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James Franco & Scott Haze
The long journey to bring Cormac McCarthy’s controversial novella, Child of God, to the screen has taken the film from first being screened at last year’s New York Film Fest to finally getting a distributor and landing in cinemas.
From its first screenings at NYFF 51 to its pending theatrical release, the first has stirred polarizing reactions. Given that film details the deteriorating conditions of a thoroughly alienating and mentally disturbed young man made homeless, it’s not typically audience friendly. The added weight of Franco's rep, good looks and charming smile coupled with the arch prose of literary luminary Cormac McCarthy (No Country For Old Men, The Road), makes this worthy of attention for that alone. But Franco mines McCarthy’s story for some pithy thoughts about humanity and depravity while showcasing a taut performance by lead Scott Haze as Lester Ballard.
Since the haggard Ballard engages in necrophilia after finding a dead couple in a car, the extreme elements of the film add an extra layer of moral degradation to this tale of cruelty and isolation. As he further descends into serial killing, the film tests an audience's capacity to see him as a sympathetic being. Franco's rendition here tries to create a sympathetic gauze layer to a harsh and unrelenting story.
It’s not the first time the multi-hyphenated artist has generated reaction for the many projects he created, whether as a film director, producer, writer or actor. And besides the many cinematic projects this 36 year old Californian has worked on, he has written poetry, novels, created artwork, performance pieces, has his master’s degree and is presently working on his PhD.
This interview incorporates comments mades at roundtables held the week before the film’s opening and highlights spoken during the NYFF press conference with Franco via Skype.
Q: There’s this quote in both the book and the film — “Just like yourself, perhaps”— what does that mean to you?
JF: He’s a child of god, just like yourself perhaps. That’s from the book, and I put it in the movie. I had the sheriff say it. It wasn’t necessarily the sheriff who’s the narrator in the book, but he became the conscience of the film, or at least the person who knew Lester the best.
Obviously it’s a very ironic title — Lester seems like — what son of god? Like Jesus or something? He’s obviously not. But for me the point was that, even though his actions are disgusting, atrocious, and wrong, they’re coming from a place that’s very human.
I don’t even know if Cormac agreed with me. I brought this idea up to him that here is a guy that’s thrust out of civilized society, he wants what we all want, he wants to connect to another person, but he can’t. And so he resorts to extreme means to do that.
It really guided the way I made the movie. It has necrophilia, yes, but it’s not a movie that thrives on that or a gross-out movie that’s banking on the disgusting horror kind of his actions. It’s a character study using extreme actions as a way to talk about more universal things.
If you’re asking about the title, that’s the connection that, of course none of us would condone, if Lester was real. None of us would condone what he does, but within a fictional framework, he’s a monster through which hopefully we can see something of ourselves.
Q: Why do you like to work with books as source material?
JF: All directors, or artists or whatever are different and they should be. You wouldn’t want them all the same. I just saw an interview with Robert Altman talking about the same thing, that his process is not Kubrick’s process, and you wouldn’t want it to be. Kubrick makes his kind of movies, and Altman makes his kind of movies.
I went to film school, and one of the things these MFA programs teach you is to find your thing, your own voice, your way of doing things. Before film school I had written original screenplays or co-written original screenplays, and I just found for me that I somehow wasn’t quite pushing myself as far as I think I could.
It really started in film school with poems. I did that with a poem by Frank Bidart, and by this guy Spencer Reece. and I had such respect for Frank, and then when I got Michael Shannon in that movie, Herbert White, it was like, my gosh, I’ve got this source text that I have such great respect for, and I’ve got this actor I have such great respect for — I better not let them down. I better do everything I can so I don’t embarrass myself in front of Michael.
It makes me a better director when I’m working with a source text that I really respect. I’ve come to really like collaboration. When you adapt a book, you’re reading that book in a different way.
If you just read the book, you’re taking in the narrative, you’re taking in the characters, you’re understanding it in a certain way. But if you make a movie it’s really an act of translation. You have to say what did he mean here? Why is that in the book? Do I need that in the movie? Am I in line with him here? Do I want to be in line with him here? All of those questions are questions of collaboration, and that is what excites me as a creator.
Q: Not all actors do read the book.
JF: It’s also on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes it’s very important to read the book, and sometimes, if it’s a movie that’s decidedly not loyal to the book, maybe it would be better not to read it. But we knew from the beginning that we wanted to capture the spirit of this book.
Q: Was there any special diet plan for the role?
JF: I didn’t lay out a diet plan for Scott [laughs]. We just had a brief conversation very early on before we went into pre-production. He had played someone in the military, so his head was shaven and he was very built. I said I want to do this book Child of God and want you to play it, so don’t cut your hair and quit eating [laughs].
Q: So it was your idea?
JF: No, I didn’t say to Scott to starve himself. I knew that Scott was ready to throw himself into something. I didn’t really have to say much. And I was right. He took it and really ran with it. So I can’t take much credit for what he did in his preparation. That was all his kind of own volition.
Q: What was the toughest scene to shoot on an emotional level? Scott mentioned one with two dogs...
JF: Not two dogs, there were like six dogs, but two were like military [laughs].
Q: What was your reaction when this incredibly difficult scene didn’t make the movie?
JF: It’s hard for me to cut that stuff. I actually might do a class at AFI where I work with editing students and they make a new version of this movie; I just give them everything.
Q: How do you decide which projects you do? Is it determined by challenge?
JF: I wouldn’t necessarily adapt all the books that I love. But you also get a sort of little tingle or something, you get a feeling like, “Oh, I could do something with this.” Or, “I have an urge to do something more with this.” I want to engage with this, and basically adapt it. I guess it’s kind of as simple as that.
There are other things that factor into that. Does it provide some sort of technical or structural challenge, like The Sound and the Fury that Scott and I just did, where it’s lyou know, that’s a classic, it’s structurally very all over the place—are you going to take that on? And if you take How are you going to do that?
Not only are there great characters in there but, like, as a director there’s a lot of things that we have to figure out that kind of pull me in new directions as a filmmaker. So I do like a challenge that forces me to make a movie in a way that I haven’t made one before.
As far as giving my own book to somebody else, I love the collaborative process. So if I had just adapted it myself, I would have missed out on that great collaboration with Gia. I had already written the book, so I wanted to see what someone else would do that. I didn’t want just one more version of my own thing.
Q: What did Scott bring to the film that you didn’t envision when you started the project?
JF: Scott did all of his preparation. So when I showed up to the set, it was there.
Q: Do you personally identify with isolated, lonely characters?
JF: I think so. If I look at the three features I made after I went to NYU, they’re like a trilogy of isolation. I did a very small movie about the poet Hart Crane, who was sort of artistically isolated, because his work didn’t fit with the prevalent work at the time. I did one about Sal Mineo in the last day of his life. Not that he was an isolated guy, but he spent a lot of time alone that last day. And in some ways you could say he was, compared to the fame he once had, at the end of his life it was a much smaller sphere.
Then, obviously, there’s Child of God. So I didn’t design it that way, but I think that for maybe 10 years of my life I was so overzealous about the way I approached acting in movies that I did isolate myself a lot. Not that I was a Lester Ballard type, but I did spend a lot of time alone.
Q: When you first took this on, when was the moment when you thought, you’d found the angle to crack into this and translate this book into visual storytelling?
JF: The book is in three sections. What was really interesting is that in each section Lester’s behavior kind of progresses. But they’re also told in different ways. There’s a shifting distance between the reader and Lester in each section.
In the first section, there are these voices and these interstitial chapters that—they never really tell you where they’re taking place, but it’s as if a group of guys is sitting in a bar and telling stories, and some of the stories are about Lester, and some of the stories aren’t. Like there’s a story about a guy boxing a gorilla at a state fair or something. And so in that section it’s as if Lester is almost a legend, it’s almost the legend of Lester. And you’re close with him sometimes, but you’re then pulled back with these interstitial chapters.
