The Play Is Not the Thing: Anthony Drazan directs
by A.G. Basoli
“Hurlyburly” helmer Anthony Drazan is hard to miss at the Venice
International Airport the day after the Venice Film Festival Closing
Night Awards Ceremony. Prominently on display next to his carry-on
luggage is the voluminous Volpi Cup for Best Actor which he collected
the previous night on behalf of “Hurlyburly” star Sean Penn, who was
unable to travel to Venice for personal reasons.
Drazan himself is no stranger to awards. His Oliver-Stone-exec-produced
debut feature “Zebrahead” won him the Filmmaker’s Trophy at Sundance in
1992. Anthony Drazan’s third flick “Hurlyburly” (it follows the Harvey
Keitel-starrer “Imaginary Crimes” which was based on Sheila Ballantyne’s
novel) is an adaptation of David Rabe’s own late 80’s Broadway hit. Set
against a hi-tech, glossy, alienating LA backdrop, the Fine Line release
is a comedy of tragic proportions. It features knock-out performances
from Sean Penn as the drugged-up, love-starved Eddie (a disillusioned
casting director struggling to define himself in relation to his
career), Robin Penn-Wright as Darlene, the woman he loves, and Kevin
Spacey and Chazz Palminteri, as a pair of sadistic friends.
While waiting for his flight, Drazan’s tall and lanky frame is wrapped
around the book on his lap, titled “Bitch.” “The British edition,” he
says. “I liked the red cover better.” (The U.S. edition has a white
cover). Drazan is personable and likes to share war-stories. “I
discovered Bruce Willis,” he claims. “In my last year in film school he
acted in one of my shorts. He was just starting out, then. I remember
in class, when I showed my movie somebody raised their hand and wanted
to know ‘How did you get the ambulance for the film.’ A few years later
I went back to show some of my early work and I showed the same short.
So this one guy raises his hand and goes ‘How did you get Bruce Willis
for the film?'” Drazan speaks here about transforming a text from stage
to screen, finding the elements that defined his cinematic style and
working with Oscar winners.
indieWIRE: How did the project come about, at what point did you come
Anthony Drazan: I optioned the play. I came in at the very, very
beginning as the producer of the film as well as the director. I
rediscovered “Hurlyburly” in acting workshop and discussed it with
Harvey Keitel whom I’ve done a small film with and contacted David Rabe,
the playwright, who’s seen a lot of my films and we began a long
distance dialogue from LA to Connecticut, where he lives. Then we met
and decided to go forward and collaborated on the adaptation.
iW: From the moment you got in touch with him to the finished product,
how long did it take?
Drazan: We’re going on three years now. I met him in October ’95. We
sat down in his barn in Connecticut in February ’96; we took the month
of February to adapt the piece – having spent several months thinking
about it and constructing my blueprint for a screenplay and getting him
to think about his text, dialogues and so on. And in the snow and
blizzards of winter in Lakewood, Connecticut we wrote about these guys
on the Hollywood Hills. And then sent it off to Sean Penn who had done
the piece on stage in Westwood, California for a few weeks and he
responded immediately. He wanted to do it.
iW: Had you seen him do it on stage?
iW: Did you see any of the actors in the film do it on stage?
Drazan: I saw Harvey Keitel do the role of Phil in N.Y. at the
Promenade with Bill Hurt, Chris Block, Sigourney Weaver, Judith Ivy,
Cynthia Nix and Jerry Stiller – how’s that? And I was frustrated by the
play when I first saw it. I thought the language was great, it was as
funny as could be, but it was lacking focus and I learned later that
certain edits that the director of the play had made kind of compromised
the integrity of the play itself. What I mean by that is that at the
heart of “Hurlyburly” is Eddie’s struggle to define himself in
relationship to two opposing forces that exist within him and also apart
from him. Phil, who is sort of totally consumed by his shadowy side,
his emotions and in opposition to that there’s Micky who’s cerebral and
intellectual, detached, loveless, etc. And in his life, Eddie’s dealing
with these guys and within himself he’s dealing with these guys too.
iW: Speaking about those members of the cast who had already done the
play on stage, like Sean Penn and Kevin Spacey, how did that effect
their performance in the film?
