Robinson Devor has only one movie to his name. Nonetheless, heís already got a colorful history. The New York-native attended college at Southern Methodist University in Texas, and currently resides in Los Angeles. Still, filmmaking holds a special place in his heart.
The director in him came out when I started shooting photos of him. He was at the Fine Arts Theater in Kansas City promoting his freshman effort, The Woman Chaser, and I thought it would be fun to snap a picture of him standing next to a poster of the flick. From the viewfinder of my camera, it was obvious the picture was going to look staged and dull. He immediately told me to shoot him at a low angle outside the building so that both he and the marquee of the theater would be in the same shot.
He then guided me into the theater, where he browsed through the videotapes and gravitated toward the film noir section. His eyes lit up as he pointed out Jules Dassinís Naked City, so itís not too surprising that The Woman Chaser demonstrates a heavy noir influence. Devor based his movie on Charles Willefordís (Miami Blues) 1960 pulp novel and even filmed it in black-and-white. It stars Seinfeldís Patrick Warburton as Richard Hudson, a shady used car salesman who decides to give meaning to his life by making a movie called The Man Who Got Away. The fate of The Man Who Got Away provides much of the bleak humor that runs through Devorís film. The Woman Chaser is so far coming to a happier fate. Itís received glowing reviews and won the Audience Award at the South-by-Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas.
Dan Lybarger: Youíve been travelling a lot lately to promote the film, but havenít you been travelling most of your life?
Robinson Devor: Iíd like to think I've been a few places. I lived in Amsterdam and Africa for a year. Iíd like to think that those are two good places to get a different kind of experience.
DL: What did you do in Africa?
RD: I was working for one of the largest indigenous African banking interests. They were a conglomerate that had interests in agriculture, and they had dairy farms. We were just doing the advertising for a smart card [an ATM/debit card that can do itís own data processing] they were implementing. [Smart card use] is starting to go global. Theyíre starting to say now that in the year 2002, all welfare will be done by smart card chips which will have fingerprints, addresses, and bank information. Itís pretty amazing.
DL: You shot The Woman Chaser mostly during the weekends. What did you do during the rest of the week?
RD: I was putting on a suit and tie. I was a vice president at a PR firm. I was handling everything from Wiskas cat food to a woman who was running for Lieutenant Governor of California. It was a wide range of media relations. It was mostly talking to the press and getting [my clientsí] faces on TV.
I was very proud of the fact that I never let on that I was working on a film, because in LA everybody talks about that and says, ďIím getting my screenplay sold next week.Ē I was quiet about it because I was confident it would take off.
DL: Many of the times the stories about how independent films like this one get made are as interesting as the movies themselves, like some of the stories Iíve read about Orson Welles in the Fifties, are really fascinating.
RD: You hear about these guys who can cajole and through the force of their personality get the commitment and the money. Iíve got a lot of things to learn, but I hope that I donít have to go to the extremes that these great talents went through. You hear about that, and you think, ĎJeez, one of these days, Iím just going to have to force my way into the door instead of being invited.í You have to do what youíve got to do. Itís like originally in The Trial, Welles used an abandoned hospital or subway, and it all happened by happenstance. I hear you have to be open to all those happy accidents.
DL: I had a terrible time trying to find Charles Willefordís book of The Woman Chaser. Where did you discover it?
RD: I went to a bookstore in Redondo Beach in the South Bay. It really wasnít a bookstore. It was called, ďThe Silver Door.Ē I was looking for used bookstores, and I think I was looking through the Yellow Pages when I was staying down at the beach. I saw this ad for mystery books. So I go into this residential neighborhood, and thereís little house with a silver door. This couple [who owned it] were set designers for Hollywood movies from the Forties on. Their entire home, wall-to-wall, had mystery and crime novels in every room of their house, out of print stuff, hardcover stuff, amazing stuff. It was a gold mine for somebody looking for an undiscovered classic that you might want to adapt. I went through it a couple of times and bought a bunch of books. And I found this Willeford book, not the original, but the reprinted one that they had. The funny thing was that it was great pleasure in getting a book called The Woman Chaser and then reading it and seeing that there was nothing in it that had anything to do with what you thought the book was about.
Many people have asked me, Why did you keep The Woman Chaser title?Ē I think the pulp publishers knew what they were doing when they changed the title [Willeford originally dubbed his book, The Director]. Itís unfortunate because Willeford was a brilliant guy, and as an artist he should have had the right to have his title.
DL: You have this morally repulsive character for your lead, but heís endlessly fascinating. Why do you think we can put up with a slimeball like Richard Hudson?
RD: I donít think heís just a slimeball. Whatís fascinating about Hudson is the breadth of his exposure to the arts. This blue collar sociopath as this erudite guy who knows The Miraculous Mandarin by heart is this astounding character. Iíd never seen that sort of melding of a tough guy pulp immoral character who has a passion for the arts. Thatís the kind of person I want to hang around with and listen to.
DL: You wouldnít want to buy a car from him, though.
RD: [laughing] No, you wouldnít.
DL: Youíve had to do a lot of the same negotiations that he does in the movie, but youíre working with a better story than he was.
RD: I still believe that itís a great film that he was pitching. My tastes run to something absurd and dark, so I like The Man who Got away. If anybody could hand you any material in the world, Iíd take Willeford over almost anybody to try and make something interesting.
DL: Had you followed much of Willefordís work?