The second section, you’re very close to Lester. It’s the section where Lester discovers the teenagers in the back of the car, it’s where Lester makes his huge transformation into the wild crazy man in the woods. But also, he makes his own kind of personal discovery of how to find intimacy. You could read it as a guy seeking intimacy or a guy seeking love and those other voices disappear in the second section. And so you’re very close to Lester in the second section.
By the third section, it kind of pulls back again. Lester is now a full-on murderer, but you’re not as close with him anymore, so you don’t know how much he’s murdering until there’s this big reveal of, oh, he’s got like a cavern full of bodies. But you don’t see him doing all that killing.
I loved that shifting distance in the book and I tried to do a little bit of that in the movie, where I didn’t do so much of the interstitial chapters. I did have voiceover early on in the movie, to give a sense that people are talking about Lester. And then you get close with him, and then by the end, again, the pulling back, I realized, actually was very helpful. Because I didn’t want—even though Lester is so extreme, and so horrible, I didn’t want to repel the audience. I wanted to shock the audience sometimes, but I didn’t want it to be a slasher film, where we’re banking on the murders. I didn’t want it to be a horror movie or anything like that. I wanted people to be able to engage with Lester as a character. And so by being able to pull back and not see every single murder, it actually made him a more watchable character. Not necessarily sympathetic, but more watchable.
Q: In the movie, there wasn’t one very controversial scene from the book involving a mentally challenged child burned in a fire.
JF: I had it in the first draft, because when I adapt these books that I love, I want to put everything in it. Inevitably what happens is, maybe I’ll do an edit like I did the first edit of the movie, and it was like way too long. And I worked with Curtis Clayton to bring it to down, because it’s so hard for me to cut things out. It was so hard for me to cut that scene out of the script. But partly it was budgetary, but what the budgetary restrictions sometimes make you realize is, well, do we need another murder? And if we have this additional murder in here of a woman and a child burned in a house, will that serve the story that we’re telling? It’s one thing to tell it in a book, it’s another thing to watch it in a movie.
The main thing that it would be doing is that would just be turning Lester into more of a monster. When I’m trying to put up sort of a smoke screen so that people can emotionally connect to him while he’s still doing all these bad things and if we put in such an explicitly horrible act, it’d be harder to keep people watching Lester as anything but just a complete monster.
Q: Was there a time when you guys finally started the dailies coming back, and seeing these things visually, where you guys were just taken aback from just seeing it?
JF: (Laughs). When we were making it — all the way through I had a really great production designer, Kristen Adams, who I work with — and they went out and built that little cabin for us to burn down. I was like, “That’s the cabin.” Then they went and found these actual caves, and it was like, “This is it, this is Lester’s home.”
The first time I saw Scott it was like, “I’ll never see Lester another way.” He just went off in that four-month cocoon he was in, he came out of it, and was basically the character I saw when I read the book. It was, for me, a really blessed experience of seeing this whole thing come to life in front of my eyes.
Q: Scott has very physically demanding scenes in this movie. What were some challenges?
JF: Scott was almost always in character. I remember there was like one lunch on the second to last day, where Scott would finally come into the catering tent and eat with us, and it was like, “Oh, there’s Scott!” I hadn’t really seen much of him because he kind of kept to himself, and he kept the accent going and everything.
One time in January Scott was running around in that skimpy outfit, and I had to keep telling Scott, “I’m not going to shoot you any more today” because he was going to go, like Lester, charge through the water. And it was so cold he was going to get sick. So I was just like, “You are not allowed to go...”
I had to say stuff like that, because I knew he was so in character that he would just do it. So there were things like that. And meanwhile the whole crew is on the side of this hill, and it was so muddy, and we were like tying ourselves to trees to kind of like shoot him sliding down the hill in the mud. So it was like mountain climbing filming that day.
Q: Did you have any trepidation about adapting the more shocking scenes?
JF: Sometimes as a director you have like a scene or a moment or something in your head that’s like the kernel or the thing that excites you about the project. For me it was that scene where he discovers the teenagers. Not because I’m into necrophilia, but because it was such a beautifully sculpted scene that showed character development through behavior. I really loved that as a director and actor and writer. So we shot that first.
The first day Scott did that scene where he discovered the bodies and did all that stuff. When you have people around that you trust, and you know on a certain level, this is make believe—we’re not really harming anyone, we’re all friends together. I’ve also learned, like, if you believe in something—If I believe in something, I have no inhibitions. I’ve done art projects with Paul McCarthy where his dirty ass is like in my face. It’s like, “Okay. If I believe in something I would do anything.”
So it didn’t feel hard to me at all. And with Scott it seemed I was just directing it, I didn’t actually do it. That’s from the book.
Q: What did you subtract or expand on from the McCarthy novel?
James Franco: There’s always a question of how loyal you’ll be to the source and then in what way will you be loyal. Our approach was we love the book and we want to translate it to the screen and to honor the source as much as we can, so almost every scene in the movie you can find in the book, except for the scene where Lester shoots the stuffed animals. He doesn’t have this breakdown moment where he shoots them. That’s one of my favorite scenes.
Otherwise we stayed pretty close to the book. There’s more at the end of the book, there’s a bit of an epilogue that talks about Lester’s fate. Essentially it seemed to be the epilogue in the book was telling or relating one of the Cormac McCarthy’s themes, that there’s something inherently violent about humans. He will layer his books with violence but also traces of violence throughout history so the ending of the book talked about Lester going to an institution and meeting another man who did even crazier things, ate people’s brains with a spoon.
Q: Scott Haze developed a tour de force performance of Lester who has to exhibit the qualities of a child but also an animal. What was it like getting that performance?
JF: I’m well aware that it’s a movie with disturbing subject matter that’s not for everyone, but I think one thing that anyone that has eyes can’t deny is that Scott gives an incredible performance. I’ve known Scott for over 10 years. He’s a friend of a friend. The actor Jim Parrack from ‘True Blood’ is Scott Haze’s childhood friend. So over the 10 years I saw Scott go through some very dark, personal things. He was just kind of crazy and then he kind of came through all that and became a better man on the other side. So when I finally got the rights to the book I saw that Scott was a dependable person and I thought I can have the best of both worlds. He could draw on his dark personal experiences as an actor but as a director I could depend on him to be a professional and not be a liability.
When I first read the book I imagined Sam Rockwell or Michael Shannon in the role, but I already cast Shannon in a necrophilia role for a short film at NYU, Herbert White. I thought let’s cast somebody people don’t know, not that anyone will think it’s really like [he’s a] mountain man or something, but it will just help in the suspension of disbelief even more if it’s like, “Wow! Who is this guy? Is he really like that?” Then I knew if I put Scott in the role he was in a place in his career — you see this with a lot of actors -- the one role where they just go for it. They just go to extremes to prepare.
As soon as I cast him he went to Tennessee. We didn’t ultimately shoot in Tennessee but the story takes place in Sevier County, Tennessee, where McCarthy lived for a while. Scott went out there and isolated himself for three months before we started to shoot…
He met the locals and learned how to operate that rifle and worked on the accent. I wasn’t with him but I guess he stayed overnight in actual caves on his own [laughs] and so when I got to West Virginia, where we ultimately shot, Scott was fully in character and as a director, I just cut back and let it be.
Q: What is your interest or fascination with necrophilia? You made a short on the subject and now this feature.
JF: It’s true there’s a weird pattern. In fact early in my writing life even before the short at NYU I wrote a script about a man who works in a morgue and has friendships with all the bodies that come in. It’s not necrophilia, it’s communing with the dead. In my personal life I’m absolutely not attracted to dead people or anything like that (laughs).
If I look at some of the other projects I directed it hasn’t been planned this way but I do deal with characters who are either isolated and/or have a very rich imaginative life and so in case of Hart Crane [from the movie Franco directed and wrote, The Broken Tower], there was a character who was isolated. His work did not work with the modernist kind of writers of the day and [he] was isolated in that way.
I view Lester the same way. Not that he’s an artist but maybe he’s a stand in for someone who is unable to fit into civilized society but he wants a connection with another so badly when he stumbles upon this opportunity; he figures out that he can have a relationship outside himself if he animates it with his imagination and so I guess for me it’s just, necrophilia’s an extreme way to show someone living in their own kind of imaginary world.
