage with him. And I really thought that it was important that the audience really doesn’t know where this guy was going to go. What’s good about Campbell is that he projects intelligence so that you don’t give up on the character.
iW: When you were writing, how did you strike that perfect balance of having a difficult character but not making him too unlikable?
Kidd: Mike Leigh‘s “Naked” was an inspiration. When I saw that movie, something clicked and I realized that if you are a filmmaker, you have to trust your instincts. I just know that when I see a character on screen that I feel is a smart person, who is a thinking person, even if they are behaving despicably, there is a chance that they can come around. If Roger came off as just a bore or a cynic or somebody who didn’t care about things, then screw it, who wants to watch that? Like David Thewlis in “Naked” — even if he is spouting the most horrible stuff, if he passionately believes what he is saying, there is something charismatic about that. I just trusted that 1) people would find Campbell charismatic enough to want to go on a ride with him and 2) most thinking people when they see a character like that, know instantly that he is coming from a lot of self-loathing. I know that when I meet somebody who is in-your-face and very know-it-all, I can see they are a scared person, a damaged person.
iW: Did you ever feel any pressure, from yourself or from financiers or producers, to tone it down a bit and make the character a little less misogynistic?
Kidd: That’s a good question. Let’s face it, in the indie world, it’s almost better to push it the other way. I just think, Todd Solondz is Todd Solondz because he’s not pulling back. When I walked on this set, I really thought my first responsibility was to make the investors money. And the great thing about working at this level is the way that you honor your responsibility to the investors is to make the best movie that you can. The two things are not at odds with each other. Whereas in the studio system, your responsibility to the parent company is to make a movie that opens wide; that’s not always the same as making the best movie.
iW: When you were actually shooting, did you encourage the actors to improvise a lot?
Kidd: It’s a real credit to the actors that this film feels completely improvised. It’s pretty much exactly as scripted. Some of the actors were great, particularly Campbell, who did a lot of trimming of the dialogue in rehearsal.
You need to listen to actors. Their instincts are really good about this stuff, and if an actor feels like he’s getting tired of his own voice, the audience is, too. I was surprised at how great the cast was at taking what could have been a very static, talky movie, and giving it the feeling like you’re overhearing a conversation.
iW: Because the film is so dialogue-heavy, how did you try to make sure it didn’t seem static?
Kidd: That was the whole challenge for me. And this is why it’s so great that Joaquin and I are close collaborators. A lot of the money people, and totally understandably, that we were talking to early on said, “This is a stage play. How is this going to be cinematic?” And Joaquin and I were always so frustrated because we see this movie in our heads, we see this movie of swirling cigarette smoke and flickering candles and martini glasses and neon light — this nocturnal journey. As a filmmaker, I believe what movies can do really well that no other medium can do is show characters in their environment and show how the environment is affecting them.
iW: Did you ever think of shooting on DV?
Kidd: I’ve got to be careful about getting on the soapbox because I believe that video is completely unacceptable right now as opposed to film. It may be that I was trained on film, but video, right now, is not that much cheaper. You’ve still got to light it and it looks terrible.
The quality is advancing at the rate where I’m sure within five years they’ll be a video format that you cannot distinguish from film. But right now, we’re not quite there. Your goal when you’re making movies is to eventually have it screened in a theater. You’re still going to have to blow this thing up to 35mm. So really do a cost analysis and you’d be shocked to see you are really not saving that much money.
iW: What are you working on now?
Kidd: I am writing a couple things now. I got an agent through the movie so I sent them a whole list of books that I’ve always felt strongly about, so I may do an adaptation. Anne and I, our goal is to definitely stay on the East Coast. We would like to carve out a niche as people who do lower-budget films with major actors so that investors are comfortable and there’s that kind of win-win situation. So we want to be known as the “actor-friendly” team. Because let’s face it, actors make millions of dollars on a film. They can cut their rate and come to New York and do a low budget for four weeks. It gives them a chance to do a role that maybe they wouldn’t have: “Come roll up your sleeves and do an indie for three weeks! It’s fun!”