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Boseman & Taylor (Photo by B. Balfour)
Though by no means a perfect film or conventional biopic, the recently released Get On Up wrangles with the complicated life of one of pop music’s pioneers and enduring legends: James Brown, the GodFather of Soul.
If any artist deserves biopic immortalization, it’s the ultimate funkmeister, the late James Brown. When he died On Christmas Day 2006 of congestive heart failure, the 73-year-old star had built a musical legacy both historically and stylistically, defining a whole style of music and dancing as well as having gained — and lost — a financial and professional empire.
The kaleidoscopic nature of the Get On Up press conference offered a look into the making of this film, not unlike the film itself. Held at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, it illustrated the ups and downs in Brown’s life story with the same energy and drive that Brown himself had.
While the film suffers from a variety of limitations — some possibly imposed by Brown’s family — director/producer Tate Taylor (The Help) uses a challenging screenplay by the brother duo of Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth to envision the life of Brown as a tale of determination at the expense of all else.
Employing a touch of madness, Brown takes control of his life and career in this drama with such manic force that he has affected many generations beyond his own life. Instead of a more accurate version of Brown’s life, warts and all, this film glosses over or compresses actual events and incidents into a structure that serves Taylor’s rendition of this mythic figure.
Attending this press conference were the uncanny star of 42, Chadwick Boseman, who plays Brown, and Nelsan Ellis, who plays his best friend and long-suffering second, Bobbie Byrd. Also on the podium: Dan Aykroyd, who plays his mentor/manager Ben Bart, as well as Oscar-winning actress Octavia Spencer, who plays the madam who was the young Brown’s early supporter.
Rolling Stones founding member Mick Jagger (one of the film’s producers), director Tate Taylor and veteran producer Brian Grazer were also on hand answering questions.
Q: You were involved in this film for a long time. What was it like to prepare the movie, to partner with Mick Jagger on it and finally get it to work?
Brian Grazer: Working with Mick Jagger is one of the greatest thrills of my life.
I read about James Brown about 16 years ago, and I thought it would be amazing to make a movie about James Brown. I transitioned from that point to convincing James that I should make his life story into a movie, and then I owned the rights for about 12 years.
During those years I would have to renew the rights, let James Brown direct me, hire different screenwriters, once upon a time a different director. But it was a long, tedious, arduous process, and when James Brown died, I lost the rights and then they became even further complicated.
Mick and I knew each other before, but a year later he had an opportunity to read the script, and ended up with the rights. [We decided] we would do [this film] together and it's been a fantastic process.
Mick Jagger: Sounds rather arduous. It was much easier for me than Brian. Brian did all this work in the long distant past, and obviously it was very complex. It was much simpler for me because I was asked by a business associate and friend if I would make a documentary about James Brown and I said,“Let me think about that.”
I woke up in the morning and said, “Let’s do a feature" and he said, “What a good idea" but of course, being Hollywood, there already was a feature — there’s always a feature. Whatever you can think of, there's always a feature about it. Then I learned of the script and I learned of Brian's previous involvement, so that's the short version of how I got involved.
Actually, in Hollywood terms, from the beginning of my involvement to this point of having the premiere of the movie on August 1st, it's been a relatively short time. Brian had done all this hard work in the beginning, but since we started the second part of the journey, it's been really quick in Hollywood terms.
Q: Could you explain exactly what you did — were you involved in casting?
MJ: We had this project and had this script, which is really quite a good script. But we inevitably were going to leave the script alone. So we talked about how we could make it better, more relevant, more exciting.
Then Brian and I had to convince the studio that this was a movie that should be made. This is one of the difficult parts. Before you can start casting people, you have to know the studio will give you the money.
So after we had successfully done that, Brian and I talked about casting. We were very pleased to get Tate on board very quickly, and he was very enthusiastic. You never go quite as fast as you want, so it really helps to have someone like Tate who really wants to get going.
We talked about casting all the different roles, and I had the first say in these things, but we were all involved in these areas. It was a very good experience.
Q: Since James had an entrepreneurial spirit, what business that he had created surprised you?