Q: You seem to be fascinated with the outcast, those on the fringe or outside respectable society. Why do you want to make these stories now, especially in this time when our society seems to be moving towards corporatization, homogenization and standardized representation?
JF: In a MFA program of any kind, art, directing, acting, one of the things you’re taught is to look for your voice, or try to find your artistic voice or your place. What can you do that others can’t do? So one of the things I found is that I’m in an unusual position. I’m in this very commercial film world. I’m in the pop culture world as a performer but I also have these interests that maybe are tangents to that world but don’t really lie in that world so maybe my thing, where I can generate a lot of energy is to bring those two worlds together.
Maybe it’s my place to bring some of these ideas into kind of more of mainstream outlet and why is it important? Making things homogenized is dangerous. We always need to question. I’m not about anarchy. I appreciate structure but we always need to question who we are and why we are and how we view ourselves and how we interact with others. These are things that always need to be constantly questioned and I think that’s one of the things that I try to do.
Q: What is the connection between your movies and academic studies?
Right now I’m preparing for my oral exams for my English PH.D, so I’m reading a lot of books I’ll be questioned on. Then I’ll move on, if I pass, I’ll move on to my dissertation and I think that will involve American literature. That’s my specialization but also the ways that these different mediums interact with each other, so, yes, adaptation from literature to film (is my interest), but also the boundaries of the medium. What does one medium do that is better than the other?
And thinking about them, transforming to another one and back as translation of medium, rather than just thinking about adaptation, which I feel is kind of a more limited view, but actually looking at them as different kinds of language.
The films that I make are also very informed by my academic work because, like I said, searching for my voice wasn’t planned this way. One of the things about my voice is yes I like to adapt great literature. But also make it feel current or contemporary in other ways. Whether it’s the technology I use or the structure of the film or that kind of film, so I guess what I’m trying to say, is yes, my academic life is informed by my confessional creative life and vice versa.
Q: Do your movies provide life lessons and if so what do you want to deliver from this film?
When you make a piece of art or film it’s not always kind of a moral enterprise. Films rest in a weird place. For a long time they’ve been mass entertainment. They don’t have to carry the role of educational tools or moralistic tools, at least as a primary function, so when I make one, and one like this, primarily I look to do a portrait, examine sides of what it is to be human through an extreme subject.
This isn’t a film that will guide you in being a better person. It’s not that kind of movie. And it also isn’t to say things should be this way or things should be that (way). But what I think it does is maybe very relevant is that it shows, here’s a person that can’t function in civilized society. He’s kicked off the farm. He goes to the cabin. He loses the cabin. He goes to the cave. He’s literally pushed farther and farther away from civilization. I think that’s a relevant topic today. The way that we socialize, at least we can say that the inner circles of mainstream communication are so bound up in technology that the way we socialize now is so intertwined with learning technological languages and social networking languages that there are many people that just give up, don’t want to do that, don’t want to engage with that. So you can say they are on the outer circles of this kind of communication.
The point of the movie isn’t to say if you don’t tweet or do Facebook you’re going to become a killer, or sleep with dead bodies, but it’s an extreme portrait of somebody on the outside. I don’t know if it’s a lesson per se but it’s a kind of a lens to look at a phenomenon that is happening in our day in it’s own forms and will continue to happen. People will be pushed outside the inner social circles.
Q: When you pitched this film to investors, did you say, “This is will work and people need to see something like this because of X Y and Z?” How did you finance this movie?
JF: When I was pitching around? We didn’t really pitch it around. Vince, my producing partner, deals with that stuff, but I didn’t have to go to anybody and say, “The world needs this necrophiliac story.” [Laughs.]
It’s a kind of negotiation between art and business. As an actor I’ve been in the biggest blockbusters, I’ve been in critically acclaimed Oscar-nominated, Oscar-winning movies. I don’t need to make a movie to kind of aim for commercial success, or even critical success. I can just make the movies that I want to make just for the sake of loving those projects. And so because of that, I’ve had to learn how to balance certain things. So, this isn’t one of the main reasons I did “Child of God,” but I can look at “Child of God” and say, “It’s a very tough subject. It’s a period piece, it’s the 1950s.”
But a lot of this takes place in the woods, and there’s not a ton of actors in this. So if we’re smart, we can actually manage a great and dark piece of material like this, and it doesn’t have to cost what recreating Boardwalk Empire costs, because we’re just out in the woods, and the trees look the same in the ‘50s as they do now [laughs].
[Photos: Brad Balfour]
Actor/musician Donnie Kehr may not have a shitload of facetime in the cinematic version of Jersey Boys but as loan shark Norm Waxman, he has the right moments that not only showcase his talents but places him skillfully in critical scenes that move the story and characters forward.
Maybe that why the film’s 84-year old director, the legendary Clint Eastwood, wanted him along for the ride, because Kehr’s managed to be a part of this remarkable jukebox musical from its origins to this filmic plateau. Though there are other vets from various versions of the stage production, he’s the only one who made it all the way through from the off off broadway version — which was really off-bwy as in La Jolla California. That’s where the first workshopped version was developed by originating director Des McAnuff — who had already transformed Broadway with his stage version of The Who’s Tommy.
In telling the tale of the chart-topping ‘60s pop quartet The Four Seasons’ rise, fall and rise again, both the film and theatrical musicals not only charts a classic arc but also demonstrates the power pop music can have to define a generation, a community and reflect the drive a great singer or musician must have to rise above poverty and limited possibilities of a core community — in this case, New Jersey’s working class Italians.
Though just across the divide from an opulent Manhattan, it was worlds away from the group’s street-born late ‘50s rock & roll scene. Out of this world came the Four Seasons, Italian-born performers who rose above their mob-ridden community to become successes without having resorted to crime to get there.
For years lead singer/songwriter Frank Valli and collaborator Bob Gaudio felt their story could be told as a stage show which hopefully would land on Broadway. Not only did they craft a production that worked (with the help of a book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice), it won numerous awards including a Best Musical Tony and is now a bedrock on Broadway.
Its first lead John Lloyd Young became a star and it ultimately led to this film version out this June. The film stars stage vets Young as Valli and Erich Bergen as Gaudio, with Michael Lomenda as Nick Massi and Vincent Piazza as Tommy DeVito. Like the stage show, the film is structured around the four members’ perspectives as they speak from stage or screen directly to audiences and reveal viewpoint on the origins and evolution of the group.
Detailing the quartet’s rise from virtual street thugs in the late ‘50s to become the biggest American group this side of the Beatles. From ’62 to early ’64, only the Beach Boys matched the Four Seasons in US record sales until times and styles changed as the music scene shifted from top 40 hits like “Sherry” and Big Girls Don’t Cry” to progressive album rock.
As a theatrical performer the 50-year old Kehr himself has had an oddly jukebox musical experience as a singer, musician and actor. He’s put out albums, been in films, on Broadway and in the touring productions of many decades of various musical styles and annually promotes Rockers on Broadway.
In fact, when this exclusive interview took place, it wasn’t in the haute-society Waldorf Astoria Hotel (which has a cameo in the film on Rock Hall of Fame night and hosted the film’s distributor Warner Brothers’ press conference) but at the classic Broadway haunt, the Hourglass Tavern, shortly before the film’s release.As a bow to the enthusiastic Kehr, he provides his own endorsement of the place: “The best after-theater hangout in New York City is the Hourglass Tavern. There’s no other place. All these other places try to be this, but none of ‘em get it. This is the place.”
Q: You were a rock musician, and yet you don’t sing in the movie. Was that frustrating for you?
DK: No, actually, I was fine with not singing in the movie.
Q: You sang in the play...
DK: In the play, I sang “Trance.” When they’re doing the backups, I’m the one who sang, “Late last night/She put me in a trance.” It’s on the record. It’s when they’re doing the backups, when they’ve been hired by [the group’s producer] Bob Crewe to sing backup vocals on the third song that they sing for it.
