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indieWIRE INTERVIEW | “Lonely Hearts” Director Todd Robinson

indieWIRE INTERVIEW | "Lonely Hearts" Director Todd Robinson

Writer/director Todd Robinson‘s “Lonely Hearts” is based on the true story of two homicide detectives, played by John Travolta and James Gandolfini, who track killers Martha Beck and Raymond Martinez Fernandez (Salma Hayek and Jared Leto), a pair known as the “Lonely Hearts Killers.” The two lure their victims–often war widows–who answer their personal ads in which Ray would describe himself as a “sexy Latin lover.” With Martha posing as Ray’s sister, they bilk elderly spinsters and widows of their savings and then viciously murder them in a bloodbath of sexual frenzy. Robinson won an Emmy for TV’s “The Legend of Billy the Kid” in 1994 and won multiple festival awards and nominations for “Amargosa” in 2000. Roadside Attractions and Samuel Goldwyn Films open “Lonely Hearts Club” in limited release beginning Friday, April 13.

What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved during your career?

I became interested in movies at around 11 or 12. We had a neighborhood film company and were inspired by 8mm Lon Chaney movies you could buy out of magazines like “The Unholy Tree,” “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “The Phantom of the Opera.” We’d charge a quarter to let our friends in to see them in a theatre we set up in our garage. Then one of my pal’s dad bought a super eight camera with an electric zoom and we were on our way to making our own monster movies. We even wrote our own news letter to promote them. I eventually went to drama school to train as an actor. Inevitably, I left New York to come to LA for a pilot season and I never went back. I kicked around as an actor for a few years and produced a few plays which is how I met Literary Manager Elizabeth Robinson who encouraged me to write after hearing an idea I had. That project also became my first directing effort and I won an Emmy for it.

I also got to marry, Liz, which is the smartest thing I ever did. Anyway, I started making a living primarily as a screenwriter and have never looked back. As time went on, I was able to work with some wonderful producers and directors like Ridley Scott, Sydney Pollack, Peter Masterson, Shekhar Kapur and others and really got a chance to see masters at the height of their craft. Some of the projects got made, some didn’t, but working with these people made me want to take my work to the next level, and having many years largely alone in a room, I was ready to put myself out there.

How did the idea for “Lonely Hearts” came about?

“Lonely Hearts” is loosely based on the true-crime story of Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck, America’s infamous “Lonely Hearts Killers” of the late 1940’s. Producer Rocky Lang had sent me a true crime reference book for another project and I stumbled across the story of Fernandez and Beck. I was familiar with their story because my grandfather, Elmer (Buster) Robinson had worked one of the murders in New York and his stories had been kicking around in our family for years. But two other fine films had been made on the subject, Leonard Kastle‘s “The Honeymoon Killers” and Arturo Ripstein‘s “Deep Crimson,” so I wasn’t sure if I had anything new for me to bring to the story.

That was until my mother shared with me the circumstances surrounding my grandmother’s deliberate death. Over the years, the grizzly work my grandfather did and the isolation it had caused between the two of them and my father as well, became the heartbeat of her depression and sadness. Her death forced everyone in the family, especially my grandfather, to reconsider their priorities. In short, they were all “Lonely Hearts.” I took my grandfather’s most salacious case and used it as a backdrop to explore a broader patriarchal dysfunction of communication that began with his father, was passed on to my dad, and through me to possibly my son. The story gave me the opportunity to explore, understand and break the chain of how the men tend to define themselves and at what cost that can come. In the end, the film could have been about any of the hundreds of murders my grandfather worked and in reality, I suppose it is about all of them. In one way or another that effect is still felt by all of us today. This and great performances were my interest. Not how fat the real Martha Beck actually was.

Salma Hayek in a scene from Todd Robinson’s “Lonely Hearts.” Image courtesy of Roadside Attractions/Samuel Goldwyn Films.

Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film including your overall goals for the project.

My goals for every film are the same: To entertain. To create an emotional experience for anyone who sees the film. To incite conversation, argument, disagreement. To give one pause to reflect on one’s own life through the prism of the film they have just seen.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?

Getting agents to pass the material to actors that could get the movie green-lit. It took about seven years from the beginning of the process to now. If I spent as much time making movies as all the other nonsense, that would really be something.

How did the financing and casting for the film come together?

Most people who have any ability to move a project forward need to have it validated first. They need permission to like it. My producer, Holly Weirsma, understood this and had a strategy. When a star says they’re on board it forces executives to consider the project seriously and gives them a level of protection at the same time. Everything in this business is driven by fear. Fear of saying yes to something that might fail, or saying no to something that might succeed. As implied by the question, there is a symbiotic relationship between casting and financing. Jim Gandolfini met with me and agreed to do the movie. That validated the project and got me in the room with John Travolta. Between the strength of the script and meeting actors in person, I was usually successful in convincing them to join me on the project. John was a case in point and was responsible for getting the film green-lit.

Who/what are some of the creative influences that have had the biggest impact on you??

The things that have the greatest influence on my work is unending, insatiable interest in understanding and deconstructing human behavior. In the end, movies, stories in any form, all boil down to “who” rather than “what” the story is about. You start out with someone who lives and functions with certain illusions of what the world is and how to navigate it. “What” the movie is about is the thing that shifts the character’s world view. The conditions of the plot are what shatter his or her illusions and force change through action. Communicating these things through words and images is the daunting, impossible challenge that gets me up every day.