Chadwick Boseman: The most surprising venture was the James Brown Food Stand. I don't know if you all know about that one. It was part of him wanting to recycle money within the black community before it goes outside of the community — to build. It actually was a genius idea. It obviously is not still around, but that was the thing that was the most surprising for me.
Dan Aykroyd: I would say nothing that James did entrepreneurially would surprise me. He was so broad-ranging in terms of his understanding of business, how to handle people, how to handle money, how to balance a book, how to make a tour more profitable than any other artist, and he extended it into the radio stations and the merchandising. He just got it, and he got it from a very early age.
Q: Octavia, your character was one of the few people in James' life who really stood by him and believed in him when he was a kid. Did you channel anyone in your life to get into that character, and why did you want to tell this story?
Octavia Spencer: There was very little channeling that needed to take place in order to understand what she was providing for him.
James Brown was definitely a music icon, and for those of us who are barely forty — that would be all of us — there was so much about the man in front of the music that I realized with the whole idea about him, I knew so little about him as a person. We know how the story ends, but perhaps not how it began and maybe a little bit of the middle.
I was really intrigued by that and the fact that you have this icon in Mick Jagger, this icon in Brian Grazer, and the genius of Tate Taylor; I really had to muscle my way in there.
Q: Mick can you recall when you learned of James Brown, and how that influenced you as a performer?
MJ: My recall of it is about 50 years ago and it’s not perfect. Will you forgive me? But it was a very exciting show.
James Brown was at the Underneath The Stars Festival, but there were many people at the show that were interesting to me for the first time. I'd never met Marvin Gaye before, for instance. I got the opportunity to chat with him. There [were] a lot of us on the show. It was a pretty crazy day.
I'd seen James Brown before one time, at the Apollo, and James was a bit annoyed about not being the last on the show. I was the only one that met him before, of all the people working on the show, including the producers of the show. I have no idea who they were.
I was the fall guy, because I was like 20 or something, so they said, “You go talk to him, you know him, you go call him out." And when you're 20, you say, “Sure.” Now it’s “That’s not my job, that's your job.”
Of course it didn't work. It might have somewhat assuaged him, but it played out and it was what it was. He did this amazing performance and we went on after, but in the end I don't think it really mattered. We had to work harder, and he worked harder, and maybe it was a better show because of it.
Q: How do you go on after James Brown? Did it influence your stage performance?
MJ: He influenced me a lot. Amongst a lot of other people, he influenced me in lots of ways. I could never do the dance routines like James, and I never spent the time and effort that Chad had to do to do the fantastic job that he does in this movie, because I didn't want to be an imitator of that.
But the thing about him that impressed me, as with other people that I was influenced by at the time -- Little Richard being the other one, who is in this movie as well -- was how to interact with an audience, the most important thing.
I’m sure that Chad got some of that into making this movie because James was all about interacting with the audience. It wasn't just your performance, it's about their performance too. It's about how they perform and they react and you react to them, the interplay between the both of you.
Q: What were the challenges in portraying James Brown?
CB: The entire thing was a challenge. When I looked at the role, the reason I was a bit… I was scared, there was no part of it that was just straightforward, easy, like, “you’ve done that before.”
A lot of people will say, “Where you're from, South Carolina” — but [I'm] from the low country of South Carolina, and it’s different. It's just not the same thing. I’ve spent quite a bit of time out of South Carolina.
We went down to Augusta to meet the family, and it’s pretty much on the border between Georgia and South Carolina. I stayed there a little bit longer, and just drove around, saw the family and soaked up as much of it as I could before we started. This was right before we started.
There was no part that was easy. Sixty percent of my fear was from the dancing. 30% of it was the caricatures that have been projected of him, and trying to get past what people think they know. But I don't think there was any easy part [even the other 10%].
Q: Tate, how was it reuniting with Viola Davis, who was Oscar-nominated for her work in your film The Help.