The difference is in the show, I played eight different roles. I was a featured ensemble. Then when I did the movie, they added two... I just got Norm, and what was great about it is that it’s [like], okay, I can just act, I don’t have to worry about singing or dancing or anything. Except at the end, in the final number, we all sing “Oh, What A Night.”
Q: And you get to dance with Christopher Walken in that closing number.
DK: That’s right, that’s right. That was pretty neat.
Q: You had about as much screen time as Christopher Walken as Jersey mob boss Gyp DeCarlo does, maybe a little more.
DK: Yeah, I do.
Q: How was it dancing with Christopher Walken? He had experience [on Broadway].
DK: Yeah, he was a Broadway boy. He’s been around, dancing for quite a while. He’s very talented at it, very good, and a lot of fun. As Eastwood said, “You know, he kind of beats to his own drum.” And, it’s a very good drum.
Q: He danced in a Fatboy Slim video, “Weapon of Choice.”
DK: Walken’s a great dancer. I learned a lot from watching and working with him. When you’re working with him, you don’t think that he’s doing very much. You think, “Wow, he’s hardly doing anything,” but then when you watch him on film, you see all this magic. He’s pretty magical that way.
Q: Didn’t you start out as a rock & roller?
DK: To tell the truth, when I was 12 years old, I did my first Broadway show, a play called Legend with Elizabeth Ashley and F. Murray Abraham in 1975. When I was 16, I did my first movie, Baby It’s You, with Rosanna Arquette and Vincent Spano. It was a John Sayles movie. And it was a bunch of us, me, Robert Downey Jr., Fisher Stevens.
Q: So the acting came first?
DK: I was playing instruments since I was 11. I played four different instruments because my brothers are musicians, so I’d always watch them and learned a lot by watching them. I just picked up these instruments and started playing. By the time I was 21, we created a band, my brothers and I, called Urgent. We were on EMI Manhattan Records. Then we actually had two videos out, we got number 56 on the top Billboard in 1984. Uh, it was a song called “Running Back for More.” We did pretty well. That video was seen a lot.
Q: What brought you back to both movies and the stage?
DK: Here’s the deal. I loved working as an actor, and that’s something that’s been my bread and butter all my life. But music has been my passion, it’s been more my soul. The difference is that when you act, you’re the paint for another artist. When you do music, you are the artist, and the painter. It’s from a different place.
Acting is an amazing experience on the level of presenting yourself as a different person, or becoming a different person. Whereas with music, in order for it to be pure, it has to come from an organic place. And that, to me, is the only way I can define it because they’re both really important to me.
Q: How many people survived the process all the way through to end up in the movie?
DK: I’ll tell you exactly. I’m the only guy in the movie from the original La Jolla production. I did the original La Jolla production, then the Broadway production, and then I did the movie. I’m the only one that hit the trifecta.
Q: John Lloyd Young only did the Broadway production which won the Tony?
DK: Pre-Broadway was everybody but John Lloyd Young. A guy named David Norona was Frankie and he was a genius. A really talented great actor but he lost his voice. We had Des, our director, he was a genius.
We rehearsed for a month, and here’s the guy playing Frankie Valli, singing all that for eight hours a day, high pitch, hitting everything. It got tired. So three weeks after we opened in La Jolla, he was starting to lose his voice, and he had polyps, and then had surgery and all that. He was so great, and John Lloyd Young was so great too.
Q: Of the Broadway show, who are the survivors?
DK: Okay the Broadway show. It would be myself, John Lloyd Young, and Erica Piccininni [as Lorraine]. Of the original cast, we’re the three that are in the movie. Oh, there’s Heather Pond, she was our original swing, she’s also in the movie, she has a moment in there. But I think from the original Broadway cast, there’s only the three, maybe four of us.
Q: It’s amazing to make it through to that...
DK: Now, the other actors like Michael Lomenda, who did the national tour, he plays Nick Massi. Eric Bergen was also in the first national tour, and I also think he came into Broadway for a minute. But all the original Broadway people are myself, John Lloyd, Erica, who plays Lorraine, and Heather Pond, who was a swing.
Q: As a featured ensemble, you probably had more strenuous work than any of the Four Seasons. Not to diminish John Lloyd Young’s skills at recreating Frankie Valli, that’s always impressive, but as a featured ensemblist, how do you do that? They’re all different from each other, and every night, you’re the one who has to play eight distinct characters and make them look different. What were the eight distinct characters?
DK: I was a featured player, [I had] eight different roles. I played Nick DeVito, Tommy’s brother. It’s hard for me to remember because, let me explain something. In the La Jolla production, I was the first guy to play Gyp DeCarlo, who is played by Chris Walken in the movie.
When it went to Broadway, Des asked me to play Norm Waxman, because I can also play drums and guitar, so that’s why I became that featured ensemble [member], because that feature part [requires] that I can play all these instruments and act.
I got a lot more things. But they didn’t want Gyp DeCarlo to play instruments. But my parts... I played in the car, with the shooting, when they shoot the guy in the car, there’s a guy named Donnie in that, that was named after me. Because what happened, there was a lot of Italians back in the day that did that sort of thing, and so we didn’t want to step on anybody’s toes, so we used an unusual Italian name. Like Donnie, exactly. I played him, I played Nick DeVito, I played the cameraman when they were filming “Sherry,” then I became... What else did I do?
I did the tour for like, nine months, and that’s when Clint saw the show. I played Gyp DeCarlo. It’s a very different situation in the [road] show than it was [on] Broadway. Yeah, because the role of Gyp DeCarlo, he plays three roles, four roles in the show, which is the judge, Gyp DeCarlo, the priest, and the bowling alley guy. So that’s all for that track.
Oh, I played Charlie Calello, I was one of the New Seasons, so I was playing guitar on stuff like “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” or “Let’s Hang On,” or “Workin’ My Way,” all of those. I played guitar on all those, but I got to play drums on “Dawn” and “Big Girls.” That was fun.
Q: People hoped that John Lloyd would be the guy picked for the movie, but how was it seeing him? He is this amazing, he is really unpretentious about this.
Dk: At first, when we were in the Broadway production, he was nervous because he was coming into something that had already been established in La Jolla. So he came in not knowing, not sure where he fit. But after a while, he got it. And by now, he’s calm and he doesn’t have to prove anything. But I’ll tell you, when we were shooting, he came up to me and hugged me a lot, and was just always saying how happy he was that I was there and a part of this.
Q: It’s rare to make it all the way through to the movie.
DK: It sure is, man. It sure is.
Q: How is the movie different from the show.
DK: The tempo of the movie is different from the show. The look and the tempo. In the show, the theater piece, it’s very... What was amazing was that it was staged amazingly because the actors moved the set pieces so that suddenly, things are changing and moving and then we’re in another scene, and suddenly everything changed. Des did an amazing job at staging and seamlessly putting together the actors that would seamlessly move these set pieces. In the movie, the difference is that everything is real. You’re there, you’re not imagining it.
Q: That’s the incredible Eastwood touch, to make it real.
DK: Oh yeah, no doubt. He’s a master at that.
Q: He didn’t make it a mythic thing, it was a naturalistic, realistic.
DK: I’ll say this: to me, when I saw the movie, I went, “Oh, this is ‘Goodfellas The Musical,’” because that’s really what it looks like. The guys are narrating to the camera, they’re talking and telling the story, and then getting back into the action. It feels a bit like that.
Q: Was that weird, seeing it break the fourth wall?
DK: No, that’s exactly like the play.
Q: But the play’s a surreal version of life. Theater is not life. Theater is theater. Whereas movies are more like life.
DK: In the movie, when they’re narrating to the camera, they’re telling you stuff so you know what’s really happened. It’s a bit of them letting you in on how they were dealing with it and what their opinion was, because if you notice, the phrase is, “Everybody remembers it how they need to,” well, the point of it is, all the Seasons are speaking about their experience as they remember it.
Q: When you saw it at the premiere, was that the first time you saw the film?
DK: No actually, I saw it twice before that.
Q: The coolest thing about the premiere was who’s in the audience!
