In May 2012, James Toback descended on Cannes with cohort Alec
Baldwin to shoot in ten days the documentary “Seduced and Abandoned” (HBO, October 28). This May, writer-director Toback (“Tyson,” “The Pickup Artist”) returned to Cannes to screen the film and discuss it with interested parties. Of which I am most definitely one, having thoroughly relished his supremely
entertaining and frequently illuminating portrait of the sorry state of the
film business today.
If “Seduced and Abandoned” meanders and strays off course
throughout, it matters not a jot because Toback and Baldwin form a magnificent
double act, and the talent they’ve rounded up to spout off includes Bertolucci,
Scorsese, Polanski, Coppola, Chastain and Gosling.
They all prove willing accomplices for Baldwin and Toback’s
canny probing, yielding endlessly fascinating nuggets about the industry and
their own careers. The nuts and bolts of the doc, though, are Baldwin and
Toback’s efforts to raise the financing for a fictional (we think) sex romp to
be headlined by the “30 Rock” star and Neve Campbell, set in Iraq and titled “Last
Tango In Tikrit,” which allows producers, financiers and studio men, including
Ron Meyer and Jeffrey Katzenberg, to reveal the realities of modern-day
filmmaking (“I love Neve/Alec but…”).
Surprisingly, given its Cannes setting, the press
screening was sparsely attended, but “Seduced and Abandoned” has been greeted
with positive critical reaction (Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian labelled it “a
guilty-pleasure romp of a documentary”). And Toback is a renowned talker,
so I was looking forward to a motormouth encounter when I met him in
his Carlton hotel room, where he was packing in readiness to leave the
festival. His young son was still trying to sleep in the bed, prompting right
off the bat a salacious story about George Cukor…
James Toback: I was working with George Cukor for a year at
his house on my Victoria Woodhull script [American suffragette and free-love
advocate], which is the one great unfinished movie of my life, and George was
grilling me every morning on the erotic details of the night before. He never
would divulge anything about his own obviously quite lurid life and one morning
I got there early and coming out of the bedroom was a boy – probably younger
than [my son] Andre, about 11 or 12 – in a bathrobe. I looked at the boy and
Cukor’s mouth was twitching, he didn’t know what to say. Then he said, “This is
my gardener’s nephew,” as if that somehow made it less incriminating.
Throughout the entire day, he punctuated our conversation with, “Now, the
gardener’s coming tomorrow and he always brings his nephew,” trying to make
this association innocent. I finally said to him, “George, you’re talking to
me! I’m not judgmental!” “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Matt Mueller: Are you pleased with “Seduced and Abandoned”’s reception in
Toback: It does seem to be going down well. We shot exactly
a year ago without worrying about the fact that we didn’t have a clear idea of
the movie. We were just shooting everything that interested us and we had
certain themes that we were exploring and an array of different people that we
wanted to talk to. When you have a script, you think you know exactly what
you’re doing but we didn’t even have an outline.
How did you hook up with Alec Baldwin for this project?
We had hit it off when we met on the set of “Alice”
years before. I was in a scene with him, a scene that I rewrote. I said to
Woody [Allen], “Do you mind if I rewrite a couple of my scenes?” He said, “No,
no, not at all.” So I did and the scenes I rewrote got cut out of the movie.
Alec and I had a rapport, then we met again at the East Hampton Film Festival
and we both felt, “Let’s get our relationship going again; let’s not blow it
So over the next six or seven months, we met between 50 and 60
times, usually at the Harvard Club or the Grand Havana Room, which is his
hangout as a cigar degenerate. It became clear that not only did we want to do
a movie together but he wanted to do a movie about where film is today. Because
obviously it’s in a crisis state right now, and everybody in the movie agrees
with that. In fact, Tom Bernard said to me a couple of years ago, “Nobody knows
anymore. Everybody’s kind of floundering around wondering what to do.” To do
serious movies is a fluke now. I said to Alec, “Great, let’s do it,” and I
suggested Cannes as the physical backdrop because all of international cinema
is here during the festival.
