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.
"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.