Writer Don Roos Makes The Leap From Hollywood To Indies
with "The Opposite of Sex"
by Anthony Kaufman
Don Roos has written four produced screenplays, beginning with “Love
Field,” and then three others for the Hollywood beast, “Single White
Female,” “Boys on the Side,” and “Diabolique” (the remake) — all of
which have leant him a certain amount of cache and steady work. But
Roos, like so many today, had the urge to direct, so he took the risk,
refusing to give up his next project unless he was attached. The result
is the un-P.C. malevolent farce, “The Opposite of Sex,” starring
Christina Ricci as a white trash seductress and the disruptive
half-sister of a mild-mannered, mid-Western, homosexual teacher, played
by Martin Donovan.
Sony Pictures Classics acquired the film just before it was accepted to
premiere at Sundance in January, and now it opens this Friday with the
strength of a complimentary Janet Maslin review, a stellar-name cast
including Ricci, Donovan, Lisa Kudrow and Lyle Lovett, and Roos’s
successful track-record of entertaining and audience-friendly stories.
But don’t expect a “Boys on the Side” sequel; Roos flexes his creative
muscles in this directorial debut with a script that offends,
manipulates, and taunts its audience in a brash and sardonic style.
indieWIRE spoke with Roos recently on the night after a premiere benefit
screening of his film for the IFP. He discussed the toils and joys of
writing-directing, the essentials of casting, and the influence of Diane Keaton.
indieWIRE: This is all new to you, isn’t it? As a writer, you’ve had
nothing to do with the press.
Don Roos: On my very first movie, they invited me once to a junket, but who
gives a shit about the writer? You’re a writer. Who gives a shit about
writers? It’s so wrong, as far as I’m concerned, because a director is
basically like a conductor of somebody else’s work, of the actor’s work,
of the cameraman’s work, of the writer’s work. Of course, there are
directors who are originating, creative forces, but they usually have to
write their own scripts, like Woody Allen, or Scorsese doesn’t write his
own scripts, but I bet he does. Hitchcock wrote a lot of his. . .
iW: So how were you able to get this one as a director?
Roos: I wrote it in a way that. . . I took the risk. If they weren’t
going to let me direct it, it wouldn’t get done. That’s what I had to
do. I had to find people who were willing enough to take a chance on
me. And I had known Michael Besman who was an executive on “Single
White Female,” so he was the first person in the business I showed the
script to, and he took it to Kirkpatrick who took it too Rysher, and
Rysher said “Yes,” if I could attract casting. So they had guarantees
all they time. They weren’t going to make the movie with me plus nobody
in the cast. They would make it with me if there were enough real
people. So that’s how it happened. You have to gamble, you have to
write something and say, “This won’t get made unless I get to make it.”
[The film’s publicist Shannon Treusch enters with two Diet Pepsis.]
Roos: What are the specials today?
Shannon Treusch: We have Roast Duck and Pasta. . .
Roos: We’re not ready just yet. . .
iW: So that’s a logical step into the casting process, then, because you
had to figure out how to get name talent.
Roos: I didn’t know really that it was all contingent on casting. It
was never really spelled out, but that’s in fact, what it was about. We
just kept trying to move forward with the project. Casting is. . . I
really don’t like that part of the process. Because I live with an
actor, because all my friends are actors. I know what goes behind me
meeting with an actor, a director meeting with an actor. They get the
sides. They call their coach to work on it, they wake up sick about it,
they drive there and they sweat in the car and they have to leave enough
time to dry out. So I know how much work goes into them just showing up
and reading the scene. So, I was over-empathetic about that. That was
tough. And of course, you see millions more people than you use. So
casting the smaller parts I found to be hard. Casting the leads, if
you’re going for people that you know, most of the time you don’t read.
You just like their work, you trust them, you’ve seen their body of work
and that’s more fun. I think they don’t care as much in away. They
don’t care whether they get the job or not, because if it’s not this
job, it’s another job, so it takes a little more of my co-dependent
iW: But then you’re going in blind as far as establishing some sort of
relationship with them, aren’t you?
Roos: Oh yeah. You just have to meet them and you can tell whether
they’re the type of person. It’s like going to a party. And who do you
want to talk to? You will find out very quickly. Directing is like
throwing a big party. Okay, we’re all here, and there’s a little
trouble there and I want that to go smoothly and having to introduce
other actors to new actors, and new crew members. It’s like a big
party, and you’re a very, very, overworked host. But it is your party,
and everybody is there for you.
iW: It’s very much an ensemble cast. . .?
Roos: No stars, no star-treatment. I can’t remember ever losing my
temper during the entire production. No acting out, no bodyguards, no
iW: You shot 40 days. How were you able — or were your producers able
to get you a fairly good budget, a fairly good schedule?
Roos: They were really insistent that I have enough time because of my
inexperience and I needed all that time. What I needed the time for was
I didn’t cut the script enough. And we shot a lot of scenes that didn’t
get in the picture. Because we didn’t need them. God, I could have
used those days that we spent on shooting those scenes, could have
covered other scenes better, more angles, but you live and learn. I
needed the time. So, we were able to finish on time and under budget
and that was good. That’s where all the money went. Certainly, the
stars salaries were not exactly extremely generous. Which in a way, was
a good thing, because all the actors had to really want to do the
movie. They were committed to the script.
