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James Toback Talks 'Seduced and Abandoned': 'I've often wondered what kind of a prostitute I am capable of being'

Photo of Alison Willmore By Alison Willmore | Indiewire October 28, 2013 at 4:48PM

It's tremendously fun to talk movies with James Toback. The writer of "Bugsy" and director of "The Pick-up Artist" and "Black and White" and others, Toback is frank, funny, knowledgable, opinionated and appreciative of the talents of others -- and, to be sure, his own.
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HBO 'Seduced and Abandoned'

It's tremendously fun to talk movies with James Toback. The writer of "Bugsy" and director of "The Pick-up Artist" and "Black and White" and others, Toback is frank, funny, knowledgable, opinionated and appreciative of the talents of others -- and, to be sure, his own. His new documentary "Seduced and Abandoned" is made up of conversations about cinema, between Toback and his partner in crime Alec Baldwin, and between the many people they interview, meet with or try to get money from at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival.

Baldwin and Toback go to the festival to supposedly pitch a $25 million film they describe as an update of a 1970s classic -- "Last Tango In Tikrit" they jokingly call it, and they don't have a script, just Toback's charismatic chutzpah and Baldwin's smart star presence. The pair take meetings with sales agents and with billionaires like Taki Theodoracopulos, and they talk process and the industry with stars like Ryan Gosling and filmmakers like Roman Polanski (and even a few critics). What emerges is a playful, affectionate and clever portrait of an industry that exists between art and commerce, in which vision and business have to be balanced. Indiewire caught up with the voluble Toback on the phone ahead of the doc's premiere on HBO tonight, October 28th at 9pm. "It's my favorite of all the films I've done," he explained.

"Well, guess what, I'm going to allow you to finance my next movie."

"Seduced and Abandoned" is about the process of pitching a film, but how did you pitch it? It's not an easy doc to describe.

It was an interesting process. A guy named Morris Levy introduced me to a friend, a former club promoter and real estate guy who he felt might want to invest in movies -- Alan Helene, he's one of the executive producers. He became immediately excited upon learning that I was the writer and director of three movies he'd seen in the last two weeks on cable and loved and didn't put them as the work of the same person.

It was almost like too neat to be believable. It was, "And you did 'Harvard Man'? And you did 'Two Girls and a Guy'? 'Black and White'? I just saw all three of those movies in the last two weeks. You've gotta be kidding" Then I started "Bugsy" and this and that and within half an hour I said, "Well, guess what, I'm going to allow you to finance my next movie." He said, "Well, I'll probably do it with some partners, but I will absolutely get it done."

Usually I like testing people quickly, because otherwise you're sitting on so much bullshit you get homicidal. People tell you they're excited, they're ready, they're eager and then the lawyer and within two weeks you want to run them over with a tractor. So I always like to make a move fast. It shows me whether I'm wasting my time or not. And I said, "Well, the thing is, before we do anything I've got to go to Cannes because I told them all about the movie. Cannes is not going to change a few dates and we're pretty close to this year's festival, so I'm going to have to go over there and make some plans and I need $50,000 for the trip, so you've got to wire that into my account."

20 minutes later he said, "Well, I want to introduce you tomorrow to a couple of friends of mine that I think maybe want to invest with me." And I said, "Fine." And just before we said goodbye, I said, "So when do you want to take care of the initial 50 for the trip?" And he said, "Why don't you check your account?" And he had already wired it in while we were talking. So I felt, well, this guy is for real. Sure enough, we talked to a few people, then Larry Herbert came in who was an extremely wealthy guy and on the board of the AFI. But it was incredibly fast and smooth, relative to most of my other experiences.

That doesn't sound that different in approach in terms of raising funding from what we see you do in the doc.

No, it wasn't. It was just more successful.

When you went into this process of pitching your project at Cannes, with no script and cameras filming everything, how likely did you think it would be that you'd actually be able to raise funds?

I thought the chances were 50-50. The difference was that I knew I was going to get a movie out of this trip no matter what, and it was going to be a movie I was really excited about making -- so it was a no lose situation. Normally it's all or nothing. You're trying to make a movie, you succeed and you make the movie, you don't and you're filled with bitterness and despair and rage... And also the need to somehow get it done by trying new things forever or sticking to your next option.