Tate Taylor: It's always a joy to work with Viola and I'll sum it up this way:
When Viola comes to work and there's a certain scene that you know she's going to do, you notice that people in the production office happen to be on the set that day — the accountants, the Teamsters, for some reason they are all walking around and it's a little more crowded. Then she starts to work and it's much like live theatre. Everyone just watches.
I am so fortunate to have her trust and to be able to work with her, because she really is a treasure, one of the greatest actresses on the planet. So to get her in anything I can do is a sheer joyous, joyous bonus.
Q: And Chadwick, what was it like working with Viola, especially in the very powerful scene where James meets his mother?
CB: I’ve worked with her more than once. It was exactly what he said. Once we started the scene, I wasn't thinking, "Viola's in it" or anything like that. It was such an intense scene for me. It felt like she had set up our relationship — she didn't talk to me.
We had a meeting the night before when the scene was being revamped because we both had problems with it. That scene changed. When we were in that meeting, Viola never really talked with me, she only talked with Tate. I assumed that she didn't want to build a personal relationship, she wanted that distance to be there — and it was, when she stepped into the room.
I knew it was over when she took that drink and she gulped it down and I was like “Oh my gosh!" I never really got up. We shot her side in the footage of me standing in that scene first, and then once I sat down, I don't think I got up for six hours.
They brought my lunch to me and I was still sitting in that same seat. They turned the cameras around and shot my side, because I didn’t want to leave the energy and tension that was being built between us. It was a very, very intense moment of filming.
Q: One great thing about the film is that it has a broad swath of James Brown songs, a lot of the best there is. We all have a memory of a James Brown song that affected us or when we had the experience of hearing him or seeing him live. Can you all talk about a song or songs that you remember or an experience of hearing James Brown and how it first hit you or affected you?
OS: I remember being on 22nd and Lehigh Avenue, and someone was playing, "I'm Black and I'm Proud.” I can't remember how old I was, but I'm pretty sure I was not out of [kids] school. What I remember, a guy was at the stop light and the music was blaring, and I remember something in me stood a little bit higher. I puffed my chest out at that song. That was the first James Brown feeling that I really remember.
Nelsan Ellis: "I'm Black and I'm Proud".
CB: Mine is the same, actually. I think that would be it. I'll always remember James Brown playing, being part of the soundtrack of my life. But if I had to pick one, it would be "I'm Black and I'm Proud".
TT: For me it's one song that brings up a memory. Primarily it was my mother's. She was a single mom and she loved James Brown and he was on her record player a lot. As a child it shaped me.
When we started filming the movie, she brought me all of her James Brown records. I had forgotten that she used to play them. They had her maiden name and her dorm room at her college on them, where it said, "Please return to this room."
And it made me think about her challenges, and James's challenges, and it was kind of cool that she listened to his music. She never said that was the reason, but I wanted to use all of them for that reason.
Q: Mick, do you have one?
MJ: The "Live at the Apollo" album was my real introduction to James Brown. I loved every tune and knew them all backwards -- all the intros, the segues, the instrumental segues. What was odd, though, was I had never actually seen him perform, but I had imagined the whole thing in my head, so I played his record to death.
Actually when we were prepping the movie, Chad and I played the very long track called "Lost Someone" where he interacts with the audience on that. That brought it back to the first time I ever played it.
CB: I had that song on Repeat for days, just listening to it over and over. I would leave it on in the crib and come back and it would still be on, because I wanted to walk in and have that playing while we were shooting this movie. There's something about it...
MJ: There's something about it — it’s so emotional, and also you can hear all the audience interaction. It's such a great [number].
BG: When I was in high school I was in a low-rider car club [laughs]. I'd plug in the 8-track, and literally it was the Rolling Stones, Little Anthony and the Imperials, and James Brown. And James Brown's "It's a Man's World" I loved and it resonated [with me]. It had that reverb sound and it would go on and on and on. So I loved that, and I loved "I'm Black and I'm Proud.”
Jill Scott: Well, I'm a child of the '70s and we were a James Brown household. But what really resonates with me is the stuff of the '90s — “Living in America". I love all of the early stuff, but what I like is that his music transcended age groups, and he was able to stay relevant throughout. So those are my two for right now.
