A Conversation with Alan Rudolph
by Tom Cunha
Director Alan Rudolph’s roots in filmmaking go back a couple of decades,
working as an assistant director under the wing of Robert Altman on films
like “The Long Goodbye” (1973), “California Split” (1974) and the highly
acclaimed “Nashville” (1975). Venturing on to direct his own films in the
late seventies, Rudolph made his debut with “Welcome to L.A.“.(1977),
followed by “Remember My Name” (1978), both of which were produced by
Altman. He went on to receive critical praise for “Choose Me“(1984) and
“Trouble in Mind” (1985) and has remained consistent in the theme and scope
of his modestly produced, character driven features, usually dealing with
individuals whose lives intersect and drastically change as a result.
A pioneer of independent American cinema, Rudolph’s latest project is
“Afterglow“, a marital drama in which two dissatisfied couples unknowingly
exchange partners. The film stars Nick Nolte, Lara Flynn Boyle, Johnny Lee
Miller and Julie Christie, who has picked up best actress honors from the
New York Film Critics Circle, National Society of Film Critics and the San
Sebastian International Film Festival.
indieWIRE: You’ve worked primarily in the independent film arena. . .?
Alan Rudolph: That title has been so co-opted and marginalized. I think
that we should strive to be original and true. You can make a case that the
most independent American director only works for major studios and that’s
Stanley Kubrick. And you can name a dozen movies you saw last year or this
year that were so-called independents that were totally recut by the
studios, the “independent” studios that released them. The reason I’m
trying to debunk this myth is because its become a sales pitch or
something. If there is any meaning behind it, it’s seducing a lot of people
to give up their independence so they can call themselves independent. A
lot of these really talented young people are being taught that vision is
what you see through a lens. The thing that’s different from when I started
is that film used to be a sharp elbow in society’s ribs. But now it’s like
iW: It seems that many of the studio films of the ’70’s placed a stronger
emphasis on “creativity.” Would you agree with this?
Rudolph: Absolutely. And John Cassavetes is probably the most prominent
independent filmmaker because he acted to finance his own films. He made
them in a way no one else could make them. I would say he, Altman and
Scorsese are maybe the only American filmmakers where if you miss the
opening credits, you still know whose film it is.
My film school was going down to the theater and watching Truffaut, Fellini
and Bergman. I thought wow, I’m learning about life and film. The great
films to me are the ones where you walk out and you’re still in them. You
can’t shake them. And I thought it would go on forever like this. Now I
look back and it was just a golden age. Now it’s much more a business than
an art. Movies have become merchandising and they’ve also become a
currency. Basic Hollywood movies are corporate propaganda and the
corporation is really attacking our souls and trying to get each of our
identities. People are going to movies to learn how to behave as human
beings because they’re so confused now. It would be great if it were Frank
Capra, but instead it’s imitators and imitators of imitators and suddenly
people are confused.
iW: Let’s talk about “Afterglow”. What attracted you to the idea of marital
partner exchange, particularly with such a large age difference?
Rudolph: Somehow I got an idea about two couples who didn’t know each other
where each meets their opposite. That was the clothes line I could start
hanging things on. You can make a case that this is really about one
couple. It’s really just a page out of the diary of marriage in general.
The ups-and-downs, the ins-and-outs, the circles. It’s about love. Where
does love exist? Our lives are really more emotional reality than anything
else, but we’re denied to be able to indulge in that because there’s no
tangibility. I thought I’d make an emotional movie about four people in
different emotional time zones.
iW: There are similarities between this film and one of your earlier films,
like “Choose Me”.
Rudolph: This film is intentionally a grown-up cousin of “Choose Me”. It’s
on purpose. I didn’t know it at the time, but when I started writing I
said, “Wow, I can feel that this is dusting off an old car and getting a
new paint job.” The thing I wanted to do that is different is I didn’t want
the film to wink at itself. I wanted to keep the surface realistic. And
that might have been the influence of working with new actors primarily.
iW: This film is a great showcase for Julie Christie.
Rudolph: The world would be a better place if there were more Julies in it,
but thankfully she’s an original. Truly one of the handful of great
actresses ever to work in cinema. She’s got the look, the intelligence, the
depth and she doesn’t compromise. She doesn’t do anything superficially.
iW: A prevalent theme in many of your films is the idea of random
encounters leading to unpredictable situations.
