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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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'Seduced and Abandoned'
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.

Seduced and Abandoned 6

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.

Seduced and Abandoned 7

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.

This article is related to: Television, TV Interviews, HBO , Seduced & Abandoned, James Toback, Alec Baldwin, Interviews





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