Was it difficult raising the money?
We had to shoot last May, otherwise we weren’t going
to be able to do it. It wasn’t as if the dates were going to move. I found it
fortunately. There’s a guy Alan Helene who is one of the three financiers and
he happened to know my movies pretty much by heart, which unfortunately not
many people do. Or even not by heart. He corralled two others and we had enough
to get here and do it. That all happened in the two months leading up to
shooting. Then we took 10 months to edit it, which is a luxury on any movie.
Was it difficult shaping the film?
We were floundering for quite a while. The only
thread was that we were trying to get money for another movie but that was
clearly not enough, and what were we going to do with all these conversations
with all these people that had nothing to do with that? It only fell into place
by a combination of instinct and luck, and it was only the last month that I
felt the movie was there. If I’d had to stop a month earlier, it would have
been 60 percent of what it is now. The last two weeks was really quite
remarkable. Editing is mysterious, the way writing is – it just all of a sudden
takes over and you’re following it instead of leading it.
What was the breakthough?
I proposed an idea that tied certain things together
visually, went out for a couple of hours while my editor did them – I’m a
Luddite; my son was sharper than I was when he was three – and when I came back
I said to him, “How do you think it worked?” He said, “Very well,” which for him
– he’s very understated – is like saying, “It’s the greatest leap forward in
human history.” Like with Alec in the movie, he balances my exuberance with a
restrained enthusiasm. It’s like Coppola says in the movie about putting two
pieces of film together and we show that great cut from “2001”: it sometimes has
an effect exponentially more significant than it would seem to if you just
described what you did factually.
The names you’ve rounded up are illustrious. Was it
difficult getting the likes of Scorsese, Polanski and Bertolucci to sit down
No! Most shocking to me was that everyone we
approached wanted to be in the movie. With Ryan Gosling, who I think is
sensational in the film, it took about 20 minutes for him to relax because
neither of us really knew him before. Everybody else, it was like two seconds:
it’s as if they’d all been waiting their entire lives to have a chance to
unburden themselves. And some of them say subtly startling things.
What were the most startling revelations for you?
Very few people have picked up on this but it’s something
Ron Meyer says. In the moments of grandiosity and pomposity which dominate most
of their conversation, the executives of Hollywood would never actually admit
this but the assumption always is what Eisner said to Beatty, Diller and me in
1978 during a meeting at Paramount: a good movie is a movie that makes money; a
bad movie is a movie that loses money. Period. Ron Meyer admits and even
assumes that there’s such a thing as a good movie that will so-called flop, and
a bad movie that will make a lot of money, but he at least maintains that
distinction, which is a risky thing to do. But he covers himself by saying that
if he loves a movie and everybody else at the studio hates it, they don’t make
the movie. In the old days, even 20 years ago, executives bragged about having
a greenlight power that basically meant, “I can do whatever the fuck I want and
it’s your job to agree with me.” I say to him in the film,”Isn’t that
detrimental to any kind of potential artistry or art in film?” And in a way he
agrees by citing his own different experience as an agent when he could go in
and get a movie done in one conversation with Tom Pollock. Now he says there’s
nowhere you can do that, and I would assume he’s right.
A sad state of affairs…?
Absolutely. Even John Calley, who was the most advanced guy
in every way as far as I was concerned, wanted to do a Miles Davis movie when
he was running Sony and he asked me if I wanted to do it. I said, “Yeah, I knew
Miles, I think that’d be great.” Three days later, he said, “We’ve got to shelve
that; I can’t get any support for it here.” I said, “What do you mean you can’t
get any support? Tell them to go fuck themselves. You run the fucking company.”
He said, “Jim, it just doesn’t happen that way anymore.” It was his idea and
his passion and he hired everybody there, Amy Pascal, that whole group, and yet
he understood at that time, around 2003, that it was all corporate and
compartmentalized. No more megalomania.