Rudolph: You can follow anybody around, I don’t care who they are, and
their lives are much more like my films than what we perceive to be
realistic films. The problem with all of this is that we’re taught life the
wrong way. We’re taught that life is what you can control, what you can
define, what exists. Life is in the mystery is the way I look at it.
iW: How did you like working with the distributor of “Afterglow”, Sony
Rudolph: I think Sony Classics might be the best distributor I’ve ever
dealt with and they really loved the film. Their releases are modest, but
so is the film. It’s great to work with somebody who gets it and they
appreciate the performers. These guys at Sony Classics, [co-presidents] Tom
Bernard, Michael Barker and Marcie Bloom, they basically started what is
the classics division. They did it originally at United Artists and then at
Orion. They seem to have made a profession out of carving a niche out and
getting films that are original. And they don’t have a genre they fall back
on. It’s not like they also do “Scream” movies or something. Every movie
they do is an individual film.
iW: You’ve always been able to attract relatively big name actors to you
projects where they’re undoubtedly working for a fraction of what they
normally make. That says a lot about you as a director. Do you like working
Rudolph: Actors are the artists. Their madness is their art. They bring
their truth into someone else’s fiction. But actors are the only reason
I’ve been able to survive.
iW: Do you mean that by having certain actors attached to your film, you’ve
been able to get financing?
Rudolph: You can analyze the films I’ve made, not as films, but how they
got made. They’re all fringe. They were new companies that were just
starting out or companies right before they went out of business. I’ve
tried to buy into Hollywood a few times. I never sold out, I hope, but
I tried to buy in. In Hollywood, if you’re not a commercial success, you’re
a failure. To me, I feel very successful because in the fifteen movies I’ve
done, on ten or eleven of them no one has told me what to do. I could do
exactly what I wanted. The actors are all the key. One of the skills I’ve
honed is how to write things that I think actors might like. But it’s the
very thing that attracts the actor that repels the financial side. That
being the layers, the emotions, the dialogue and the fact that there is not
a heavy plot. I find that actors get paid a lot of money to react. So
they’ll work for very little if they like the part.
iW: How is it directing the films you’ve written vs. projects that have
been handed to you?
Rudolph: Well, nobody has ever handed me too many things. I was always the
one they called because they couldn’t find anyone and they were in trouble.
The scripts [for “Songwriter” and “Mortal Thoughts”] were a mess. Not that
they were bad, it’s just that they had so many hands in them. When I read
“Mortal Thoughts” it didn’t even have the last twenty pages. I said,
“Where’s the end?” They said, “Well, we haven’t gotten around to that.”
iW: Didn’t you come on board “Mortal Thoughts” at the very last minute?
Rudolph: Yes. The day before shooting. I loved it. I hate preparation. They
were all in trouble so I knew they wouldn’t bother me for awhile. I knew
I’d get a couple of weeks before anybody got the nerve to even say, “Excuse
me, what if we did this,” because they were so afraid the thing was going
to collapse, on both pictures. I said to both of them, “Just leave me alone
and you’ll get something. We’ll finish on schedule and on budget and there
will be no problem.” And we did. I had no rights on “Mortal Thoughts”, but
Demi Moore and Bruce Willis stood by me. “Ghost” and “Die Hard 2” came out
while we were shooting, so instead of a little six million dollar movie,
which we were making, suddenly it was Hollywood’s hottest couple. When they
gave the film to the studio, the head of the studio said, “You did a really
nice job, but we want to reshoot most of this movie and make it romance
between Bruce and Demi. She can still kill him in the end, but we want to
take advantage of who they are.” I said, “You can do what you want but not
with me” and Demi stood by it. I still think it’s her best performance.
iW: Tell me about your next project.
Rudolph: I’m going to be shooting Kurt Vonnegut’s story, “Breakfast of
Champions” in February. It only took me about 25 years to get it made.
Bruce Willis’s company is going to produce and he’s going to star in it.
It’s not an opulent production, but it’s something Bruce wants to do.
iW: What’s the worst advice you’ve ever been given?