The Academy Award winning actor and star of “American Graffiti,” “Jaws” and “The Goodbye Girl” attended the Belgrade International Film Festival as one of its guests of honor. Among the event’s many changes and novelties that include several brand new competition programs, the festival has created the Victor Lifetime Achievement Award and Dreyfuss was the first recipient of this brand new recognition. In honor of the achievement, the festival not only screened seven of his most important films such as the above-mentioned three — as well as “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” “Dillinger,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Postcards from the Edge” and “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” in the recently inaugurated new building of the renowned Yugoslav Film Archives — but the institution also recognized the actor’s invaluable body of work by honoring him with its famed Golden Seal.
Following these multiple honors, Indiewire sat down with Dreyfuss in Belgrade to discuss his work on and off screen.
Do you remember the moment when you were entirely sure that you wanted to be an actor?
I remember the first time I said it but I don’t really remember the first time I felt it. I was eight and I said to my mother I wanted to be an actor and she said, “Don’t just talk about it!” and I went out and auditioned for a play and I never stopped. But, I am pretty sure that my desire to be an actor preceded that.
When were your doubts dissipated for good?
I never had any doubts…
You have co-written with Harry Turtledove the novel “The Two Georges.” Do you see this book as a screenplay that you would perhaps like to direct?
I co-wrote the novel about 15 years ago. And, I am not the person to direct it or actually play in it. I would produce it and hopefully give it to some great director to make it great.
Who would that be?
It could be anybody! It could be anyone from Clint Eastwood to Quentin Tarantino or Steven Spielberg. But, it’s about history and people say that no one likes to see movies about history so we’ll see!
Have you ever thought of directing a film yourself?
You have been very outspoken on the issue of how the media influence the shaping of public opinion, policy and legislation and you have expressed as well your feelings in favor of the right to privacy, freedom of speech, democracy and individual accountability. Can you elaborate on that?
I think that voting sounds important but if you’re stupid and ignorant and you don’t know what the issues are or who the people running for office are, voting is meaningless. You have to learn how to explore the substance of issues; you have to learn when you’re young how to be ready to take over the country when you’re older and they don’t teach that.
Can you also talk about the other causes that you support such as individual rights and the teaching of American History in American primary schools?
It’s all connected that you teach American History, let’s say, in context to the before and after. You teach it in context to the world and how it views that. You teach certain methods: debate, discussion, dissent, clarity of thought and expression and, ultimately, you gain the maturity to use critical analysis, which means: Do you have the courage to look in the past of your own country and tell the truth?
As a history lover, do you think that film has depicted history accurately?
Well, there’s no such thing as accurate history! But, there are other ways to broaden someone’s intellect… I have a project at home to be an American History Theatrical Play Competition among the regional theaters of the country. And, it’s open to anyone who wants to write a play and if the artistic director of the theater thinks this play is good enough to put in the season and they do, it’s qualified. Then, at the end of every year, there would be some kind of prize. And, you do that for 20 years and you will rewrite America back into existence.
You said at the press conference here at the festival that the future of film is its past. Can you elaborate on that?
I was in the first major blockbuster and the business of film created a blockbuster distribution system, which means films that could affect an audience in every culture so that one film could make billions of dollars. And, they’re running out of ideas for things like that so they have to go back to the old way of making films that are more personal or more local and hope that people in Africa respond to them. That’s the way the American film business grew. We didn’t make films about Nigeria; we made films about Kansas and people in Nigeria liked the movie so that’s what I meant.
So, you don’t have a favorable opinion of blockbusters?
Oh… I just think that they’re dinosaurs! They’re coming to an end. I have no opinion one way or another about a blockbuster film but they’re running out of blockbuster ideas.
How interested would you be to star European indie films?
It would depend on the part and whether it had accessibility for me to show it in America. I want very much to do something. I think that we’re losing a great opportunity to do films or multi-part television pieces that are about Russia and America because we all came from there. And, you can tell stories that tell the whole history of the 20th Century in one family and in both countries and I really would like to do that.
The little things in life… Which ones make you happy and which ones irritate you?
Interrupting… when people interrupt me I go crazy! And, when people talk in a movie. I have a rule: when I go to see a movie, shut up! Don’t talk! I don’t care! If your pants are on fire, go out and get some water! Don’t talk because I can’t focus on two things! So, my brother used to say “I’m never gonna go to a movie with you” I say “Why?” and he says “’cause I just watch a movie. I don’t know what you do!”
But your rule is a good one…
Yeah, I think so.
In which of your roles have you seen yourself as an accomplished actor? Which one is your favorite?
I have no favorite. I have many favorites. I thought of myself as a complete actor when I was ten. That’s, you know, the power of self-denial… I was born to be an actor. That’s what I am and that’s who I am. And, I am perfectly at home with that. There are parts I’ve done well and there are parts I’ve done not so well but that’s not the point. The point is did I have the courage to do it and tell the truth.
You are going to star in the upcoming multi-episode ABC drama about Bernie Madoff. What do you make of the current “Golden Age of Television”?
What year were you born?
The Golden Age of Television was in 1950, and there has not been a Golden Age of Television since the early 50s. There’s just been crime dramas, lawyer dramas, family comedies, and they just repeated themselves. In the early 50s, it was new and they had everything.
So, you don’t think that television is booming now?
Yeah, television is booming but that doesn’t mean it’s good…
So, you don’t think it’s good?
No… I’m saying one doesn’t apply to the other. And, as a matter of fact, it’s possible now to do things like multi-part series on TV like “Game of Thrones,” which is fantastic! And, that’s a development of this time in television. It’s not better than the old time; it’s different! The technology has spawn new creativity and the technology has also stunted creativity.
You are one of the first actors to receive the Victor Lifetime Achievement Award at the Belgrade International Film Festival. How do you feel about awards?
Actually, as I said at the press conference, I never expected to feel so at home in Eastern Europe, and I do because all of my family comes from whatever you call Russia, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic. It’s all in this part of the world and everyone looks like my family. And, I think that the people are far nicer. People are always nicer than drama makes them out to be. People are always too quick to say, “That’s a bad person…” It’s very hard for me to realize that people I’ve never met, that don’t speak my language, have actually seen my work and have been affected by my work. It’s very hard to grasp that. I can understand that in America. And so, coming here was a real pleasure to know. But, in terms of awards, there are far too many awards; far too many… If you have a lot of awards, it means the awards don’t mean much. If you have one, that means a lot and they now have awards for Best Lamp, you know…