DK: [Laughs] Yeah! I took some very important people that are in my life, that I care very much about, because that’s important to me. As much as all the publicity and the stars, and all that’s exciting, this thing is, if you don’t take someone you care about and can share it with, that’s kind of a lonely life.
Q: That’s probably what Clint saw in you — an interesting guy to put in the movie.
DK: Thank you very much, thank you.
Q: Who did you talk to at the premiere that you had hoped to talk to?
DK: Oh, I talked to everybody. I spoke with Clint, with Billy Magnussen, who’s got Into the Woods coming out at the end of the year and Lena Hall, who just won the Tony for Hedwig [and the Angry Inch], we’re old friends, and so we were talking. Who else? I met Clive Davis, Barbara Walters, that was cool.
Q: Did you run into Sopranos creator David Chase — who did his own rock film?
DK: I did!
Q: You look a little like him.
DK: I do? Actually I didn’t get to meet David, but I know he saw me.
Q: And did you met Ron Delsener — the original concert promoter for New York, who produced the Four Seasons live shows?
DK: Ron Delsener was there, that’s right.
Q: How many of The Four Seasons, or the people surrounding them, how many of the real people did you meet?
DK: Oh, I met all of them, all those guys.
Q: Everybody’s still alive?
DK: Not all of them. Nick Massi is gone.
Q: How old is Frankie Valli now?
DK: I don’t know, he’s in his 70s. Tommy DeVito’s in his 80s.
Q: What was their impression of you?
DK: I’m still very close with Frankie. He called me last week and we spoke.
Q: Was he at the premiere of the film?
DK: No, he didn’t make this premiere. I don’t know why. There’s one in LA too. He lives in Los Angeles now but we speak, because we kind of knew each other before the movie. They're still alive. Bob Gaudio and Frankie Valli financed half the movie.
Q: They picked Clint?
DK: Pretty much.
Q: Clint Eastwood isn’t thought of as a guy who does musicals even though he loves music, but not necessarily rock and roll or jukebox musicals — we think of him as a jazz guy. You could see him doing the hard-bitten part of Jersey Boys. But would it be a Clint Eastwood film?
DK: That’s the thing, when I first heard Clint Eastwood was going to direct it, I thought that was an interesting choice. Now, I know that truthfully, Frankie and Bob, they really were thinking that they wanted Scorsese to direct it. But Scorsese had other things lined up and the scheduling didn’t work out.
It’s not that he wasn’t interested — he was very interested. He’s invested in the show. But if it wasn’t for Des McAnuff, this would never have happened, let’s say that because it’s absolutely true. Des made all of this happen. He was really the catapult for all of it.
Q: He’s done some unique stuff on Broadway.
DK: A really smart man. He’s been great to me. He sure has changed Broadway. For instance, he came in with The Who’s Tommy. Tommy broke major ground on Broadway, it was the first time rock & roll was accepted on Broadway. Other than Hair, but Tommy was really rock & roll. Like, The Who, who thought they would get to Broadway? Well, he made it happen.
He’s a visual genius. He did that, and then 10 years later he calls me and says, “I’ve got something for you,” and I said, “What is it?” And he goes, “Ah, I can’t tell you,” and I go, “Why’d you even tell me this?” And he says, “Just be ready.”
So about three months later I get a call, “Uh, Donnie, Des and Frankie Valli would like to see you on Monday morning at nine a.m.” And I’m like, “Where?” “Los Angeles.”
I was in Las Vegas at the time, doing a piano gig out there, and I was working ‘til four in the morning on Sunday, so I had to drive that night, Sunday night, to get to my appointment by nine. I had worked all night the night before. I go to this meeting and meet Frankie Valli and Des, who he gives me some scenes to look at, and says, “Hey Donnie, would you play ‘Stay.’”
So I did, and read the scenes. It was really the worst audition I’ve ever had in my life, because I hadn’t slept in 24 hours. I was exhausted. So I got there, and I did the thing, and then I left, and called Des on his cell phone, and said, “I’m sorry, dude. Please forgive me, that was the worst audition I’ve ever had, but thanks for thinking of me.”
And he calls me back 10 minutes later, “You’ve got it! I told you I had something for you, and this is for you!” And I was like, “Okay, great,” then I read the scripts, and heard the music while I was reading the script, and read it for the first time for La Jolla. And I went, “Oh my God, this is golden. This is gold.”
I even tried to defer my salary when we came to Broadway, I said, “Keep my salary, use it as an investment.” And they wouldn’t do it.
Q: You would’ve really been rollin’ in cash! Is this movie is going to be a huge hit?
DK: I think so.
Q: Des, obviously, had to defer... he has his production. But if you’re going to defer…
DK: You might as well defer to Clint Eastwood.
Q: You’ve could have had Martin Scorsese, or Brian De Palma...
DK: No it was Jon Favreau, who directed Elf. He was actually going to do it before Clint, then he lost the option or something. They went into turnaround, lost him, and Eastwood was a go.
Q: What was the process of Clint Eastwood seeing you. That is not something that happens to everybody. I can understand it happening to Chris Walken.
DK: I was in San Francisco, we were on the last leg of the first international tour, and I had joined the company for six months to play Gyp. So we’re in San Francisco, the closing city, and we had about two or three weeks left of the tour. And I’m going to the Starbucks before my half-hour call, just to get my cup of coffee. So I go in, I’m getting ready to go into Starbucks, and coming out of the Starbucks is Clint Eastwood.
The theater’s right across the street, so I said, “Hi, Mr Eastwood, my name’s Donnie Kehr, are you going to see the show?” And he said, “Yeah, can you tell me where the will call window is?” So I take him across... I forget about my coffee. So decided, well, it’s Clint Eastwood, so I take him across to the will call window, and he said, “Thank you so much,” and then he comes back after the show.
Q: And he’s just coming to see the show?
DK: I knew he was going to do the movie. I knew he was coming to do research. I heard that he was going to direct the movie, so he was there doing research. So, I met him and he said, “I saw the show,” and after the show he came backstage and shook my hand and said, “You know, great performance, I’m very impressed.”
Two weeks later, I get a call that he wants to see me screen test, it’s a screen test for both roles, Gyp DeCarlo and Norm Waxman. So I did the screen test, never spoke to him again, never met him, never talked to him again. Well, six weeks go by after the screen test, I hear they have offered Gyp to Walken, so I was like, oh well, okay.
Then a week after that, I got the call that I was Norm Waxman. And when I got the call, I started crying like a little baby ‘cause I thought, this is really wild, you know. This is really unusual. What’s really unusual is that I started something from scratch in La Jolla, California, and it became this phenomenon, doing the movie. And it’s kind of weird, it’s like...everything “Jersey Boys,” for me.
Q: You’ve got to hold your own going against Christopher Walken. How was it, working with Walken and Clint Eastwood directing? There are scenes where it’s basically just the two of you.
DK: Chris Walken gave me a huge compliment at the premiere the other night. I said goodbye to him after five weeks of working together, so he saw me at the premiere, and came up to me and said [imitating Walken], “Hey, you’re really good! So what was it like? I’ll tell you this, my first day of shooting was my 50th birthday, I was turning 50. And I was like, oh my God, this is one of the best gifts ever. So I went up to Clint and said, “Mr Eastwood...”
Q: You didn’t really call him Mr Eastwood, did you?
DK: I did! I called him Mr Eastwood. I said, “Mr Eastwood…” and he says, “Don’t call me Mr Eastwood,” I said, “Okay, Clint. Thank you so much for the birthday gift. This is amazing,” he said, “Really, how old are you?” And I said, “I’m 50, I’m gettin’ old,” he said, “Don’t let the old man in,” and walked away.
I was like, “That’s going to be my mantra.” So that was my first experience there. He makes things easy, he gave me such a great amount of confidence, and just having that kind of person who is large and in charge gives you that kind of confidence, I really felt like I could’ve been up against Laurence Olivier and been fine because I had his confidence. So I call him the gentle giant because he is tall and kind. He’s gentle. For instance, he doesn’t say, “action,” he says “go” and then “okay, stop” instead of “cut”].And he’s very calm.
