You Can't Feel so Comfy 
A Conversation with Keith Gordon
feature by
Cynthia Fuchs , 24 March 2000

Writer-producer-director Keith Gordon looks like a stereotypical film geek. He's not very tall, wears baggy slacks and glasses and touseled hair, and he becomes physically animated when he talks about movies. But Gordon is more genuine than that, he's unpredictable, funny, and self-reflective. And, he's one of the more congenial people you're likely to meet in this business, so spending an hour with him in a hotel room is actually a pleasure. 

A former actor (John Carpenter's Christine and Brian De Palma's Dressed to Kill), Gordon is now best known for making provocative, non-mainstream movies based on emotionally intricate novels, for instance, The Chocolate War, A Midnight Clear, and Mother Night. We're talking about his new film, Waking the Dead, based on Scott (Endless Love) Spencer's novel, and starring Billy Crudup as Fielding Pierce, a 1970s political idealist turned 80s pragmatist politician, but haunted by memories of his girlfriend, activist Sarah Williams (Jennifer Connelly), killed by a car bomb in 1974.

We began by talking about history.

Cynthia Fuchs: What was it like working with De Palma when you were so young?

Keith Gordon: Working with De Palma was a major education. And I did it twice, on Dressed to Kill and Home Movie, [the last of ] which was made entirely by film students. Brian was teaching a class at Sarah Lawrence on how to make an independent film, and they decided to make one, funded by Brian and other directors, like Lucas and Scorsese. The actors -- including me -- were professionals and Brian was Brian, but the whole crew was students. And it was the world's best film class for me, as an actor and an aspiring director. So I got to go through this master class without even enrolling in film school: they were paying me!

CF: So you knew early on that you wanted to make movies?

KG: Yeah, I knew I loved movies and the idea of being a filmmaker. I was seven when my dad took me to 2001. It wasn't only that I could understand it: I understood that I didn't understand it, and it hooked me. I made him take me back like five times, and it amazed me, fascinated me, and scared me. It started my love of movies, a particular kind of movies, that asked questions and made me think, and that became my taste. When I moved into teenage time, I found myself loving directors like Kubrick or Fellini or Scorsese. It's kind of sad to me now, that if you make a movie that asks or doesn't answer questions, people go, "That's weird, that's an indie film." When I was a kid, The Conversation was just a film.

CF: You grew up in New York?

KG: Right. And acting was sort of a fluke. My parents were in the theater, but they hadn't done much in the way of film. And I was in a school play, then auditioned for a professional play, and then someone asked me to audition for a movie and I got that. All of a sudden I had this acting career. I was very lucky: I know enough people who are more talented than me who haven't had those breaks, and people who are less talented who've had bigger breaks. It's a very arbitrary, Las Vegas-y business: you're rolling dice and if they come up the right, then great.

CF: Do you think about audiences for your films, whom they might attract?

KG: The producer part of me does, but only, hopefully, when the film is done. Certainly when I'm in the creative process, the last thing I want to think about is, "Who's going to like this?" Because then you put chains on yourself and start making bad choices based on what people are going to think, which, in my experience, you're always wrong about anyway. But then when the thing is done, I think it's my job as a producer to watch and see how audiences react and how to tailor the marketing.

CF: Waking the Dead could have been structured in a more conventional way, which might have been easier to market.

KG: The structure reflects Scott's book, a mosaic or a jigsaw puzzle, which is part of what I liked about it immediately. It mirrors what Fielding's going through, trying to piece together reality so it makes sense. I also liked the way it used the '70s and the '80s to comment on each other, and the difference between the sense of idealism and possibility and that sense of coldness and greed. When I wrote my script at first, some ten years ago, it was at Warner Bros., and they said, "Well, can you put this in chronological order, can you give it a happy ending, can you take the politics out of it, can you make Sarah more easy and likable because people don't like a woman with strong politics? And can we get Tom Cruise and make it for $70 million?" So when that all didn't happen, the film had a chance to have a new life, but it took years! And only when Jodie [Foster, of Egg Productions] came on, did we get it made.

CF: What attracts you to material?

KG: It's a gut thing first, like falling in love; it's chemical. There's some visceral thing. I read Scott's book on an airplane, going away from the woman who was then my girlfriend and who's now my wife, and there was some kismet about what was going on with me and what I read and it brought me to tears. And I can go back and come up with intellectual rationalizations later, for interviews, but it got me first on a gut level. That's what I like about film as a medium: it's visceral.

CF: As a filmmaker, are you thinking about how to solicit that visceral reaction?

KG: Not to oversimplify, but I often think it's bullshit when directors say, "Well, I knew this shot would have this effect." I suspect I'm not at all alone when I say that a lot of those things come from instinct. When I read that book, certain images came up for me, like the long white hallway, with all the Sarahs coming at Fielding. I work from a shot list, and I could look back and say, the '80s scenes are framing themselves in my head as formal and cold, without a lot of camera movement, like his life -- constipated, hard, and the light is blue and wintery; and the '70s have a warmth and the camera's moving. Then I amplify that: I can put more filtration on the 70s, and soften things, and in the '80s take all the filters off the camera. I do the same thing with my actors. We do a lot of improvisation. There's an intellectual component, but you have to let the inspiration come first. Sometimes while we were working to develop a rapport and ease, they were also being actors who wanted to be respectful of the words, so they'd continue to say their lines. And I'd say, "It's not Shakespeare: throw it out."