In this case, since we had this movie that was central to the quest for financing the next movie, we did have a movie no matter what. To be honest, I was always more excited about this movie than the other one because it had an advantage over most movies by definition, which is that it was going to be unlike any other movie ever made. And at this point in my life I'm far more interested in doing anything that no one's ever done before than I am in doing anything that can be compared to something else, no matter how well it might be done.

I was just reading "My Lunches With Orson" the tapes of Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles' lunches in the mid-80's at Ma Maison. It's very interesting -- Welles is always interesting, Welles is probably the greatest talker in the history of the English language, and certainly the greatest anecdotalist. But apart from being a great director, he was just a genuinely brilliant mind and talker. "F for Fake" is my favorite movie ever, and I was very pleased to see that Welles actually lists it in that way too, and actually says that one of his greatest disappointments was that "F for Fake" wasn’t as celebrated as his other films -- that it was a new a kind of movie, just like “Citizen Kane," that these two movies broke new ground and reinvented the notion for film.

That is the way I felt about “Seduced and Abandoned." I felt like “Last Tango in Tikrit" -- which is not the title we were going to use -- however fascinating that movie may be, might be, it ultimately will be comparable to other movies that have been made. "Seduced and Abandoned" I knew wouldn’t be, and that made it more important to me to do and to do right than “Tango in Tikrit,” even if we were given a blank check to do that movie.

"Seduced and Abandoned" starts off with a quote from Welles -- how much was “F for Fake” on your mind when making the film? Your line in it about "erasing the line between role-player and role" did make me think of it.

You look for excitement and influence everywhere. I’m determined to always feel everything I’m doing is completely original. I will never take a shot from anyone else and call it an homage or redo a film. Now they’re redoing “The Gambler" -- they already redid my other film, “Fingers.” The thing about “Seduced and Abandoned” that was and is so appealing to me is that not only did I feel it hadn’t been done before, but I didn’t really know what I was doing until it had been done.

When we were in the editing room, my editor and I, he said to me, “I really have no fucking clue what we’re doing here.” And I said, “Well, I don’t either, yet.” And I once we had that conversation, as opposed to being frightened or nervous I just felt exhilarated. Here we were, two weeks into the editing process, with no real clue we were going to do with the footage structurally. Here you know you’re going to have to invent something. You’re going to have to make something that you can’t foresee as opposed to a scripted movie where the plan is already on paper -- you’ve executed it, presumably, so there’s already an element of range and parameters you’ve got to stick by.

HBO 'Seduced and Abandoned'

In terms of the setting at Cannes, as you say in the film, it is both a celebration of cinema and a giant market. How do you see that balance between film as a business and film as an art as having shifted in recent years?

Terribly, terribly. You know how you get it -- in the use of the word "flop." It used to be that you couldn’t call a movie that you thought was a great film a “flop," because flop was an insulting term. Now flop has just taken over and it means the same thing -- failed to make money. People are in effect saying if it lost a lot of money it’s no good -- I feel that’s a horrible way to talk about a movie that you like.

It was predicted, of all people, by Michael Eisner in the '80s, maybe in the late '70s. Eisner said a good movie is a movie that makes money; a bad movie is a movie that loses money. And I was thinking, what an awful position to take in relation to art. Little did I know that 30 years later, one would be considered almost bizarreLY naïve in just saying that that’s the case.

"I've often wondered, since no one has offered me $20 million to make a movie, or 10 or eight, what kind of a prostitute I am capable of being."

That’s what I think the real change has been -- and you can see it in certain actors and certain directors. Take De Niro -- we were going to do "The Gambler" together, we’d become very close at the time, and he was a very serious, dedicated actor and everything had to do with the quality of the work. Now he’s become one of the most successful actors in movie history, but is doing films that would suggest he’s not doing them for any other reason than the deal. And I think that in this cinematic world today you find a handful of actors, at most, who say "I don't do anything for money."