He gave me some pointers about when you smoke in films, when you light your cigarette, and with my glasses — I wore glasses in the movie — it’s a matter of when you take the glasses off, or when you put the smoke in your mouth. If you’re going to use props, you’ve got to use them right, on the action of the words, because you wouldn’t take your glasses off and then speak, you’d take your glasses off while you were speaking. You see, it’s action on the word, so it’s a lesson I learned. I also learned something from Christopher Walken. In between takes, we would go back to this room, and he would sit there with his eyes closed.
At first I thought, “This guy’s fucking rude, what’s the matter? I’ve never heard of that.” But he did this, and like, five times he did this. Finally I go back there, and I say, “Hey, are you okay?” He said, “Yeah,” and I said, “Why do you rest your eyes like that? Why do you close your eyes like that?”
He goes, “You have to understand, when you’re doing film, your eyes are the first thing to get tired. So, when you’re in between takes, rest your eyes, because they are your point.”
Q: How many Broadway shows have you done, and how many films? You did Billy Elliot, four or five years ago. The kid who played Billy Elliot was fantastic.
Three kids did it! I had a good time with that show. Well, I didn’t have a great time with that show because I broke my back during that show, on stage. I was out for nine months, I couldn’t do anything.
I’ve done six films and seven Broadway shows, but I did a lot of tours when I was younger. I did a lot of national tours, Aida, Jersey Boys, West Side Story...
Q: Which version of West Side Story?
DK: I did the 1980 revival. I did the one in 1980, but I just did the national tour, I didn’t do the Broadway on that one, but it was fun. I’ve definitely done more theater than film.
Q: This is the biggest director you’ve ever worked with?
DK: [Clint Eastwood] wasn’t the biggest director. I was in the movie Chaplin.
Q: What did you do in Chaplin?
DK: I played Joseph Kehr, spelled just like my last name with Sir Richard Attenborough; now he’s a big director.
Q: Yeah, with Robert Downey, Jr.
DK: Robert and I did a scene where he asks me, “Who’s the most famous ballet dancer?” And I say Nijinsky. And he said, “Well, if the Tramp came out and said, ‘I’m going to do this, I’m going to do that,’ well, the magic would be gone. Tell me I’m right,” and I said, “I have to say that you’re wrong, because I’m in the word business.”
I was the guy bringing sound into the movies. So anyway, they showed that scene on the Oscars when he was nominated. It was pretty neat. Robert and I go back since we were 15 years old. I’ve known him for a long time.
Q: What are you doing now?
DK: I have a few projects in the works, but nothing I can talk about. The next thing that I know my schedule is having, is that I know that I’m going to be doing another Rockers on Broadway, we’re honoring teen idols, and we’re honoring Micky Dolenz.
Q: You’ve done Tommy, which is one era, West Side Story, another whole era, and now this, another era of music, both in terms of Broadway and rock & roll. I can’t think of anybody else who’s worked like that.
DK: I was also in the original off-Broadway production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which Rupert Holmes wrote…
Q: There’s the irony of being in West Side Story because of some your other associations — such as being married to the daughter of Chita Rivera.
DK: Oh, we’ll get to that. The thing is, I have a thing with Elton John. Three of the Broadway shows I’ve done relate to Elton John. He wrote Aida. He also wrote Billy Elliot. Here’s the thing, in Tommy I was the pinball lad, and he was that part in the movie. They were all shrooming a lot back in that time, when they were doing the movie. They were shrooming the whole time.
Q: In doing that, you got to work with Elton John? So you’ve got some major rock and rollers between Elton John and Pete Townshend.
DK: Yep, and Frankie.
Q: They’re all distinct periods of rock & roll.
DK: And I did a show called The Human Comedy which was written by Galt MacDermot, who wrote Hair.
Q: Leonard Bernstein had an interesting connection to this, even though it’s not that obvious, but he was one of the first people from classical music to transition into the rock and pop. Did you ever meet him?
DK: Yes, I did. I met Leonard Bernstein at the premiere of West Side Story in 1981, at the Chatelier Theater in Paris, and it was pretty incredible.
Q: So in doing all this, where does that put you? To make your own record, to do your own show, or just hopefully this raises your profile so you’ll get picked for something where you might be a lead?
DK: I’d like to do more film. I’d like to do a lot more film. I’d like to do something like, and I’m sure every actor would love to have this in writing and directing, is that I’d like to do the next Breaking Bad, you know? Or I’d like to do an HBO series. I love Boardwalk Empire.
Q: Have you done much TV?DK: I did The Good Wife and I’ve done some some guest [starring] on TV.
Q: You must have done Law & Order.
DK: I didn’t do Law & Order! I’m the only actor in New York who’s not done Law & Order!
Q: Or The Sopranos.
DK: Neither of those. and I never got into NYPD Blue.
Q: Steve Schirripa, who’s in Jersey Boys, was also in The Sopranos. Was there any Sopranos talk in the midst of all this?
DK: Of what, Jersey Boys?
Q: Basically, he’s a connection to The Sopranos.
DK: There was no real connection to The Sopranos. Jersey Boys was a different era. I have a lot of respect for them, but it was never a reference.
Q: Speaking of mafia, Robert DeNiro who’s done his share of mob movies from Goddfellas to A Bronx Tale; did you ever get a chance to meet him?
DK: I got to meet DeNiro twice.
Q: Was he at the screening, though? Was he at the premiere?
DK: No, he wasn’t at the premiere, but I’m sure he will get there.
Q: New York is a place where actors and audiences have a conversation. With Los Angeles, you think of gated communities and Beverly Hills. Here, you think of Broadway, where every actor stands outside and signs programs for a few minutes, no matter how big they are. Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen were signing, and they all do that.
DK: I still do that. Whenever I go to a show, I get backstage. I know a lot of these people, and they know me, but I always have them sign my program. They look at me like, what, are you kidding me? Because I’m still a fan, a huge fan of my peers, because we’re all in it to win it, you know?
Q: Did you have the Seasons sign a record?
DK: All three remaining Seasons, Frankie, Bob Gaudio, and Tommy DeVito were there on the opening night of Jersey Boys, and so was Joe Pesci. So I had them sign my opening night poster. But then, right as Joe Pesci’s signing my poster, I get a tap on my shoulder. And I look, and it’s Robert DeNiro. And he goes [imitating DeNiro], “You did a fine job. A very fine job,” and I was going to have him sign the poster too, but then I realized he had nothing to do with The Four Seasons, so I didn’t get his signature. But I met him another time.
Q: And Crewe?
DK: Yes, he signed too.
Q: If you had another era, a rock and roll thing you still wanted to do, what would that thing be?
DK: I want to do a Rolling Stones musical.
Q: You’re writing it?
DK: I can’t talk about it, but it’s going to happen one day.
You might know him as the schlubby, stoner, best friend burnout from Shaun of the Dead or the hoodwinked, adolescent dunce of a cop in Hot Fuzz but you don't know the real Nick Frost. Sensitive, kind and sharp as a katana, Nick dreamed up an unlikely passion project in Cuban Fury, a workplace/sports comedy orbiting around the world of salsa dancing. As the film's hero and salsa dancing extraordinaire, Nick may not be the first person you'd think of with a name like Cuban Fury but, according to him, that's the point. It's all about going against expectations. After all, there's something inherently funny about watching a man of his stature throw his body around like a 120 pound Latina woman.
Read more: Talking With Nick Frost of...
When the recent Entertainment Weekly appeared near the end of March featuring a cover theme, The Criminally Underrated, it also included a spread on Holy Grails — legendary projects that never were quite finished or appeared for public consumption. One project missing from that list was Alejandro Jodorowsky’s version of Frank Herbert epic science fiction novel, the very influential Dune — a prescient book that appeared in 1966. The arch-psychedelic, mystical film director was going to make a film based on this novel and it was to include such legendary figures as Salvador Dali, Pink Floyd and Jodorowsky himself.