iW: So tell me more then about directing the first time — surprises,
Roos: The biggest surprise was how much I liked it. I’d always thought
it was this overwhelming job full of fear and pressure and
responsibility, which I think is all a bunch of hooey that directors put
out, so that we don’t realize how fun their job is. What directors
don’t tell you is that every single person there on the show is there to
make you look good. They don’t want the director to ever look bad. So
there’s this enormous amount of help and as a writer, maybe actors get
help, people taking care of them, but writer’s never have any help. So
it was like going from the desert to an oasis. Everybody running, “can I
get you this”, “can I make this scene better for you”, “can I change the
set”, “can I change the costumes” — the actors saying, “can I do anything
more or different, what don’t you like” — and it was just a great
experience. As a writer, you do know what you want. You’ve already been
through the story, and the characters, and the dialogue. Everything
that’s on the page is what you want. So a lot of times directing was
like getting a new pair of glasses. Does this look better or does this
look better? Do you want the red dress or the blue dress? Do you want
a wide angle or a tight angle? Choices. And a writer makes choices,
that’s what a writer does. Of all the millions of words in the world,
you choose the ones that tell you a story, you choose what the
characters say, you choose how long the scene is. I think it was easy.
I think it’s very easy to direct a picture competently, adequately
enough. It’s easy enough to direct a picture where it’s not glaringly
bad. It’s hard to do a fine picture.
iW: What about those scenes, where you discovered once they were shot or
whatever point you were in the process, that they weren’t right?
Roos: None of the stuff that we cut was wrong, in the sense, that the
mood or it was from a different movie, they were all good scenes. What
happens is that actors come in and in a script you just have your words
to make a point. Actors have their faces and their eyes, their voices
and their beings to make points, and so what happens is that
relationships are clearer. . . The best surprise of all about directing
is working with the actors.
iW: How do you think it would be directing inexperienced actors?
Roos: It’s harder, I think. We had some inexperienced actors. It’s
harder, only because their confidence isn’t there; it’s not so much
their experience, but their confidence. It requires a lot more relaxing
them. . . Young actors or inexperienced actors are just more insecure
and maybe don’t trust themselves as much. It’s about casting, you cast
the right people, you hire the right people, and you hope that they
encourage them to do their job well, I mean, you’re screwed if you
iW: That’s the old cliche, 90% is in the casting. . .
Roos: I felt that those were the decisions I made about the characters
when I cast. Because then that’s that character and they come with
themselves and you use that character now and that’s who you bought.
Some characters change. I remember when I was writing the script, the
Lucia character was much harder, and much angrier than Lisa [Kudrow]
played her with a lot of heart. And she’s somebody I really cared about
by the end of the movie. Scenes that were just sparring, spat scenes,
became something very different, like the “vagina, vagina, vagina” scene
was just supposed to be a spat, and they both really good, and it’s
sadder than that. So she deepened her role a lot. And Christina’s
[Ricci] role in the script was very busy, and emotional and one of those
bull in a china shop roles and Christina’s take on it was much more
thoughtful and deliberative and studious and pensive and watchful —
which worked great, you pay more attention to a character that is being
still. So she was very smart. Those are things that the actors bring
you as gifts that if it were up to me, it would have been a lesser film.
iW: I want to talk about her voice over, and some of the other filmic
conventions you play with throughout the film — that obviously came in
Roos: That was very much from the beginning. When we tell a story to
anybody, we have a much more plastic sense of storytelling. We’re like,
“Okay, wait a minute. . . I’ll tell you this later. . . I’ll tell you
his name in a minute or I shouldn’t have told you that now.” People
still can be cut up by a story. I wanted a messier movie, a movie where
the storytelling was more natural, more like, “Oh, you don’t need to
hear this.” Or, of course, everything that I say that about, you do
need to hear. Just to have a fresher way of telling the story that was
more confidential. I also wanted the audience not to be protected from
the movie. It’s one thing to see a character come in and screw up
everybody else’s life, but if she’s just staying in the movie world,
you’re protected from her. So I wanted that part of it to sometimes
turn towards the audience and call them stupid, or say, “you’re not
paying attention” or “don’t relax” or whatever, so that we would feel
closer to the other characters that were suffering under her tutelage.
I just think all that stuff is funny. I noticed it in Woody Allen
movies. The audience is very sophisticated. I remember this way back in
“Annie Hall,” suddenly it’s cartoons and then were right back into it.
We’re much more sophisticated, we go in and out of that all the time.
And I like that. I like that feeling of a filmmaker saying I’m telling
you a story and not being so formal and hands off about it.
iW: I continually think audiences are much smarter than most people give
them credit for. And stuff that doesn’t push that envelope just falls
flat. People want to see something that’s taking a little bit of a
risk. And another risk in your film is having that protagonist who is…
Roos: Unlikeable. Right, absolutely. But Madame Bovary is a very
unlikeable character, very selfish and very cruel and unconcerned with
the consequences of her actions. And Dedee is a hell of a lot nicer
than Madame Bovary. She becomes somebody who does stop in her tracks at
the end of the movie and think, maybe, I’m wrong. We’ve gotten used to
in movies the likeable heroine with the big hair, who’s kind of clumsy
and endearing and . . .
iW: Was that Michelle Pfeiffer’s character from “Love Field”?
Roos: She was a little bit like that. Endearing, but she was also
selfish in the pursuit of a goal. I’m thinking more of one of my
favorite actresses Diane Keaton, who can’t enter a room without dropping
a bag of groceries and spilling the bottle of ink on her. That kind of
character was so imprinted on me by “Annie Hall” and her subsequent
movies that I think we lapse into that often in American pictures, the
Meg Ryan, Julia Roberts, just game kind of gal. And I think women are
more complicated than that. And people are more complicated than that.
And we can tolerate. So you don’t like her for every minute of the
frame, so what? You’re not leaving. You paid your money, you have to
stay. I think the audience can have more a relationship to a character
than shear unadulterated star-love. We’ll see, we’ll see. . .