HBO is about to kick off the second seasons of “Enlightened” and “Girls,” but the network was primarily focused on its movies, both fiction and non-, at its presentation at the TCA Winter Press Tour. And for good reason — they have two scripted films from major directors with starry casts in the works, both unconventional takes on true stories. The most anticipated of those is “Behind the Candelabra,” Steven Soderbergh’s film based on Scott Thorson’s book of the same name about his relationship with Liberace. Richard LaGravenese wrote the screenplay, and Matt Damon plays Thorson to Michael Douglas’ Liberace. The terrific trailer, which hasn’t yet been released online, suggests the story is a mixture of the comic and the tragic, with Damon, sporting a lustrous crop of blonde hair, playing a man who goes from an innocent swept up by Douglas’ outsized celebrity to his partner to something codependent and less healthy, ending with his being discarded.
Douglas noted that Soderbergh first mentioned the project when the two were shooting “Traffic”: “I looked at him and I thought ‘Is this guy messing with me,?'” Donning rings, makeup and glittery outfits (“I call this palatial kitsch,” Liberace tells Thorson when showing the young man his house), Douglas is playing a character with a major visual component, as is Damon, who said “I probably spent more time in the wardrobe fittings on this thing than I had in the previous 15 projects, literally.”
Despite the gleaming trappings, Soderbergh pointed out that the film is, at heart, a story of a recognizable relationship. “The discussions that they’re having are discussions that every couple has at a certain point. What’s unusual about it, obviously, is the environment in which these conversations are taking place. We take the relationship seriously. It was, up to that point, I think, the longest relationship Liberace had had. I was very anxious that we not make a caricature of either of their characters or of the relationship. There’s no question that it’s unfortunate to see the movie through a contemporary lens and know that they weren’t allowed to be as open back then as people are today. That definitely exerted pressure on the two of them and the relationship.”
“Look, there are aspects of their relationship that were absurd, right?” Damon added. “But for me, it just pointed out that there are aspects of all of our lives that are absurd. And they’re just not absurd to us because they’re our lives. If this was a relationship between a man and a woman, you’d feel at moments like this is too intimate, maybe I shouldn’t be here. But it’s between a man and a man, and I’ve never seen that movie before.” “There is humor to it,” Douglas said. “But I don’t know if you’d call it a tragedy-comedy — it ultimately ends up everybody loses out.”
This is, Douglas indicated, a project Soderbergh had been considering for years — “I couldn’t figure out a way in,” the director said, adding he “didn’t want to do a traditional biopic.” It wasn’t until a writer friend suggested Thorson’s book (“Well, that’s the best title I’ve ever heard”) that he found an angle on the story. “I read the book and I thought, okay, that’s now I know how to get in. It’s got a sort of finite period of time that we’re dealing with. And this was six, seven years ago initially. So it’s taken a while to get it off the ground, but I’m glad it worked out this way.” “Behind the Candelabra” doesn’t yet have a release date, but is slated to air in the spring of 2013.
Also at HBO’s presentation was David Mamet, who appeared with Helen Mirren, attorney Linda Kenney Baden and Al Pacino (piped in via video from New York, where he’s performing in “Glengarry Glen Ross”) to talk about “Phil Spector,” a “a work of the imagination, inspired by real people and events but not based on them,” written, directed and produced by Mamet.
Mirren, who took over for Bette Midler when the latter had to drop out because of a neck injury, plays Baden, who was Spector’s lawyer, and said “I didn’t feel I had to do the most perfect, immaculate impersonation” because of the film’s impressionist approach. It was a style that helped her in dealing with the difficult figure of Spector, she said, because “I think the nature of Phil Spector and the life that he lived encouraged that he must have lived, it seems to me, in a permanent dream.”
The trailer looked a touch scenery-chewy, at least in terms of Pacino’s take on Spector, though that might be inevitable given the subject. Mamet cited documentary “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector” as something that got him interested in Spector as a man and that changed his initial impressions of him — “I came to this with such prejudice. Maybe the guy’s not guilty.”
He felt the key to his film was his realization that the story was actually Linda’s, an idea that came from HBO exec Len Amato’s insistence that the project not indict the victim. “Helen, because she says, ‘Under no circumstances will I indict the victim,’ comes up with an alternative defense that no one could ever have expected, that was just not on the table. So that’s what the movie is about.”
Pacino added that he didn’t visit Spector in prison, though he watched footage of the man from the era. “I didn’t meet him because he’s already been convicted. This person I’m playing is the guy who was there before he was convicted. He hadn’t gone through the first trial yet. Not that Phil Spector would have seen me. I don’t know. I didn’t try, simply because I thought, ‘Well, you know, it’s a different Phil Spector now.'” “Phil Spector” does not yet have a release date, but is also set for spring 2013.