Ultra influential artists such as Moebius and H. R. Giger were going to contribute design ideas and the idea of it was ambitious as Herbert’s novel was voluminous. To develop the film Jodo created an amazing Bible for it which was a mix of storyboard, concept art, script and continuity ideas. This book was an aesthetic legend, occasionally seen by various eyes after the original project fell apart from lack of funding and creative conflicts.
Though it has never been published in its complete form it has been referred to for years by fans of Dune and Jodo. But it wasn’t this March, basically during the same week of the magazine’s release that Frank Pavich’s documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune hit theaters and various distribution circuits. Now the story of the film has been both told by many of those who were involved and are still alive including Jodo himself. Seeing Jodo’s El Topo as an 18 year-old kid was revelatory. I went to Cincinnati’s film society and got to see movies like Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Fellini’s Satyricon, and El Top. All these movies warped my psyche along similar lines that underground comics, science fiction and the post Beat writings emerging in America at the time were doing to the culture in general.
That film, among many other youthful bohemian influences, led me along a strange winding path that's produced a fascination with the cutting edge of pop culture. I have done many things as a result -- from buying a case of the original Alien figures that I still (well, two of them) to this day to interviewing Jodorowsky myself.
All these experiences have added up to a strange philosophy and career path -- something that has affected Pavich as well. This one on one interview is a result of our dialog on Jodo and what he has discovered about the 85-year old director.
Q: Where did this come from? Did you wake up one day and… There must’ve been something you had seen…
FP: I don’t know! It’s just that when you learn about the story. When you’re familiar with Jodorowsky’s films… It’s just...
Q: And you met him?
FP: No, I came from zero. I had no connection to him or to anybody in the film. This is all completely from scratch. I just came completely blank, like, let me just go in completely blind, find these people and just talk to them.
Q: With Jodorowsky, it’s beyond science fiction. He is science fiction.
FP: Yeah, he’s way… Dune takes place in the year 10,000 and something, but Jodo’s in 12 or 13,000. He’s beyond everything.
Q: How many hours did you spend with him?
FP: Hours? I mean, we spent three years with him. We shot in 2011, 2012, and 2013, going back and forth.
Q: How many years?
FP: We started filming in February 2011. So we filmed through ‘11 ‘12 and then the earlier part of ‘13 before we locked it and shipped it off to France.
Q: At least it has a finitude to it. Because a lot of people when they make documentaries, you could be there for the rest of your life.
FP: Exactly. This story has an ending, more or less. So I guess we were kind of lucky with that.
Q: When did you know to quit?
FP: When the Cannes deadline was coming up and we had to submit the film. We just made it by a good 10 minutes.
Q: So is that the final cut or do you see an extended version?
FP: This is the final cut. It has changed from Cannes because we were really racing then.
Q: Was that longer?
FP: No, it was actually a couple minutes shorter. There was a couple structural changes that we fixed and the artwork wasn’t quite there but it’s essentially the same.
Q: On one level, you’re trying to give a sense of the movie he would have made, and on another, you’re trying to give us the sense through this documentary about how this is one of the greatest movies that was never made. There’s a lot of people you weren’t able to get because a lot of them are dead from Dalí to…
FP: Yeah, that was the price. Once we started thinking, “Oh wouldn’t this be a great movie, wouldn’t this be a great documentary? How would we ever do such a thing?”
Then, oh my god, Dan O’Bannon passed away, like, “Oh shit. Oh man, that really sucks.”
Then David Carradine passed away. So it’s like, “Okay, now we need to get moving.”
We realized that if we really wanted to make this movie, we needed to get serious. These guys are not getting younger, all of us are getting older. I would’ve done something drastic to myself had I woke up and seen [Jodo’s] obituary on the cover of the New York Times.
Q: It’s hard to believe he’ll ever go.
FP: I don’t think he will. I think when he says he’s going to live to 300, he will be 300. If he wants to do it, he’s going to do it.
Q: He has amazing energy,
FP: He’s the greatest.
Q: What did you know about science fiction, fantasy and horror and this genre universe?
FP: I know like, the average… I’m not buying a case of alien figures.
Q: Obviously, you’ve read Dune. Have you’ve seen all the movies?
FP: I’ve never seen the version that ran on Syfy. Of course, I’ve seen Lynch’s Dune 10 or 15 years ago, and I didn’t want to revisit it while I was working on this. I want to think of Pink Floyd, not Toto’s music in this film. I want to think of Mick Jagger, not Sting. I want to think of Jodorowsky’s version of Dune.
Q: Really, Toto? David Lynch should have known better!
FP: But it’s not a David Lynch movie though.
Q: Yeah, they took it away from him…
FP: You line up all of Lynch’s films and like, which one is not like the others? Dune.
Q: Wouldn’t you like to get them to cut the way he really would have?
FP: I think he’s so over it, I don’t think he gives a crap, to be honest. He wants to tell his stories. People always ask too, “Do you think Jodorowsky wants to go back and make Dune?” And it’s like, no. He’s made it. He’s done. He’s created his film, and Lynch made his. Thirty years later they don’t want to go back and do it. They’re on to the next thing.
Q: What did you think about doing in terms of filling in the gap for Dalí? Did you have ideas of people you needed to reach who you did or didn’t get?
FP: I don’t like documentaries that have too many voices in them. I see so many that are 90 minutes with 90 people interviewed and I can’t follow who the hell is who. So if we can’t get Dalí we just needed to get a voice, just needed to get someone who was there at the time. And that was Amanda Lear. She was there for all these meetings, she was there the whole route. She was the perfect voice to speak on his behalf.
Q: Your film was amazing. First film that I’ve seen that compiles all these people together. The important thing is that it resonates with the science fiction that’s behind it. Because we see comic book heroes but I don’t think we see enough that really represents the science fiction of it. So anyway, you were saying something more about Dalí. Dalí and Refn. How did you pick Nicholas Winding Refn?
FP: Well, Refn we chose. Jodorowsky has christened him as his spiritual filmmaking godson. Jodorowsky considers him to be the greatest living director and they have a relationship. He’s someone that I like a lot, so let’s get someone that can speak about Jodorowsky in the present, as having a present relationship with him. That was kind of a no-brainer.
Richard Stanley was interesting choice because his experience with The Island of Dr. Moreau is so similar to Jodorowsky’s. He developed that film for a bunch of years, and after two days of shooting he was fired. They brought in John Frankenheimer to take his place, and he went off to go live in the woods, put on an animal costume, and was an extra in his own film without anyone knowing so he could watch how his dream was being destroyed. He loves Jodorowsky, he’s kind of a Jodorowsky acolyte, but without specifically stating it, he can speak to that pain, that experience, and what that must feel like.
Q: Have you read The Incal and some of the shorter… Airtight Garage…
FP: Oh, sure. Eyes of the Cat, I think is my favorite.
Q: Amazing stuff, and the artwork is just incredible. I mentioned Enki Bilal, is because Bilal is of course an heir to Moebius, stylistically.
FP: It had something to do with Giger, right?
Q: I believe so. Well, you know Enki Bilal did a movie, he did a animated digital movie. It was very early on, so it was kind of rough but it’s interesting to see. How did you decide how to animate this? There’s so many key things to this. How you structured it, deciding to animate it.
FP: It was tough. We went through many different layouts and structures behind it.
Q: Did you always know Jodorowsky had the book with all the art?
FP: I saw it a couple years ago, there was a documentary called [La constellation Jodorowsky]. It’s pretty interesting, and there’s a good three or four minute section where he talks about Dune. He pulls out that book, and I think that’s what solidified the fact that we wanted to make the movie. Like, “Wow, that really does exist. That’s the movie. That book! How do we get into that?”
The structure became, with any documentary, especially with a topic like this, with a person like Jodorowsky, there’s a million amazing anecdotes, other things we could’ve animated, and different people, and all sorts of great things. But that just kind of drags things down a little bit. The film is a clean 90 minutes. And it goes by like that, but everything leads to something else. Any bit of animation is not just like, “Hey, look at this cool thing,” but it has a purpose.