CF: That suggests you have a lot of confidence.

KG: It's a confidence we developed together, after rehearsing for three weeks: we all trusted one another. And I've done enough now that I am confident that it'll be better if I do that than if I don't. It may be scary, but it's going to be bad if I don't, if I try to be a dictator. For a more experimental film that might be okay, but for a film that's based on naturalistic behavior, the life is the most important thing.

CF: Part of that naturalistic behavior seems to be confusion, as the characters try to distinguish between the two decades' ideals, or between compromise and corruption: do you see the film commenting on today's political scenes?

KG: I like films that deal with the recent past, because I think that's how we get to where we are now. Most films deal with the distant past or the immediate present. Part of what is that this was the time when I grew up, a kid in the '60s and into the '70s, and I thought I was coming into a certain kind of world. As scary as the Vietnam War was, I felt like there was tremendous potential for change, a potential for individuals to have an effect on the world. By the time I came of age, in the late '70s into the early '80s, the world had become a very different place, the Reagan Era: make a lot of money and get the Porsche and screw everything else. I felt like,"Where did the Sarahs go and why was the world only populated by the Dark Sides of Fieldings, and why did Bobby Kennedy turn into Bill Clinton?" Now, though. I see glimmers of other ideas trying to poke their heads through.

CF: You're an optimist?

KG: I'm kind of a short-term cynic and long term optimist. I think that over time things can change for the better. That's why those two decades were important to me, as they represent something of great value that's been lost. Maybe from that something new can be born. I am somewhat Hegelian, thesis-antithesis-synthesis: maybe that's really the story. There is a certain pragmatism that the '60s lacked and that's part of why it fragmented into individual movements instead of working together. Of course, the FBI being in the middle of it didn't help either. But the bigger questions -- "How do you make a world work?" -- were lost, and that turned people cynical. Ultimately, a combination of open-heartedness and pragmatism is the only thing that can work. That is sort of what Fielding's journey is about: the most important thing he says is at the end, "I've done some good, less than I hoped but more than I feared." That's all we can hope for in life: I believe in ripple effects.

CF: You take your audience on Fielding's journey through a subjective perspective.

KG: Right, and it's a complicated process. It's casting very carefully [actors] who have complexity as actors as well as human beings. That's why I like having a Janet McTeer or Molly Parker, even in a small part. You want to represent a lot of different perspectives, equally valid realities. And there are film techniques that allow you to play with perspective, to force an audience into the position of someone who's going through a bit of a nervous breakdown, with jumps in time, fades to white, and the dissolves and jump-cutting. They all put you in a place where you can't feel so comfy as in a standard Hollywood movie. But it's a tricky thing: when you want an audience to go through a dissociative experience but not disassociate from the characters, it's about balance. I worked closely with my director of photography [Tom Richmond] and production designer [Zoe Sakellaropoulo] to create that balance.

CF: You like collaborating more than not?

KG: I do, and I love when someone brings something to the set. Like Tom [Richmond] is really into punk rock and he brings music: for this film, he brought Joni Mitchell's song, which we eventually used in the film. It's also why I like working in Montreal, because even though they're unionized, it's more of an art-film sensibility, it's not like the American union, where they're like, "I lift this thing only." There, everybody does everything, and the second assistant director isn't afraid to come over and say, "Have you thought about putting the camera there?"

CF: The Joni Mitchell song -- "A Case of You" -- is so haunting, more obsessive than romantic.

KG: I'm glad you said that, because most people don't think that, but that song is both sides to me. The lyrics on a literal level are so obsessive, but it's so beautiful. That's my experience of what it means to be in love with somebody:   it's scary, it's dangerous, it's the edge of obsessive.

CF: Were you always so open to multiple emotional experiences or points of view?

KG: Part of that is who I am, and my parents were very political, so yeah. But I think my life has changed me. Being in love with a woman for 12 years has changed me. I was a nice guy, but I wasn't very spiritual, I didn't see the miraculousness of life. I was very driven, and life was about becoming immortal through your art.  Now I'm more like, "Well, no matter what I create, 10,000 years from now it will have no meaning."

CF: So you've seen a transformation in your work?

KG: Oh yes, I wouldn't have been drawn to this story earlier in my career; I would have seen it as too sappy or too emotional. I would have thought the ending was too optimistic before.

CF: Have you thought about writing original material?

KG: It's not my strength. I think I'm a really good adapter and editor.

CF: What do you think makes that?

KG: An ability to be fairly clear about what's at the core of something, and being hard-hearted with myself or the material if it's not necessary. I'm pretty vicious in the editing room, with material that's not feeding the story.

CF: Do you see yourself as having a specific style as a director?

KG: I see trends. I see myself drawn to characters in moral quagmires, to the ways that our very efforts to do right are often what trip us up. I'm drawn to a complexity of story, however that expresses itself. But I also think I'm too early in my career to know what may emerge. I'm probably never going to be John Woo, that's pretty clear. Right now I'm working on an out-and-out comedy, but it still has a social conscience. I hope that I never have that neat a stamp.

Read Cynthia Fuch's review.  Copyright 1996-2005 by Nitrate Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.