DA: I'm a little older than the kids, so we can really get down to it. 1968, Montreal, Canada. The building is gone now, it's called the Esquire Show-Mar. You sat at the bar and the performers would dance along the bar. So during his performance, when Chet Daniel drops the cape on James Brown in "Please Please Please” — [it breaks your heart] — that was a seminal moment for my six friends and me.
We squeezed into one of my friends' mother's Mustang and came down from Ottawa to see the show. There was James Brown's boot heel this far from our beers, dancing up and down the Show-Mar. With a full band, yet they had to pack them on this small stage, the horns, the rhythm — everybody in the band saw early on that I loved them.
Q: What was it about your characters and performances that will stay with you for the rest of your career?
CB: First off, I had to try to get rid of James Brown after each shot. I had to. That was a process that I found I would have to keep. I think there's definitely the responsibility to yourself to be the best that you can be, and the responsibility to your fans that follow you. There's a certain quality that I think he always felt that you should have to pay to see him. I wouldn't take it that far.
If you were seeing his show, he would get his hair done again before he came out because he felt like you should feel like you're seeing "James Brown". He didn't put a cap on like we do today and try to get out before people can catch you. He wanted you to have that experience of seeing him in all his glory.
And there's something to be said for that. It's not just you performing onstage or onscreen, it is a connection that you want to make with people. Before, I would probably be that person who would put on a cap and leave. But I do feel like I can take a bit of that away in some other things.
DA: I would say that I took with me the wisdom, advice, gentle urgings and the bandwidth tuning of our terrific director. I'm going to remember how he directed me in this movie and it's going to help me with maybe lesser talents as I go forward.
OS: I would second that. I would also say that every job is different, every group of people, every character is different, but your process is usually the same once you learn how to do it. You have to make sure that you do the work to ground the person in reality so that you aren't building some sort of caricature or the performance doesn't ring hollow.
You have to connect to the piece, and you can't play your character then judge in some way. So when I read that I ran a brothel, I thought, “Great” because back in 1950, what were her choices? So I thought, “What a great enterprising young woman”, and I was happy to play her.
JS: I really would watch people and get to know their idiosyncrasies. My mother was in an abusive relationship early in her life, and she took us away from that. I couldn't quite understand why she stayed. I have been able to learn some things about that particular kind of woman -- the level of love.
Someone would easily say it's foolishness to stay with someone who is abusive to you. But what I learned about DeeDee is that there is a love that's greater, wider and more powerful than anything I as yet understand in this life, and I will always take that with me. I will always take that with me.
Do I want to be in an abusive relationship? Of course not! But I understand it better as I go on in this life, absolutely. And DeeDee still loved James. Period. I think I do, too.
NE: I'm kind of schizophrenic in that I take a little piece of every character I’ve played whether I like him or not. I take him — or her — with me. I also think you can't judge the person you play, so I learn from the humanity of the people I play, especially the individual character in mind.
Q: How much did you know about Bobby Byrd when the script came to you and how did you prepare for the role?
NE: I knew nothing about Bobby Byrd before the script. I didn't know who Bobby was or that he even existed, so I had to do a search to find out who he was. Man, I fell in love with the dude and I'm very proud to have played him.
Q: You have Bobby Byrd, PeeWee and all the other members of the band -- but why was there no Fred Wesley? Were there legalities or what?
TT: There was. With a story as vast as James Brown, his whole life and the people involved in his life, it's a frustrating embarrassment of riches of all the people that you wish to have in your film.
There was actually a scene where we met Fred Wesley. But unlike a novel, [where] you can have a 700-page book, you can't have a seven-hour movie, and we had to make tough choices.
What really reigned supreme for me and the story is protecting what we didn't know about James, and where an audience could learn versus what they knew. It was hard at times, but we were following that guideline the choices of what we kept in became pretty easy.
Q: Chadwick, Nelsan, and Dan, throughout the movie you demonstrate great chemistry in your friendships. What do you attribute that to?
NE: Mr. Boseman is a great actor, and he's such a generous actor so it was easy to [act] with him.
