Interview: Keith Gordon

Feb 2004.
KP Issue XXXI: Top That!

So, here it is. It's finally happened. The website-about-Keith-Gordon-that's-not-really-about-Keith-Gordon finally has an interview with Keith Gordon. The former teen star of ALL THAT JAZZDRESSED TO KILLCHRISTINETHE LEGEND OF BILLIE JEAN, and BACK TO SCHOOL, has moved behind the camera to direct movies like THE CHOCOLATE WARA MIDNIGHT CLEARWAKING THE DEAD, and most recently, THE SINGING DETECTIVE.

Next up is BILLY DEAD with Ethan Hawke, and for this film, the two have put a spin on film finance. Money is being raised through an initial public offering (IP0); they've offered 900,000 shares of preferred stock of Billy Dead, Inc.--a move which may be genius, and may be risky. Gordon says:

If it doesn't work, we get the project back after 180 days and then we go on and go back to the usual dragging it around and trying to get the usual kind of money. But I think it's very exciting. If it works, man, it's going to be a magical new way to make independent movies.

kittenpants: So now how long has it been, and how has it been going? Magical?
keith gordon:
 It's going well, although, frustratingly, I'm not supposed to do interviews right now about the financial side. We're in what's called the 'quiet period' of the IPO, and under government regulations I'm supposed to shut up about that side of things in the press for right now.

I can talk about how much I love the project, how much I'm looking forward to working with Ethan again, and all that kind of stuff.

kp: How does it compare to fundraising for The Chocolate War?
 The Chocolate War was the easiest of all my films to get made. Spoiled me for life. A couple of meetings with Jonathan Krane of M.C.E.G., and I was making a film. If only it was always like that.

kp: So you didn't sell chocolates?
 I did sell Chocolates in grade school, but not yet to make a film. But I'll try anything!

By the way, it looks like 'Chocolate War' will finally be out on DVD late this year. At least that's what MGM says.

kp: What else can you tell us about Billy Dead? Have you begun casting?
 Well, no one else is 'set', but Jennifer Connolly has read the script and is interested in playing the other lead. It would be a great stretch for her. I haven't approached anyone about the other roles yet. Those two are so much the core of the film.

kp: Tell me about the difference of working with an actor as a fellow actor, and then as a director. I'm thinking particularly of Robert Downey Jr., but I guess Wally Ward is another example. (And technically Nick Nolte, although I had to watch "I Love Trouble" 3 times before I saw you. That was difficult.)
 First, I am very, very sorry if you watched 'I Love Trouble' three times.

kp: Not as sorry as I am.
 To be honest, I've never watched the whole thing once. I only took that job so I could get close enough to Nolte to give him the MOTHER NIGHT script. And it actually worked!

It's always nicer working with someone you've worked with before, whether as an actor or as a director. You know each other, you're comfortable. When you don't know each other, there is that awkward 'first date' feeling that can last quite a while. Actors can often be defensive with directors (with reason!), so it's great if you can start from a place where the actor knows you're not a jerk professionally and personally.

kp: You don't have to name names, but have you ever worked with anyone who was so difficult that you will never work with him/her again?
 Oh, yeah. Hard to do so much without that happening. But only a few. Actually, when I'm casting, I take personality and reputation into account. If someone has a bad habit of making everyone around them miserable, I won't cast them. Period. Life's too short, and making a movie's too hard. I've passed up chances to get projects made when it became clear a star actor would make the process a nightmare.

kp: Is there anyone you really hope to work with?
 The list would be a mile long, but right off the top of my head: Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson, Ian Holm, Ben Kingsley, Anthony Hopkins, Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, etc. etc. Probably 50 names I could put on that list. Not to mention people I'd love to work with again; Ed Harris, Billy Crudup, Ethan Hawke (obviously), Jennifer Connolly (ditto), Nick Nolte, Michael Caine, etc. etc. (and if anyone reads this and feels left out, get over it! I just wasn't going to sit here and write down every name of everyone I've liked working with. This is just a representitive sampling!)

kp: I think you overestimate the number of celebrities who read kittenpants. Thanks! Also, please put Billy Crudup in every movie. Not just your movies - he should be in all movies. He's really fantastic.
 And SUCH a nice guy! Everyone on the set was in love with either him or Jennifer or both.

kp: Tell us a Bob Fosse story!
 Well, Fosse was famous for playing with actors' minds to get them into a certain emotional state. I think that's what he was doing with me at one point. I was 17, and not very sexually experienced. So there I was being molested on camera by the three actresses playing the strippers, one of whom was actually a man, and another who was drunk and kept telling me how she wanted to fuck me when we were done. Creepy, and not the least bit sexy.