Drazan: Kevin Spacey was an understudy in New York for a few months, so
he knew the piece but he hadn’t actually done it. I think he went on
to do all the parts at one time or another; it was very early in his
career. It had relevance to them in their preparation – that they had
done it, they were more familiar with it – but none to me. In fact, I
didn’t want to know anything about their past relationship to the play,
because I wanted to make a film and not film a play.
iW: There is usually a lot of danger in transposing a play to film —
they either lose something in the process or become very wordy. In this
case the dialogue is the strength of the film and you were just
completely unafraid of the words. Or so it seemed.
Drazan: I guess love is blind. I loved the words. I dug it. So I
didn’t want to cut the dialogue, yet I didn’t want to shoot the words.
So I think the strength of the film, in part, is the language, —
certainly it is the inspiration for the film — but to me it’s the
behavior: watching these characters, watching the manner in which they
are photographed, which to me is the strength of the film. And there
is such a nice relationship between the words spoken and the
relationship between the characters.
iW: Tell me about how you went about finding the language for the
Drazan: Well, there were two parts to the process. One was
streamlining this very elaborate text, that ran close to three hours,
cut out all the redundancy and sharpen the focus on Eddie’s dilemma —
if you will. And then the second part of it was to find an analogous
film grammar to the language used by Rabe — the kind of muscular
aggressive alert qualities that define the stage text. I wanted to find
it in film. Looking at filmmakers, I was interested in, let’s say how
Stanley Kubrik would treat it. And that was the second part of the
process: to understand the theme or themes of the piece and figure out
how that relates to movies – how does obsessive, compulsive behavior
translate to behavior on the screen.
iW: How did you choose the house?
Drazan: We looked at a lot of houses. This one just reeked with these
guys living there. It’s the kind of house you find in the Hills that
are often for rent, that people pay far too much for – living beyond
their means — and it’s this sort of antiseptic chaotic space. With
rooms linking to rooms, hard surfaces and reflective surfaces.
Particularly the reflective surfaces were very valuable to me.
iW: Is that the set you had in mind when you first started looking?
Drazan: I try not to have too much in mind when I start putting the
plastic elements of the film together. You kind of want to discover
what works and it’s like casting actors. Each location offers you a
different possibility. If we were to set it in Malibu, what would it
mean? The implications would be we would set it in a dark wood paneled
home. What would it mean in terms of how these guys relate or move
about the house as opposed to this.
iW: But it wasn’t something that was decided as part of the original
Drazan: We didn’t do that. We had ideas, but I wanted to keep it open
until I hired my production designer. And that would be another
collaboration. But that’s how I work. Not everybody works that way.
iW: After Sean Penn committed to play the part, how did you choose the
others. Was he in any part involved in the casting process?
Drazan: I began the process almost immediately after I hired a casting
director. We began to see and meet with actors and weed some. And we
began to think about who was the best Micky to Sean’s Eddie, the best
Phil to Sean’s Eddie. And consider the ensemble as a whole. Sean would
certainly express an opinion about an actor. And it’s very simple: I
couldn’t have hoped for a better partner and collaborator than Sean
Penn. I am so proud of my relationship to him as an actor, our evolving
friendship, his commitment to his work and to his willingness to be
directed by me.
iW: You put together a tremendous cast, all Oscar winners or nominees.
Drazan: I had very specific ideas about how I wanted to make a movie out
of “Hurlyburly.” They weren’t abstract. Changwei Gu as director of
photography said something about how I wanted the film to look. I was
looking for a kind of humanistic feeling to complement the very
rough-edge qualities of these guys and their personas. Michael Haller
who had been Hal Ashby’s closest collaborator through some of the most
important films of Ashby’s career brought in a certain pragmatism and
realism and sense of now and real circumstances of the characters that
was invaluable and a composition to the theatrical leanings of the
language. So it all started working together and then I took my cues
from each of the actors and the way they worked. All of them were
collaborative and interactive, but someone like Anna was very much in
the moment and others were more into the preparation. It was measuring
all those things up.
iW: Did their own ideas of their characters interfere with your vision
of them, at all?
