Behold our first guest interview of 2013:
Jim Laczkowski from Director’s Club interviews Martin Donovan as part of AV’s coverage of “Collaborator”. If you’re interested in hearing an audio version of the interview, it should be coming up on a Director’s Club podcast in the next few weeks.
The AV Interview #1616
conducted by Jim Laczkowski
On a personal note, I have to say that I’ve admired your work for quite some time. It will great to know more about how your career has evolved into working now as a director. But I can distinctly remember falling in love with independent film which I attribute to renting Hal Hartley’s TRUST from a local videostore way back in 1994, and to this day it remains one of my all-time favorite movies for a number of reasons.
MD: That’s very nice to say that. You’re not alone in that category in terms of people who were really impacted by Hal’s movies. A lot of people tell me that.
I’m glad it’s finally getting the proper DVD and Blu-Ray release. It’s about time.
MD: Yeah me too, I’m very excited.
I’m assuming that working with the wide variety of filmmakers you’ve worked with has influenced you. Everyone from Hal Hartley, Christopher Nolan, Don Roos, Jane Campion. So how did working with other directors as an actor informed how you directed?
MD: It’s hard to pin that down. Part of the problem is as an actor in particular if you’re in a lead role or any role really, you’re so completely absorbed with what you’re doing. I was fascinated by Hal, but often my curiosity was easily peaked to all aspects of the film-making process. I like watching what the crew is doing. Lighting fascinates me. It’s hard for me to pin down who influenced me more. Obviously I spent time with Hal more than anyone else. And it’s no question that his style is very very distinct. And he is in his own category in terms of style. I would say that Hal’s rigor and his precision had a huge impact on me. And it really carried me going forward as an actor. The upside was I felt like I could do anything with precision and understanding that film-making can be a very precise kind of dance if you will. What happened in the last few years is that everything has loosened up considerably. The handheld make it up as we go along-style shooting tends to dominate. Over the years, when I started working with other directors, I came onto the set asking, “Where do you want me to be?” And they would say “Do what you want to do, we’ll follow you.” What I learned was driven by character motivation, and from that, all other things that followed. I had to lose that working with Hal, but I had to gain that back working with other directors. Some are very precise, and some are not precise at all. It’s a mixed bag, and there are pros and cons to both styles. Generally speaking, I tend to lean towards films that are really plotted through and have a sense of what they’re trying to achieve visually. They absorb the script and they know as much as they can know about the actors, and the direction they feel comfortable going. I like it when there’s a strong hand directing. When I’m giving boundaries, it gives one freedom and it liberates you. When there are no boundaries, it’s much harder to make a choice. But when given boundaries, then you know what to do, and then you can make decisions and I think it makes for better work.
When you work with a filmmaker with a strong vision and a sense of confidence and control behind the camera, I’m sure that has to help you as an actor and make you feel comfortable as well.
MD: Hal knew what he was doing on all levels. He was never a director shooting someone else’s script.
So what made you step out of your comfort zone sorta-speak, and get behind the camera to tell this particular story?
MD: I wanted to make a film in any way I could. It just emerged in this form, impossible to say why. There were various choices I made, and there were things I had been pondering since my childhood. I didn’t understand it when I was young. In my own personal journey, I wanted to untangle this idea of what is our responsibility as citizens and social animals? What is our relationship to society? What is the personal vs the political? What is the thing called politics? I grew up in very impassioned household, with lots of heated discussions, and I was a kid in the 60s. In my house, things were argued over. The Vietnam War, civil rights, gay rights, feminism, all these things were hashed out and argued over. I don’t shy away from that, and I believe that it’s important and a manifestation of what I feel is important. Trying to understand about getting at reality. What is real and what is going on? What is the nature of power? Where is it concentrated? Why is my life prescribed to this particular area? What is the nature of freedom? It really is at the core of what I’m trying to express, and trying to discover as an actor. So for this film, I put these two guys in a room who dance around this fundamental issue and it actually explodes. That issue for me is the tip of the iceberg along with a lot of huge issues about our lives. War and peace and power. All the sociological and political aspects to that. I tried to make it funny, intense, and compelling as I could as well.
I responded to it on a political level, but it came across to me as very existential and as a morality play. It reminded me of a Polanski film or a Harold Pinter play, in which you put two individuals in a room with a stage-like presentation and precision, and have them have conflicting ideologies. And it’s a really great choice to translate to film. Sometimes people can say that this kind of story can be simplified to the stage, but you managed to also make it cinematic. That really stood out to me. Was it easy to translate that in your head to visualize and make it cinematic. What was your approach and process to achieve that?
MD: First of all, I’m deeply flattered by the comparison to Pinter and Polanski. And because I came from Hal, and learned how much simplicity and precision and rigor with the camera is brought to the table, and is an art form in of itself. Having a plan with all of his films, in terms of the script, ideas and themes, in terms of what he’s working out. The camera is never intrusive. It’s never in your face, or focusing on the cameraman’s virtuosity. We’re sucked in to a world that’s very much facilitated by the choices he makes visually and rigorous about it. It’s not an empty virtuosity and not in your face by any means. I really had a deep immersion in the possibility of economy. Since the early 90s, the fashion has been handheld, no lighting, and let’s shoot a bunch of shit and we’ll cut cut cut cut, and the audience will get nauseous and call that endearing cinema. 99% of the time it’s complete bullshit and without a purpose. Television has also turned into a nauseating cliche. That’s not to say there are not master filmmakers who utilize those limitations and techniques so I don’t want to generalize, but I do have preferences. Anyway, I came to this feeling like I have to have a plan with a solid script, characters and story and performances to capture what this is about. Not how much I can be dazzling with my camera moves, so I consciously made a decision to make the camerawork very simple. People want to be slapped upside the head with the camera and many have lost what films should be and can be about. Also, because this was my first film and I was the lead, I didn’t want to mess with too much camerawork. But I was definitely prepared since I had a lot of storyboards and specific things in mind. I wanted the mood and tone, and get the camera inside the heads of people so I feel the tension in the characters and stay out of the way otherwise.
It must be a joy to work with great characters like David Morse and Olivia Williams. They each have a vulnerability and intensity, depending on the scene. They’re also actors I’ve long-since admired. I must imagine working with a claustrophobic setting, you have to be comfortable with the actor you’re working off of. You also chose an actor that is very easy to empathize with, and so there’s no risk of writing him off as a one-dimensional villain as the story goes along.
MD: I always thought Gus was a complex guy, and deserves our sympathy. There were some actors I considered that I felt could’ve brought too much menace to the part. I really felt early on sensed that David was a guy that could do both. He could bring the potential for explosive violence and you knew he was capable of it, but he also has this childlike quality about him. He was my dream Gus. Olivia has grace and style and is a damn good actress. I would just give her a quick note, and she would take off, and she was amazing to work with. 90% of it is casting as they say.
I really think you did a remarkable job with this film. It worked for me, and it’s a great character study all around and was compelling from start to finish. I’m excited to see where you go from here as a director. Do you have anything in mind for your next project?
MD: I’m working on things and researching some stuff, I have two tracks going. I have a very passionate desire to do it again, and hope it doesn’t take 40 years next time to make my next movie.
You’ll always have a lifelong fan in me, Martin. Thank you, and I really appreciate you taking the time and I wish you nothing but continued success and all the best.
MD: Thank you, James.