And then Fosse comes over and says to me, "It would be great if you could really get hard. It would look more real."

Well, that was the LAST thing that was going to happen, so I felt like a total failure as an actor and as a man. Looking back, I realize that was exactly what he was going for--getting that panic in my face. Not the nicest trick, but it probably worked.

kp: Do you still speak with Brian DePalma?
 Haven't talked to him in a while. We had lunch at the Montreal Film Festival a few years back.

kp: How much of an influence is he?
 He was a very big influence. Not just some of how he worked, but I knew nothing about the technical side of film before working with Brian. I learned a lot about 'film-grammar' just being around him. But I also liked the way he worked with actors. Very often, after we'd have a 'print' take, he'd say, "Let's try one more, more angry (or funny, or sad, or whatever)."

It really was freeing as an actor, because you didn't feel like you had one shot at it. He always printed two or three very different takes. That made for actors feeling more brave. If one approach to something sucked, no biggie.

kp: What other filmmakers influence you?
 Well, Stanley Kubrick was probably the biggest single influence. '2001' is what got me interested in films and filmmaking.

kp: How did you feel about Eyes Wide Shut?
 I loved 'Eyes Wide Shut', although I think it was an unfinished film. Kubrick was so famous for editing and changing right up to the last moment. '2001', and 'The Shining' both had scenes cut by Kubrick AFTER their opening weekends. So, when he died before the post-production process was finished, it meant that we probably didn't get close to what would have been his final version. But it still had more ideas; visually, thematically, etc. than just about any 5 other films made that year put together.

kp: I think of people like Kubrick and Scorsese and Robert Altman and John Cassavettes as superheroes--like they don't exist on the same plane as the rest of us. But then, I also think Space Camp is a good movie.
 You may be right. There is a short list of geniuses who operate on their own level. They re-define an art form, instead of just doing well at it. Van Gogh, Beethoven, The Beatles, Frank Lloyd Wright. I don't think one can aspire to that. That's beyond just talent or hard work in the regular sense. If you're blessed (or cursed - a lot of these were not happy people) enough to be one of them, then that's who you are.

But all the film-makers I grew up on in the 70s and 80s influenced me; Scorsese, Fellini, Truffaut, Bob Fosse, Sidney Lumet, Alan Pakula, Nick Roeg, just to name a few. As for film-makers now, I'm less 'influenced', since my way of seeing the world is more formed and my own, but I admire Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, Alexander Payne, The Cohen Brothers and a number of others.

kp: Okay, now tell me your guilty pleasures. What's the movie that you watch every time it comes on TV, that won't be on AFI's 100 Greatest list.
 Believe it or not you're the second person to ask me that this week! I don't have a great answer, because A) There's not much I can imagine being ashamed of watching, and B) There are very few movies I watch "every time it comes on TV."

The only ones I go back to are ones I love, and I don't see any of them as guilty pleasures--even if someone else might. I've certainly enjoyed my share of dopey, sleazy, or socially unredeeming movies ­ from "Die Hard" to "Grand Prix" to "Behind the Green Door" to "Animal House", but I can't think of any that fill me with shame to admit, or any I've gone back to see repeatedly again.

kp: Any general advice for me in regard to film festivals?
 God, I've had so many great times at festivals. The chance to see so much interesting work by different people is always exciting. I often like smaller festivals better - less press, less pressure, less competitive vibe. Sundance has become a market instead of a festival. Telluride is really nice. I had a great time at Aspen. Montreal is maybe the most interesting North American festival - they get so many films from all over the world - things you'd never see otherwise. Toronto has great audiences, and is really well run.

kp: JAWS II made me want to be a teenager. What did it make you want to do?
 It made me want to STOP being a teenager! I was the youngest of all the actors playing "the kids". The rest were all over 20. I was 16. So they were all having affairs, partying, living the wild life on location. And I was everyone's "kid brother.