The vast majority of actors, and, for that matter, even directors will do something for the money and only then worry about the quality of the film. I've often wondered, since no one has offered me $20 million to make a movie, or 10 or eight, what kind of a prostitute I am capable of being. I would like to think that I would never do a movie that I am not excited about or that I’m not in totally and that I certainly would not agree to make a movie that I wouldn’t eagerly see myself. You don’t know really know unless you’re in that position. I do know that I’d rather kill someone I don’t like for money than shoot a movie I didn’t like for money.

I feel like that's how you see people who have clearly talked themselves into liking a movie -- rationalized enthusiasm that wouldn't necessarily have been there if it would have been someone else's project.

I see it all the time -- a lot of times where somebody is promoting somebody else’s movie, because they are hilariously convoluted. There are some guys that are actually blunt about stating why they wanted to make the movie -- first thing they’ll say is “I was paid.” I was lucky, because it was cheaper for me to make movies then, but I also want to make my kind of movie. The reason “Seduced and Abandoned” was so easy to make was we only needed $2 million -- my guess is that had it been $5 or 6 million to make, it would have been much, much tougher. I don’t even know that it would have been doable.

The figure that you’re looking for your “Last Tango” film -- $25 million -- exemplifies a type of movie that Hollywood is moving away from.

I have a kind of cheerfully oblivious view to the removal of the world from straight to dramatic movies. It’s still so hard for me to believe we’ve entered the realm of... I mean, look at the career of [Robert] Downey [Jr.], I invented him. I used him in "The Pick-Up Artist" and "Two Girls and a Guy" -- which remains by far his best performance -- and then “Black and White," which are all serious dramas. However much acclaim he got for that and the performances he gave, he became a billionaire when he suddenly became a cartoon. He’s now the most successful cartoon in history, and it’s a kind of metaphor for what happened. This guy who’s done some great work, hasn’t made anyone or himself much money, but he made everyone else a bunch of money when he turned himself into a cartoon.

The film includes these frank assessments from the people you speak to of different actors' star quality and their bankability. It seems like it would take someone as grounded at this point in his career as Alec Baldwin to listen to and remain unruffled by them. Did you find that the two of you had similar thoughts on the ideas of what being a star means these days?

Both of us are loose and noncategorical about how we think about things. Alec has more energy and broad intelligence and humor and self-awareness and trueness in judging people, not just in movies, than anyone I’ve met in my life. The quickness, subtleness, openness -- to all forms -- presentation of the self is a kind of quintessential modern figure. I think the only person doing it to the same degree, in a different way, is James Franco -- reinventing himself every 15 minutes or something.

Franco, who I love, I’ve known for a long time and I think we’d do something great together -- Franco doesn’t rely on the most elegant and eloquent articulation the feelings the way Alec does. Alec is a great linguist. He has a feel for the right words and the right sentence and the right insight verbally. It enables him to shine in so many different areas. I actually got the idea that we should do a movie together from the thrill in our conversations that we would have during these lunches and dinners, saying “God, we gotta shoot this. It’s too good not to use.” He came up with the idea of doing it in Cannes.

It’s hard for me to believe he’d never been before.

I know -- I think he’s the first American actor to have traveled in Africa before he traveled in the Riviera.

"Seduced and Abandoned" has a cinematic look that's unusual for a documentary.

I have absolutely no intention of making a movie that isn’t stylistic and original. Obviously, there are docs that are interesting and don’t look good because of the circumstances. I like watching movies that are revealing in those certain ways, but I couldn’t make one -- it’s just not my plan on the planet. This movie did consist of a lot of stuff that had to be sudden and improvisational, but had enough that could be planned, and then had enough where I could find a style to make it rich and beautiful, with the split screen -- I tried it in "Tyson." And of course you could do things visually with color that you can’t do with film.

I used to be quite nostalgic about film, to feel that film is to the unconscious as digital is to conscious mind. I used to think that film had an advantage over digital, but I no longer feel that way at all. First of all you have longer takes, and secondly, which is of huge importance, you can do these terrific embellishments with color and also music. Music was my great ambition, but unfortunately I was insufficiently talented to become a serious composer or pianist. I’ve gotten my revenge by using all of my favorite music in my movies. These films are all real fulfillments of deep-filled passions that I’ve had artistically.

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