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James Toback Talks ‘Seduced & Abandoned,’ Working With Robert Downey Jr. Fresh Out of Prison & More

James Toback Talks ‘Seduced & Abandoned,’ Working With Robert Downey Jr. Fresh Out of Prison & More

It sounds like the makings of a bad joke. A renowned filmmaker (James Toback) and a famous actor (Alec Baldwin) walk into a film festival with an idea under their arm… In reality, it’s a film (though, it’s by all rights a documentary, just don’t tell this to the director). The HBO movie “Seduced & Abandoned” features James Toback—writer of “The Gambler” and “Bugsy” director of “Fingers,” “Two Girls & A Guy” and the doc “Tyson”—and Alec Baldwin, and follows them to the Cannes Film Festival (Baldwin’s first time ever) with the idea of pitching and selling their latest film ideas to financiers at the fest. The project they’re selling is called “Last Tango In Tikrit,” a would-be erotic thriller set in the heart of the Iraq War with two politically-opposed journalists in the heat of it all (Neve Campbell, who starred in Toback’s 2004 film “When Will I Be Loved” is their would-be female lead). And perhaps to no one’s surprise but their own, most financiers tell them to their faces that an erotic sex drama set against the backdrop of the Iraq War with Alec Baldwin and Neve Campbell in the lead is never going to get financed (or at least for nowhere near the $30 million-ish budget Toback is envisioning).

A peek behind the curtain into filmmaking, plus a strong augur for where the film industry is at these days, “Seduced & Abandoned” shows the ups and downs of trying to get a movie made in the age of the blockbuster. Toback and Baldwin are optimistic at first, but practically to reduced to hat in hand paupers by the end (read our review here, it’s also a tremendously entertaining watch). The film also includes appearances by Ryan Gosling, Jessica Chastain, Diane Kruger, Martin Scorsese, James Caan, Roman Polanski, Francis Ford Coppola, Bérénice Bejo, and “Last Tango In Paris” director Bernardo Bertolucci, as the Laurel & Hardy-esque duo talk shop and the industry with their peers (and maybe beg a friend or two to star in the film instead of the two-aforementioned leads). It’s a gas of a film—Toback and Baldwin should host an awards show together, as their chemistry and friendship is all too palpable. We sat down with Toback last month (and with Baldwin as well, you can read that interview here) and the always candid (too candid?) raconteur talked to us about everything: from working with Baldwin, how “The Gambler” was very much inspired by true-life events and why working with people like Robert Downey Jr. and Mike Tyson just as they were getting out of prison, is “the best time to get them.”

What was the impetus for making “Seduced & Abandoned”?
A mutual desire of Alec and mine to do a movie together. We hit it off fast. We just started eating lunches and dinners together and it became clear after three or four of them that it would be criminal not to do a film together. And then it was a question of not forcing the issue but letting the actual film it would be evolve organically out of these conversations we were having. I would say it took us anywhere from six to nine months to figure out even generally what this movie would be.

Just breaking bread and talking…
Each of us had ideas that were pretty well articulated and forceful which would always egg the other on to new insights and new hopes, but we didn’t resolve anything and I don’t think it bothered him as much as it bothered me because probably, I think it’s a question of age. I’m 13 years older than he is, and also I wasn’t doing anything else and he was shooting “30 Rock” all of the time. So the stakes were more significant for me and I wanted to push something forward. Once we figured out that Cannes was going to be the location it became a different story literally and figuratively. He’d never been to the French Riviera before. So once we got the bug of the Riviera at the Cannes Film Festival, that narrowed it down a lot and made it much easier to start to figure out what the specific movie would be.

I wasn’t sure how sincere you guys were about “Last Tango in Tikrit.”
It’s not just a MacGuffin. We were absolutely serious about it, but the way that came about was through the rear door or side door. It was not an integral part. What happened was a mutual friend of ours [New York publicist] Bobby Zarem… In fact Pacino did a movie about ten years ago in which he played a character based on Bobby Zarem [editor’s note: the little seen 2002 film “People I Know”]. It’s about a publicist who’s going through a psychological crisis. Pacino was a friend of Bobby’s who played it. Bobby’s now the major force behind the Savannah Film Festival. He asked us to come down and present a film,[and the first time] we did “Barry Lyndon” [and we were asked to present together in New York at the Lincoln Center] and we decided on “Last Tango in Paris.” This was at the same time as we were planning our Cannes movie and the two sort of converged. Each idea led to something else. [Alec] said, “Okay what about instead of ‘Last Tango in Paris,’ we did ‘Last Tango in Tikrit’ and that’s what we’re going to the festival for?” So these things that seemed to be disparate elements, all of a sudden we realized we could connect them and then it became an enviable goal really. Not just as a given for the film.

So you guys know it was going to be a documentary about a feature-length drama you wanted to make before you left for Cannes.
Unlike anybody else to this day, I have never thought of it as a documentary. Resist calling it a documentary. I sort of forced HBO [to say that] on the poster which is quite nice. It’s a nice striking poster and they had about four or five quotes on the poster and I said take off all of them except David Thompson‘s quote from the New Republic, “an entirely new genre of film.” That’s what you want to say. Scorsese says in this [movie], these categories are now meaningless. They’re the walls are tumbling down.

Was any of it scripted? How is it not a documentary?
Even though it’s not scripted it feels like a narrative drama with two main characters who are going through their adventure. It’s like a novel on film with elements of essay, whereas a documentary to me has a completely different feel. First of all I think that implicit in the notion of documentary is some sort of social conscience. It doesn’t have to be but it’s been ingrained so much that I actually was shocked to realize that HBO had it in that category. No disrespect to HBO documentaries which are really terrific. I don’t think of it as that. I literally think of it [as] just a movie. And to categorize it is to be misleading.

