As far as living legends go, Peter Bogdanovich is right up there. As one of the influential “New Hollywood” directors of the ’70s, he reshaped stuffy Hollywood in part by paying homage to it, crafting deeply personal, beautifully photographed films that served as odes to other places and times (works like “The Last Picture Show” and “Paper Moon“). This month he returns to his first love, acting, for a new independent comedy called “Cold Turkey.” In the film (which was originally entitled “Pasadena” and played recently at the Sarasota Film Festival), Bogdanovich plays a patriarch who is put to the test when family secrets are revealed, seemingly all at once, over a painfully honest Thanksgiving weekend. It’s a subtle, nuanced performance, and proof positive that, at the tender age of 74, Bogdanovich has still got it.
We got a chance to chat with the director recently and discussed why he chose the role in “Cold Turkey,” how low budget filmmaking has changed since the days when he made “The Last Picture Show,” how his new film (next year’s “Squirrel To The Nuts“) is turning out, what is going on with his long gestating, attempted restoration of the Orson Welles film “The Other Side of the Wind,” and much more (he also has his own Indiewire blog, fyi). Speaking with the director felt like having an audience with a king or other high-ranking royal family member; this is a man who was chummy with both Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock and who now mentors filmmakers like Noah Baumbach, Wes Anderson and Quentin Tarantino.
What encouraged you to sign on to “Cold Turkey?”
Well they offered me the part and nobody else had been cast. And I thought it was a very good script. It was intelligent and interesting and somewhat autobiographical. I like family dramas. It was a very good part, a sort of leading role, complicated and something that I thought I could do pretty well.
Do you still get as excited about acting as you did?
It’s fun. I like acting. It’s somewhat more relaxing than being a director. I prefer directing but I like acting; it’s a different thing. I don’t know how to describe it.
Did you get to veto the rest of the cast?
No, not at all. I didn’t ask for it nor did they offer it. They did say that I was the first person cast, so once they cast me they would go to other actors and say, “Peter’s in do you want to be a part of it?” But I thought all of the actors were really good.
Did they ever tap you for your amazing wealth of experience?
Well, we were shooting very quickly. There wasn’t a whole lot of time for chitchat. We shot the whole picture in two weeks.
How does shooting an independent feature today compare to when you were doing it back in the day?
Well, it’s totally different when you’re directing. With “Last Picture Show,” even though it was a low budget picture, we still had 60 days. We had a deal with the unions where we didn’t have to carry as many people if it was a low budget picture; that was quite a great experience. But “Cold Turkey” was originally called “Pasadena,” a title I actually prefer. We had two weeks to shoot the whole thing. I have no idea what it cost, but I’m sure it wasn’t very much.
You just finished directing your first film in over a decade. How is that turning out and when can we expect to see it?
Well first of all, it’s not my first movie in over a decade. I did two films for television in 2004 and two documentaries, including one that won a Grammy for Tom Petty that was four hours and took two years. But this is the first theatrical feature I’ve done since “The Cat’s Meow” in 2002. It was fun to do it. It was a very good cast. We had to shoot it pretty quickly; we did it in 29 days. But the performances were great and the actors were so good that there were no problems. The script we originally wrote back in 1998 around a difficult time in our lives but it sort of kept us laughing. It was originally written for John Ritter and Cybil Shepherd and then John died and we put it on the backburner because we couldn’t think who to cast in that part. Then I got to know Owen Wilson quite well and I thought he could pay the part, because he had to be likable and attractive and not threatening sexually, and Owen fit the bill. Then we sent it to Jennifer Aniston to play his wife and she preferred to play the therapist, which is a much showier part. And then we got the rest of the cast after that.
Do you know when it’s coming out?
We’re still cutting it now. I’m not sure. It depends on what the distributor wants to do and we haven’t gotten a distributor yet because it was independently financed. The producers will sell it as soon as I’m finished cutting it.
The new film is produced by Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach—were they hands on or did they lend their name to get the ball rolling?
That was pretty much what they did. They were very helpful in getting the picture financed and getting agencies behind it and they are very busy doing their own films but their input has been invaluable throughout the process. They were great catalysts in getting the thing going.
You were very friendly with Orson Welles early on and now you’re looked up to by Baumbach and Anderson. Does it feel odd to be in that mentor role now?
Well… It’s different… I call Wes and Noah “my son.” And they call me “Pop.” I have two daughters and a bunch of grandchildren so I’m used to be calling Pop. So it comes with age. I don’t mind it.