As far as creative influences, I would say books more than movies inspire my writing. Painting and photography tend to influence my lighting and composition. In particular I love the impressionist painters, the way they interpret reality in a completely original, subjective yet accessible way. This is the way we view everything in life; through the ground glass of our own experience. There is something constant about the colors and light in the paintings of say, Vincent Van Gogh that make my heart hurt for their haunting beauty, loneliness and emotional truth. Or the work of Toulouse Lautrec, who makes me feel as if I could just tumble into his canvas’s–as if I can hear the voices of his subjects in the distance drawing me in but just out of reach, the sounds around them, the smells. A film should be like that too and the great ones are.

For “Lonely Hearts,” the most important reference for me were the Kodachrome documentary photographs of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) from the Late 1930’s and 40’s. The muted tones of the blues and greens, the brilliance of yellows and reds and the depth and density of the blacks became the color template for the film. There was also the humidity and coolness of Andrew Wyeth‘s tempera paintings that seemed to capture the emotional temperature of what was in my head as well, and I think Peter Levy‘s photography of Jon Gary Steele‘s scenery and Jackie West‘s costumes captured these references beautifully. In spite of what has been written, I never set out to make a film noir. People may reach that conclusion because of the wardrobe and timeframe, but I honestly didn’t have any interest or intention of copying a style. Rather, I was going after a simple reality that had a sense of truth.

Jared Leto in a scene from Todd Robinson’s “Lonely Hearts.” Image courtesy of Roadside Attractions/Samuel Goldwyn Films.

What other genres or stories would like to explore as a filmmaker?

As many as I have in me.

What is your next project?

My next picture is called “The Last Full Measure,” from a true story… Thirty-three years after his death, during one of the bloodiest days of the Vietnam War, Air Force Pararescue Jumper William H. Pitsenbarger is awarded the Medal of Honor after a reluctant young Washington bureaucrat is forced to team with veterans of Operation Abilene to get Congress to reconsider the legacy of his sacrifice. The cast includes Morgan Freeman, Bruce Willis, Andy Garcia, Robert Duval, Lawrence Fishburne and Amy Madigan.

What is your definition of “independent film,” and has that changed at all since you first started working?

Films that are made from passion, often by shear force of will, embody the independent spirit. These films tend to be made by people who are less concerned with box office than good work and the are often willing to sacrifice personally to get them made. This is true at every level, from the filmmakers and actors to the crews, post-production people and distributors. It’s a wonderful thing when people are committed to a vision through an understanding that the sum total of the film is the legacy of the individuals that made it.

What are some of your all-time favorite films, and why? And what are some of your recent favorite films?

I hate this question because if you love film it’s impossible to answer. But… off hand and in no particular order: “The Godfather” I & II, “Don’t Look Back,” “Days Of Heaven,” “The Dualist,” “Treasure Of The Sierra Madre,” “Pat Garret And Billy The Kid,” “Casablanca,” “This Is Spinal Tap,” “Cinema Paradiso,” “Touch Of Evil,” “Wings,” “Ordinary People,” “Glengarry Glen Ross,” “Brothers Keeper,” “Blade Runner,” “Hud,” “Raging Bull,” “Reptilicus,” “Unforgiven,” “Schindler’s List,” “Babe,” “The Misfits,” any Given Sergio Leone Movie, “In Cold Blood”/”Capote,” “The Shawshank Redemption,” “Fate Is The Hunter,” “The Bridge On The River Kwia,” “War Photographer,” “Man On Fire,” “A Few Good Men,” “Searching For Bobby Fischer,” “Twelve O’Cock High,” and the films of Charles And Ray Eames and about a thousand more.

The question “WHY?” I think, answers itself.

What are your interests outside of film?

Beyond my family, my passion is aviation. My particular favorite thing to do is fly military aircraft which I do often. It’s all about performance, discipline, the culture and the company. Put me in a piston single and I tend to get pretty aggressive… I love pilots and the flying community. This is the world I hang in. My closest friends are working people who share the passion, who live in the present and don’t mind seeing the world upside-down. The notion of “Hollywood” somehow embodies the most superficial of what our culture has to offer and I tend to avoid it. Though I’ve been working here almost twenty years, I’ve always felt like an outsider and that’s okay. I’d rather be tearing around above it all anyway or spending time with the actual subjects of my stories.

What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?

Follow your passion. Never take “no” for an answer. “No” is simply the beginning of the process of getting it done. “No” is the test of your commitment–who you really are.

Don’t let people heap their bullshit on you. If you are around people who are negative, cut ’em loose right now. They’ll just drag you to the bottom of the pool.

Work with the very best people you can. Success is not a mistake. Don’t over manage them. They do what they do way better than you do. And give them authorship. Once you’re up and running, it isn’t just YOUR film any more. It belongs to everyone who is contributing. Give it all away. It will come to you back ten-fold in quality, commitment and loyalty.

You have to see your vision, believe it and actuate it. Realize that you never really get there. The power of your dream is to keep you moving forward rather than arrive.

The one thing that connects all successful people is that none of them ever quit. Not quitting does not guarantee success, but giving up ensures defeat.

Don’t read too many reviews. Read books instead.

Never let the fear of failure overpower your instincts and reasons for doing it in the first place.

In short, making movies is not for the faint of heart. But as bloody and brutal as the business is, the life of a filmmaker is as rich a way of living as anything I can imagine. In the end it’s about the net rather than the gross. The net isn’t just the money but rather the quality of the experience of doing what you care about.

Please share an achievement from your career so far that you are most proud of.

Surviving. The privilege of doing what I love to do with quality people who love what THEY are doing. Under those conditions, anything is possible.

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