Drazan: Fortunately. . . and I know this sounds like butter and
milk-toast production — I would come to the set each day with a
blueprint in my back pocket of how I thought a scene might be
constructed and then I would not show it to them at all. We didn’t have
any pre-rehearsal time — the only time we had was the thirty or forty
minutes that I took at the beginning of each day. And we would sort of
block out — I would see where they were moving, what their inclination
was, and every day I would get something from them that — because my
own limitation — or not being in the scene — I could have never
imagined. . . . When Sean approaches Meg, when Eddie approaches Bonnie
with the joint in his mouth and blows her that trackline and makes this
whole scene about this “come on” — that wasn’t in my blueprint. It’s
not in the text, it’s not suggested by David’s words, but it was
suggested by the way they worked together and it became so wonderfully
perverse that you’d be an idiot not to see it and not to want to shoot
it that way. Having done my own preparation I was not trying to keep up
with myself. So that when I came on the set I was very much able to
watch what would happen. Every now and then I would surprise them with
those reflections on the table, Sean under the table and Gary is leaning
over him to get these wonderful reflections. Kevin came on the set and
I said, “You’re going to have to move here.” “What do you mean, I
thought we were going to block everything together.” “Well I have
something specific in mind here visually” and I would show them in the
camera and Kevin started laughing and he said “Oh, that’s great, let’s
do it.” So it was just not trying to be too strategic, certainly not
manipulating the process, . . . making a movie.
iW: You used a lot of long shots or ensemble shots versus singles
especially in the scenes where they were all together. There seemed to
be some genuine fun going on, not only from the actors in front of the
camera, but also from those behind the camera.
Drazan: We did that to capture the camaraderie of the boys. Cause boys
will be boys and we did that also to juxtapose that to the very internal
and dramatic counterpoint of each of these guys individually. So you
notice when they’re all together, it’s very loose; there’s the joking
about this, and about that, the story about the guy in the back seat and
little girl up front which becomes a confrontation, for the moment,
between Micky and Eddie that resonates because of its juxtaposition to
the looser feel of the stuff before.
iW: Were all those scenes rehearsed?
Drazan: No, we had no rehearsal at all. It was just on the day of.
Shooting from the hip a little bit, but not as much as you would think.
iW: Sean Penn’s performance is really phenomenal and certainly worth an
Oscar consideration — is that something you thought of when you were
shooting or is it something you’re thinking about now?
Drazan: Not only while we were making the movie, but from the moment we
started cutting it, and thought about securing some distribution —
which we didn’t have going in — and finding a general audience and not
a festival audience, not an arthouse audience but reaching a larger
crowd – I thought “there can’t be a better performance out of a movie
this year than Sean’s” and to a very great extent it reaches the level
it does . . . because of the other actors supporting him. So in my
sense of it, Sean is the best actor of the year and Kevin, Chazz, Robin,
Meg, Anna, and Gary are the best supporting actors of the year and of
those I think one or two will have a chance. So, yes I think about it
now. You can’t work for it, you can’t plan it. I’m certain, though,
the distribution company now would like to see it happen, because it
will mean life for the movie. A movie like this that is both funny and
tough, dark, provocative, unsettling needs that kind of support,
unfortunately, to have a life in the American theaters.
iW: So you hope to reach a larger audience instead of a limited sort of
cultured audience given the film’s roots in the stage play — you think
the film appeals to more than the average arthouse audience?
Drazan: I’ve shown the film to beautiful models, guys who are hanging
out in the street corner who grew up with Chazz in the neighborhood and
I am sure that there is an audience that goes outside the cultured
audience. I’m not even sure that that is the best audience for the
movie. I don’t think it’s “The English Patient” crowd who is going to
first and foremost dig “Hurlyburly.” I think we have a better chance
with the “Armageddon” crowd.
Drazan: Because it’s raw, it’s authentic, it’s got a real visceral
quality. . . it’s not refined. It gets you. It gets you in the solar
plexus. It bangs you around a little bit. It’s a bit of a roller
coaster. Not a Disneyland roller coaster.
iW: How did you finance the film?
Drazan: The film was financed by presales of territories overseas that
covered two thirds of the budget and then a bank in Los Angeles gave us
the rest of the money and covered the gap between those presales and the
money I needed to actually make the movie. And I guess you can call it
a truly independently financed film. We went into it without US
distribution and it isn’t the kind of pseudo-independents that is
financed by New Line.
iW: Were the presales on the basis of the play or of the cast?
Drazan: The cast.
[A.G. Basoli is a freelance writer based in New York.]