A couple of years ago you were talking about “The Other Side of the Wind” finally coming out. Do you have any updates?
Well that’s a very difficult saga. Frank Marshall and I have been trying to put it together for many years. Orson died in 1985 and we’ve been trying ever since. It’s just ridiculous. The problem is that a lot of different people own parts of it or claim to own parts of it. And so the chain of title is difficult to establish. But it keeps inching forward and we keep getting closer and closer and things fall apart again. It’s just a very, very difficult situation. I think it will get done some time but not in the near future.
You started as a film critic. What do you think of the state of film criticism and do you still read your own reviews?
Well, I didn’t start as a film critic, I started as an actor at 15. Then I started directing in the theater at 20. Eventually I got into writing for Esquire and the Museum of Modern Art and that was really a way of earning a living while waiting for my next theater gig. Then I decided that I wanted to direct films so I moved out to L.A. and continued writing out there while waiting to direct. In order to answer your question about film criticism, however, I read film criticism occasionally. There are some critics I like and whose stuff I read. The New Yorker has some good critics as well as the New York Times. There are good critics around. I don’t read too much because I’ve been too busy. I’m sure I’ll read the “Cold Turkey” reviews. Actually, I have my assistant read the reviews and if they’re not good, then I don’t read them.
You recently talked about loving “Nebraska.” What have you seen that you loved and what directors are you excited by?
Well I liked Noah Baumbach’s “Frances Ha” [a conversation between Baumbach and Bogdanovich is included in the just-released Criterion Blu-ray]. I thought that was very good. And I generally like everything Wes Anderson does. And Quentin, of course, who’s a friend, I like his stuff. I thought Scott Cooper did a great job on that movie that he did with Jeff Bridges, “Crazy Heart.” You know, I don’t get a chance to see that many movies. So I’m not up to date on who’s who. My movie-going has diminished significantly because I’m not a big fan of science fiction, I don’t like horror pictures and sometimes pictures are so depressing that I just don’t go, even though I hear it’s good. I’ve come to the point where I don’t like to be depressed by a movie.
How would you evaluate the state of movies today?
I think it’s unfortunate that there’s very little middle ground. It’s either very expensive or very cheap. And I’m sorry that the studios aren’t doing more innovative work. It feels a little moribund, the whole thing. But there’s talent around and a lot of good actors and good writers. It’s just that it feels like we’re in a period of decadence.
Is there a film from your body of work that you feel is underrated?
Well, that’s difficult to say. Somebody was talking to me about pictures that I had made and they were saying that certain films like “Paper Moon” and “Last Picture Show” and later films didn’t have that kind of success and yet filmmakers like Wes Anderson or Noah or Quentin like later films like “Saint Jack” or “They All Laughed.” And I kind of agree with them: I think they are two of my best pictures. Then there’s a film I made for Disney called “Noises Off,” that was based on a Broadway play and I think we did a good job with that. I think that’s worth seeing again. I think it’s a bit egotistical to talk about my films in that way. That’s for other people to decide. And some of them do like some of my more recent work. And I’m happy to hear that when I hear it.
“At Long Last Love” just came out in a new cut. Are there any alternate cuts lying around or movies you’d like to tweak?
Well, that was quite an amazing story about how that came about… But there’s a director’s cut of “Texasville” that came out on laserdisc and I would dearly like for that to come out. It’s a much better film than the one that was released. It was available on Pioneer laserdisc for a while but that’s gone the way of the dodo bird. And I finally got “Nickelodeon” out in black-and-white on DVD and that was a big triumph. It’s a much better picture in black-and-white. As Dave Kehr in the New York Times said, “it becomes a totally different picture.” And he’s right – it does. But most of my films I’ve had problems with like “Mask” or “Nickelodeon,” have come out in versions that I prefer.
Is “Saint Jack” ever coming out on DVD?
Well it came out on DVD a while ago. Roger Corman put it out. But I don’t think it’s in print now. Criterion is considering it, so that’s great.
Have you talked to Criterion about “Texasville?”
Yeah, we’ve talked about it and we’re still discussing it.
Is there a movie from that ’70s period that you wish you had gotten to do but didn’t?
Yeah, there were pictures here and there that I wanted to make that didn’t work out for one reason or another. None that come to mind that are killing me that I didn’t make it or anything.
“Cold Turkey” is out on Friday in New York and available now On Demand. For more Peter Bogdanovich, visit his Indiewire blog here.