RD: No. This whole project was a learning experience. Iíd picked up a book of his called The Way We Die Now. It was one of his later books. A year and a half later in L.A, I pick [The Woman Chaser] up, and I didnít put the two together. When I thought back about how much I enjoyed this Hoke Mosely novel [The Way We Die Now], the humor got me. The Hoke Mosely book had more heart because heís a detective whoís very kind to his stepdaughters, but there was that dark sexual humor. On the lines that stuck with me was, ďI jerked off gloomily in the shower.Ē I just thought that was a great line. I donít know why [bursts into laughter].
DL: The supporting players in The Woman Chaser look nothing like the people you usually see in Hollywood movies. Emily Newman, who plays Hudsonís secretary Laura, is very attractive, but she doesnít have that anorexic look that so many actresses have today.
RD: To me the ultimate failure in a lot of movies-- and a lot of people will agree with me -- is that a lot of the actors look like theyíre in the 90s or 2000. Theyíre just too good-looking; theyíre just too coifed. Their bodies are just too cut, and there are no flaws. Thatís not the kind of look people had in the past, and itís not appropriate for this project.
My formula for this when I was casting -- God love the actors; theyíre wonderful, attractive people as contemporary human beings -- ,but I wanted Hudson to be this kind of normal looking guy surrounded by these grotesques. I wanted to stack the deck and to make his bullying almost more of a mismatch. I wanted to make Leo [Hudsonís stepfather] so unaggressive and so unthreatening that when he ultimately betrays Richard, itís very absurd. Itís difficult to find somebody. A lot of people would come in, and theyíd be character actors playing [Leo] like a wacky intellectual. This non-actor was a very down-to-earth sweet guy. He was a real person. He allowed us to film him in unflattering ways. There were very few self-conscious actors on the set, which was great.
DL: Warburton really carries this movie. Heís in almost every scene and often seems to be supporting the other actors.
RD: Thatís one way to look at it. Heís got a lot of stuff emotionally and in the plot. Itís a great dominant role, and he did really well in it. I donít have any problem saying that he carries it at all.
DL: How did you get him?
RD: Patrick was sent in very unassumingly and not with a lot of fanfare from our casting agent. This is the real story, by the way. In those days I was trying to go after a an actor who meant something in terms of money. I was going after Jason Patric, whom I like as an actor, so I went to his manager who didnít help us at all. Eventually after a year and a half of trying to get Jason Patric, so Patrick [Warburton] was the next level who would be a great person to have in it. Patrick came in, and, as you can see in him, he has a little of John Wayne in him at times. He came in and did this opening scene where he buys the car lot and did it like John Wayne. I thought it was hysterical but totally wrong. He came back four times to work with me on the role. I knew that we would never get anyone closer with physique and comic delivery than this guy, but it did take us a while to wipe away all the mannerisms and to break him down into a guy who just cared about people.
DL: It never occurs to Richard Hudson that heís ruining peopleís lives right and left.
RD: He doesnít look at [people] as if heís a bird of prey. He looks at it as if heís assisting people. He looks at what he does as the logical thing to do. Thereís no kind of moral universe heíll have to find himself on one side or the other.
DL: In some ways, the way youíve been promoting this little film: youíve been a type of salesman.
RD: [Laughs] I see where this is going with this. Actually, this is the first trip [to Kansas City] Iíve made all by myself. Usually we have the star and the producer along for comic relief. I think itís important when you donít have money and the distributors donít have money for advertising you have to get out and meet people and be part of the filmís release.
DL: Tim Burton insisted on shooting Ed Wood using black-and-white film stock, whereas you shot The Woman Chaser in color stock so that you could have both color and black-and-white prints. Is there a difference?
RD: Black-and-white has been a big problem with us in distribution, and all I can say is our cinematographers lit for black-and-white while shooting in color. Some of our cinematographers did not light for black-and-white knowing we were going to print in color. It was a real problem for me because I would say this is going to be projected in black-and-white, and I know secretly they were protecting it because they thought it was going to be shot in color. Until I got my sea legs to say this is not the way itís going to be, it was kind of a fight to keep the black-and-white lighting.
DL: The black-and-white does help establish the period. What else did you do in that regard?
RD: I had to find locations that I didnít have to add anything or take anything away from. We found a house a house that had lots of old furniture, so that was pretty incredible. The secret was to spend a little money on locations that had flavor of the period.
The mise-en-scŤne was very contained. There were a lot of close-ups, which was appropriate for the period. I wanted the faces to be the stars. When youíre in tight, you donít have to see a lot of the set. There are a lot of close-ups that ask what the world is around us, and the black-and-white helps mask a lot of things, too. There things in color that would make you think thereís a tinge of the twenty-firstcentury.
DL: The movie appears to be a tricky sell, but you are making an impact with it.
RD: I guess the numbers are a factor, and I was glad that people in LA did go and see it. We ended our first week today [July 28], and we did $17,000 in one week. That was one screen. We didnít have any money for advertising or anything like that. It was critical [reviews] and word of mouth. That was a nice vindication because thatís in our backyard. I donít know if itíll mean that somebody will swoop down and decide to put money behind it for wider distribution.
Iíd hate to look at this project as a calling card because itís not. Itís a Willeford book, and thatís what itís about, bringing it to the screen. I do have a few people who thought it was funny and were at least interested in seeing if they could do something with what I come up with next.
Click here to read Dan Lybarger's review.