Ok, but you have a thesis going in that you probably know the answer to—you know financiers are going to say no, correct?
I am by nature, unlike Alec who is the opposite, almost comically optimistic.

Fair enough, we do see that in the docume—I mean movie.
I’m always assuming things will work out because I’d like them to. I mean I’ve had a serious history as a gambler and unless you’re a complete moron the only reason you can gamble is that you’re ludicrously self delusional about the likelihood of red coming up instead of black when the odds are always against you on every roll. In every game the odds are against you and yet you’re assuming you’re going to win. Even if they were in your favor you would be wrong to assume you’re going to win more than a percentage of the time, 53, 54, maybe 55. I’m assuming I’m always going to win. 

You’re a relentless optimist, even though you’re completely aware of the gambling odds.
Yes and even though I’ve been proved wrong thousands of times. But yeah, that’s the past. I learned through the course of the eleven days at Cannes to my surprise—it was really a surprise—that the numbers that people were going to throw at us were as low as they were.

Of course what I did in [“Seduced And Abandoned”] was what I usually have done in life in my other movies: which is find ways of accommodating the reality. You won’t give me [the budget] of how much I’m asking for? Tell me how much you will give me. Because it’s not that I’m now going to show that I was full of shit, and actually pretend that I can make for [the movie] for X [amount of dollars] when I originally insisted I needed X [amount of dollars]. What I could do is reconceive the movie on some level which will enable me to make a version of it for less than I would have been able to make it for originally. That is something I legitimately can do and have done over and over again.

Right. Several times during the movie you’re seen pitching new more commercially viable leads, changing the plot and basically making any compromise to get the movie made.
Let me tell you a story. “Two Girls And A Guy” [Toback’s 1997 film starring starring Robert Downey Jr., Heather Graham and Natasha Gregson Wagner] grew out of very specific circumstances. I wanted to make a movie. I hadn’t made a movie in a while and was getting restless. Downey [was just] getting out of prison and knowing most of those guys—it’s true of Mike Tyson too—when they’re getting out of prison is the best time to get them.

In the case of someone like Downey, who was filled with these sort of precious cute fake mannerisms, they’re purged of them. You know now Downey can’t have an authentic moment if you fucking sit there for three weeks. He’s not capable of it. He goes on Jimmy Kimmel, everything’s fucking air, it’s all, “Yes maybe that could be. I was with the Mrs. the other day…” I mean everything is just completely phony bullshit from beginning to end. But right after 11 months of prison with about 200 dicks sucked in return for a lot of crack, you know there’s a totally different reality and that Downey is fascinating to watch.

I thought, “I can’t miss that, I’m going to get one of the great performances of all time if I can come up with an interesting role for him.” Then I did and then the problem was how do I get the money and that’s where the adapting to circumstances come in. I thought if I can shoot this movie in one location I can make it in ten days. Same movie if you do it in 12 locations it’s 22, 23 days. Shoot it in ten days I can make it for a million dollars. So I reconceived what I had as my first idea of the movie physically, geographically, kept the same substantial notion of the characters, him and the two girls and located it in one loft as a result was able to make it for a million dollars and was able to make it right away and make it work. Not have to wait, not have to delay and not have to let it fall apart. which it would have.

You’re constantly adapting.
Yes. It became a kind of model for that kind of thinking where you just say I want to make a movie with that character about this subject, take a compulsive liar, a charming entertaining narcissistic, self-delusional guy who ultimately cannot tell the truth even if it’s in his benefit to do so. Why? Because he loves to lie and he then takes two girls who turn out also to be liars. Who at first seemed to be the victims of his lying which would be not as interesting as if they turn out to be actually shrewder in their duplicity than he is. That became a great idea for me so than the trick was stop worrying about, “Well should we shoot this scene in Central Park and then they’re going to meet at a restaurant?” Why? By the way, it also helps the performances.

Because you’re not moving from locations?
Exactly. It’s three people who are at a hotel three blocks away showing up at 7 in the morning, no pressure to leave, don’t worry about what time do we break for lunch, eat when you feel like it, stop when you want. Just relax and take the day and as a result the last day we didn’t know what to do. After nine days we were finished and the tenth day was sitting around thinking if there was anything else we could do that we haven’t thought of yet and that on some level will end up being the way we do “Last Tango in Tikrit.”

So you like the energy of that kind of work?
Absolutely. I’m better in it, much better and I’ve always found that the actors I like working with are better in it. I’m not good with people who treat it as a business and am very clear about that. They’ll show up, “I do this, I don’t do that. I’m not available on weekends, that’s my time to be with my family. When the day ends the day ends.” I would almost say that if I find that out beforehand, which I usually do, I just don’t’ go ahead [with that actor] because it’s so at odds with the way I feel I have to work.

So you’re still planning on making “Last Tango In Tikrit” at some point?
We certainly are.

You had beef with Scorsese and Paramount over “The Gambler” remake (you can read more about Toback’s response here).
Yes, that contretemps resulted in me saying to [Scorsese], “Why don’t you act in this movie?” He said, “Oh great I’d love to.” You know they are going ahead with that movie in January and I am officially an executive producer. I don’t know much about the director, do you know about his work at all? Rupert Wyatt?

Yeah, he’s good.
I hear that. Barry Levinson told me that sequel to be “Planet Of The Apes” was good. He also apparently did a sort of British sci-fi crime movie [“The Escapist”] with the guy from “Homeland” and they were quite good actors. And [Mark] Wahlberg [the lead of the new ‘Gambler’] likes him.

What’s James Toback doing next? Well, he has several options, including a 35-years-in-the-making movie about Victoria Woodhull which you can read about here. “Seduced & Abandoned” is on HBO and HBO Go now.

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