CB: It's my first time working with either of them. I've been a fan of Nelsan for years. I watched him in True Blood and in roles in movies, so I already knew it was going to be a good chemistry. He seemed to work from a place that was so truthful, and I felt like once we got over the dance rehearsals, there was like [rapport] because we were both feeling similar pain. We went through a hell together.
Dan Aykroyd is a legend, so it was a pleasure to have him on this movie because of the enthusiasm he brought to it and also because he knew James Brown. He was super-cool off set as well. And when I was onscreen with him, it was the most fun. I had so much fun working with him.
I definitely felt like this was an interesting relationship that James Brown had with Ben Bart -- “Pop.” I remember reading in the autobiographies and biographies that he called this white man “Pop.” And the more I read about it, the more I understood the friendship. There was a friendship, and there was a mentorship that Pop had for him. It was easy to have that with Dan because he gave so much.
DA: He’s straight-up lying because he's an ace of an actor. He's a great actor. You get on the set and you're in it together. You're an actor, you face yourself, you're there with the director, in a common environment of creativity, and you just do the work.
It's not hard to love Chad here, for this and of course, for his past work. He did an incredible job in 42, another breakthrough movie about what we should be thinking about in this country at all times.
And he's an enormously lovable and extremely talented man, and my affection in real life for him I think translates in the movie. I think you can see it, because Pop really gave his all for James Brown and they had a really great friendship.
MJ: This is a bit more than a generic biopic, really. So it stands out from that genre a little more. I don't think it's really got anything to do with social networking or being online or being on Twitter or anything else. Either you are compelled by this movie or not.
And I find this movie is compelling, telling the story of this guy, a story of adversity, telling a story of how he's being single-minded, how he's almost obsessed with making himself into somebody from nothing, and the price he has to pay for that. There's always a price to pay for this one single-minded drive to be somebody, and you pay for that in some way. I think this movie shows the price you pay for it.
This is a compelling story. It could have been a fictional story. You could have written it as a fictional piece. The fact that it's about someone who is no longer alive obviously makes it more interesting, but it's the compelling nature of the story.
Q: What do you feel is James Brown's enduring legacy in the music world?
MJ: As someone said earlier, people from all different backgrounds and all different age groups, they all love him. So he's obviously of interest to a lot of people. You would say that he's the most sampled, free, hip-hop artist and all these things. He is all those things.
His actual recordings are still loved and they are still played on the dance floor in various forms or another, wherever you go, and all these different people from all over the world -- all different countries, all different groups, all different cultures -- they all know him.
I've been on tours where we have actually played a James Brown song. Other pop bands you’d think wouldn't relate to James Brown, but they all know that music. They can play those numbers. It's all part of musical history. So if you want to be a musician, this is part of the canon, you have to know this. If you don't know this, you're not complete.
For musicians, and for dancers alike, he's made this huge lasting contribution which goes on. And hopefully, I think, this movie does his legacy justice.
TT: I can't speak the language of music. I get a little embarrassed when people ask me specific questions about notes and bars and downbeats. It's just not in my head. But what I loved, that Chad and I discovered when we went to speak with his daughters -- and this is reflected in the Cold Sweat rehearsal -- is that they said, "Daddy didn't talk music. He didn't read music."
I don't think he ever tried to. He spoke about music from what feels good, and he would explain emotionally to his band. He would utter sounds and say, “Do this, do that.”
And that's really cool. It came from the heart and a feeling, and he may not have had a profound way to articulate it or say it in ways that big musicians would understand, but he made it accessible to me. It made me realize that everybody can do something, they have a right to do something, if they feel it.
DA: As far as connecting with this generation and the next generation, once this movie comes out, it's going to be on iTunes, people are going to be emailing each other YouTube clips of dancing and singing from the movie. You're going to have young people really connecting to this and sending each other their favorite clips.
I think this next generation will really get it about James Brown and I hope this next generation comes out the door, puts their laptops and texting aside and come and spends an hour and a half with us in the theater.
To see The actual James Brown on film see this series as outlined in our preview.
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...
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