Every person interviewed has a purpose to move that story forward. Because it is a story. It starts with, “I had a dream.” He made Holy Mountain, he made the greatest movie of all time, and then [his] ambition grew.
Q: He hadn’t really read the book at the time that he decided to make the movie.
FP: Correct. He had not read the book when he decided to make it.
Q: Now, what made him think Dune?
FP: He wanted to get out of New York. He was living in New York, didn’t have any money, and was working with Allen Klein, who had produced Holy Mountain. Allen Klein wanted Alejandro to direct Story of O. Jodorowsky did not want to direct The Story of O, and he was looking for an excuse to get the hell out. He had no money, nothing to his name, got on the phone with Michel Seydoux, who had released Jodorowsky’s films in France.
Q: Is that the father of the actress Léa Seydoux?
FP: Michel’s brother is Léa Seydoux’s grandfather. So I don’t know what that makes him… He is the… Uncle, grand uncle or something.
Q: Does Michel know Luc Besson?
FP: I’m sure. Don’t all these guys in France know each other?
Q: But we were talking about how he hadn’t read [Dune]. How did he know of Dune?
FP: A friend of his said it was great. That’s how the idea popped into his head. He could’ve said Hamlet, he could’ve said Don Quixote, he could’ve said Oedipus, he could have said Romeo & Juliet. But he said Dune.
Q: And once he read it... Has he fully read it?
FP: Yeah, because he fully adapted the screenplay. He says Michel Seydoux put him in this castle for two months, and he adapted it. As he says in the movie, it’s a very dense book, the first 100 pages you don’t even know what’s going on. There’s a lot to follow.
Q: Did you know Dune before you did this as well or did you read it as you did this film?
FP: I followed the same path as Jodorowsky and did not read Dune until I was on the plane to Paris to do the first interview with Jodorowsky. I think part of me didn’t want to jinx it by reading it too far in advance, and then after awhile I [realized] I was following his methodology, that kept me in line with him. So I waited until then.
Q: And ironically, the mystical qualities of everything permeated…
FP: You need a 50-page glossary at the back. When Lynch made his movie, you went to the theater and you were given a glossary.
Q: At that point, had you seen any of his movies? When did it dawned on you to make this?
FP: I knew Jodorowsky, I knew his films, I was familiar with them. So I came to it from the Jodorowsky side of things, as opposed to the Dune side of things, originally.
Q: When you saw Jodorowsky’s films, how did you see them? Did you view them as part of a certain grand tradition?
FP: I came to Jodorowsky during the drought. During the drought when nothing was out there, you could see like, a fifth-generation VHS tape with horrible resolution. Or a Japanese laser disc, if you were lucky you had a friend who had both a laser disc player and the actual disc.
Q: Who were the biggest challenges to get? You have the Stones, you’ve got Pink Floyd…
FP: Really nobody! Everybody that we wanted, we got because they all love Jodorowsky. He was the first person I approached, and once I had him on board, everybody else fell into place because they all love him so much.
Q: Talking about the musicians you managed to get, did you try for someone from Pink Floyd?
FP: We didn’t get anybody from Pink Floyd. We were thinking about reaching out to them, but it really just didn’t work out. And the main guy from Magma was the other group. I love ‘em. They’re great. They played in Geneva last year and I missed it because I was here, I think. Down the block from my house, literally two blocks away. My wife got me a tee-shirt!
Q: Looking as normal as you look, you must be a very warped person deep down inside. Or not. Were you scared normal?
FP: I don’t know if you really have to be warped to appreciate these things. Maybe I just always stood out wherever I was. If I’m at a New York hardcore show, like which one of these guys is not like the other? That guy would be me.
Q: What turned you onto hardcore?
FP: I just love it. I love the energy of it, I love the music.
Q: Did you see the hardcore movie that Paul Rachman made that Sony released?
FP: I hated it. It’s offensive. The whole conceit is a lie, which is that hardcore died in1986. That’s not true. Maybe it died for him, but I’m living proof. It’s also just so poorly shot, half the people are sitting in front of windows, you can’t even see them, they’re just silhouettes, there’s microphones clipped on the fronts of shirts and dangling. Like, you couldn’t do this a little bit better?
The sound quality of all the live music is horrible. They’re showing old video footage with the released EP or whatever. I don’t get it. When it came out I saw posters everywhere, I was like, “What the hell is this?”
Q: You have a very interesting résumé! Which bands did you feature in your film, New York Hardcore? I used to be a music journalist so I knew everybody in there.
FP: We focused on what was happening in the summer of ‘95. So it was Madball, which is Roger from Agnostic Front’s brother, it was 25 to Life, it was Vision of Disorder, it was No Redeeming Social Value, 108 which was a hare krishna band. They were great, they were amazing.
Q: You hardly look like the hardcore movie-making type!
FP: Weird! Yeah, we had Roger from Agnostic Front, we had John from the Cro-Mags, Jimmy from Murphy’s Law.
Q: I know all those guys, I love Murphy’s Law. I guess I can see a connection between New York Hardcore and this. And what was Die Mommy Die — a horror film?
FP: You know who Charles Busch is?
Q: Oh, that’s the Charles Busch movie! I met Charles Busch, but I never really knew him.
FP: That was the Charles Busch movie.
Q: you have a gap between Die Mommy Die, you were working for other people in development and all that? Were you directing? Were you producing? TV in New York? In LA?
FP: Yeah, development, working in TV. I did a lot of crap in TV. I worked for the E! channel for way too long in LA. Then I worked for like, MTV, that kind of thing.
Q: Who released your films?
FP: Die Mommy Die was Sundance. It was their first time distributing anything and they basically buried it, because they didn’t know what the hell they were doing.
Q: How do you draw people in?
FP: I think that’s the majesty of it, the beautiful qualities of it. We made a movie where you don’t have to know or be familiar with Jodorowsky, you don’t have to be familiar with Dune, you don’t have to be a science fiction fan or anything. It’s not about his history necessarily, it’s about something else. It’s about his personality. He’s so fantastic on screen, he’s such an amazing natural storyteller.
Q: Why didn’t other people cast him?
FP: I don’t know. I found that he had an agent in Spain. He’s not Spanish, but he has an agent in Spain, which is weird. She’s an agent for him for acting, and I didn’t realize that he had acted in anybody else’s films. So I don’t know what kind of relationship they have or what she does, but that’s how I found him. I wish he would be in everything. He’s the best.
Q: Did he sign some things for you?
FP: Oh, the best story. I went to Paris to go meet with him by myself, after that we exchanged a bunch of emails, spoke on the phone, then I went back with my team. We shot for three weeks, a bunch of times with him, for Michel Seydoux, went to London for Chris, Switzerland for Giger, went back to Jodo three or four times, reunited him with Michel Seydoux, shot all that, and on the last day of shooting with him, the team and I each pulled something out for him to sign.
My other guys had him sign DVD covers or something, I pulled out this giant Incal in the slip cover, it was 500 made or a thousand made, something like that. So I had him sign that. So he takes out his pen, and goes, “What was your name again?” I was like, “Frank, my name is Frank.”
And after all this time working together, seeing my name in all those emails. Great. That’s where I belong in the universe! But he meant it so honestly, it was great. It was so hilarious, but it just crushed me. It absolutely crushed me at the time.
Q: At least it’s signed!
FP: It is, absolutely. And I didn’t know if I would ever see him again, if we’d go back.
Q: Did you bring him into New York for the premiere?
FP: He’s actually now just stopping over here because he’s going to SXSW. His film has its US premiere there. Dance of Reality. You knew everything I thought! I’ve found a crack! It’s a new film, it premiered at Cannes.
Q: So he did finish that new film he was talking about?
FP: Yeah. At the very end of Dune, we mention it. During the documentary they got back together and Michel produced Jodo’s first film in 23 years, which also stars his son Brontis, so it’s this weird thing all over again. And we premiered at Cannes together. We were both at Directors’ Fortnight, on premiere night -- we were on at seven and his was on at nine.
Q: And where is he right now?
FP: He’s in the city, we’re going to try to have dinner.
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