Then one of the actresses would come to me at 2am to cry, because one of the guys had dumped them, but then laugh when I suggested myself as a possible replacement. I spent that whole film trying, unsucessfully, to lose my virginity. Ick.

kp: Did you make out with Donna Wilkes?
 Yeah, for about 2 minutes one night. We'd sit around and she'd ask me about acting (I had done theater in New York, so I guess it seemed like I knew what I was talking about.) One night I kissed her. She kissed back. It was nice.

kp: Sometimes the most beautiful girls are the loneliest.
 I thought it was the start of something. It wasn't. She quickly moved on to one of the 'grown-up' guys. Sigh...

kp: Most of your movies are adaptated from novels; I imagine that you read non stop. What are you reading currently?
 Actually, I don't read novels all that much. Mostly too busy working, and there's always a pile of scripts to read. Most of the books I've made into films were specifically suggested to me by someone else - usually a producer. I did just read a very powerful novel called 'Famine' by Todd Komarnicki. One of the first books I've read in a while that wasn't because someone said - 'we want to make a film of this.'

kp: Who are some of your favorite authors?
 Well I grew up on 'literate sci-fi': Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov. Certainly Kurt Vonnegut is way up there, as is the man I consider his spiritual grandfather, Mark Twain. I still love Robert Cormier. Haruki Murikami is really interesting. I just read his book 'Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World'. Wonderfully trippy.

kp: What is your favorite Kurt Vonnegut book?
 Probably 'Breakfast of Champions'. I can barely think of the last line without getting tears in my eyes. But I love a lot of them.

kp: What is the first record you ever bought?
 "Paperback Writer/Rain" by the Beatles (45 rpm). "The Beatles' 2nd Album" (LP)

kp: What was the first concert you ever attended?
 The Kinks, at a free concert on Central Park.

kp: Are you still a Yaz fan?
 Well, yeah, in the sense that if I put on their albums I still enjoy them. I don't play them as often now...

kp: Can you dance?
 Not well enough to do in public. Another pathetic white boy...

kp: Bud Cort: Awesome? Not awesome? Super-awesome? Please assign a label to the degree of his awesomeness.
 Awesome. Didn't get to know him well enough or spend enough time around him to assign him Super-awesome, although he might deserve it.

kp: Do you think you'd ever make Back to School 2: Graduate School?
 I guess I could play a teacher. I'm a little long in the tooth to play a grad student.

kp: What about Back to School 3: Ph-3D?
 Now THAT I'd pay to see. Rodney's eyes bulging out right into the audience's lap!

kp: Will there be a DVD release of Combat High? With deleted scenes? Please say yes.
 NOT IF I CAN HELP IT!!! Actually, it's not all that bad. But no idea if there's any DVD planned. I think it's on DVD in the UK, which I find very, very strange. I don't think there were many deleted scenes, but my memory has faded with old age.

kp: Do you think you'll take up acting again, in a major role, or in a project that you don't direct or produce?
 If somebody offers me something good - sure. I just don't have the time or energy to chase it. I'd love to be Sean Penn, and have great directors say, "Hey, do you want to come do this great part in my movie? We'll pay you a lot, and work around your schedule." But for me, it would mean going back to multiple auditions and call backs, and being willing to put my directing and writing projects on hold at a moment's notice.

kp: What if it's a buddy cop movie?
 Ummmm, probably not.

kp: What if it's MY buddy cop movie?
 Now that's a whole different story.

kp: You can be the "wacky coroner". Or the "wacky crime scene photographer". You have your choice of roles, wacky or unwacky.
 How about letting me be the "wacky killer"? Nothing more cathartic than playing a good, creepy heavy.

kp: I have been fantasy-casting my imaginary Jeremy Piven/Michael Jeter buddy cop movie. But then Michael Jeter passed away. Who would you suggest to take his place opposite Piven as the perfect buddy cop?
 Ian Holm?

kp: Ha ha ha! Excellent suggestion. But, no.

What's it like to have an entire web-magazine dedicated to you which essentially has nothing to do with you at all?
 Very surreal, a great honor, and you'll be hearing from my lawyers.

kp: Do you have any questions for kittenpants?
 So many, but to start, the name?

kp: Yes, that is the most popular question...

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