Interview with Henry Bromell
interview by Elias Savada, 23 February 2001

Too busy for a one-on-one interview as he breezes through Washington to visit his friends and family, Henry Bromell arrives fashionably late at the Visions Cinema in Northwest Washington DC to introduce a sold-out screening of his first feature, Panic. The film, starring William H. Macy as a hit man stuck in a mid-life crisis, is rolling into theaters here and there as quickly as the distributor's ten prints allow. Questions about his unproduced scripts (Clarksville, Revolver, Respect, Starbright, among others) go unasked. And what about his father, formerly with the C.I.A.? Racing into the lobby with his entourage on this Martin Luther King holiday, he has barely enough time, following a brief introduction by the theater-café's director of marketing Connie Poole and a gracious welcome from local critic Joe Barber (WTOP radio and WETA's Around Town), to greet the anxious crowd. His heart-felt, minute-long story, garnering affectionate nods from those gray-haired listeners who remember back to the capital's heyday as a theatrical hub for Ted and Jim Pedas' Circle Theatres—a now sadly-missed chain (later bought out by Cineplex Odeon, presently in bankruptcy)—is of a youth who had spent many "wasted hours" going to foreign films down the block at the Dupont Circle. Now he was excited to not only have made a movie, but to have it presented "back home." Bromell, an Alexandria, Virginia, native, quips about his "family values" movie before the lights dim.

An hour-and-a-half later, the filmmaker, long associated with such blue ribbon television fare as Homicide: Life on the Streets, Saint Elsewhere, Chicago Hope, and, presently serving as consulting executive producer on CBS-TV's That's Life, returns to a Q+A session, leaving a private balcony filled with area acquaintances to brave the crowd below. He's six feet tall, or thereabouts, with a salt-and-pepper beard as he walks up the aisle to schmooze a few minutes with his new fans that promise great word-of-mouth. FYI, yes, he has a wife and family, and he's just about as down-to-earth as anyone else in Washington these days. Before fielding audience queries, Joe Barber calls the director's remarkable piece of work, "the family film for the Bush generation." He offers up the first question, asking for comments about how (Washington Post critic) Stephen Hunter and (the nationally renown) Roger Ebert helped to get this film out to the public.

Warning: Some of the questions here reveal key plot points from the film Panic. Reading this piece before seeing the film might spoil the initial viewing.

Henry Bromell: Without them it wouldn't have gotten out. What happened was that the company that bought it at Sundance was, unknown to me, in the initial stages of filing for bankruptcy. The entire marketing department quit the day after they bought my film. So there I was, stuck, and no one seemed to care. I was basically thinking of ways to save this movie. Stephen had seen it the film up in Baltimore at the Maryland Film Festival, had liked it a lot, and called me to ask when it was coming out so he could review it. Hearing it was in limbo, he got out the guns and wrote that article [about the film being sold to cable]. Roger Ebert read the article and, on his show, scolded everybody. It was great. Bill Banning, who owns Roxie Releasing, which is now distributing the film, having seen the film at Sundance, then [last summer] watched Ebert on television, called up Artisan [the original purchaser] and, after a lot of bickering around, got the film.

Joe Barber: So Artisan, the Blair Witch people, didn't see what they had here?

Henry Bromell: That was my reaction. What are they, idiots? [The audience laughs in agreement.] Truthfully, it was both that they didn't know what to do with it and that they were crumbling internally. It wasn't so much planned evil as it was benign neglect. And then we saw what they did with Blair Witch 2. The first one they had nothing to do with

Joe Barber: Where did this come from, Henry? And, is your father a hit man? [This last question gets a HUGE laugh from the upstairs audience, apparently privy to untold tales of Mr. Bromell's escapades].

Henry Bromell: It's from the darkest region of father-son stuff which I have in me. I've observed a lot in life, and you don't think about this logically. As the writing went along it became an attempt, by writing it so large, at telling the ways that children are manipulated by their parents. And how those parents believe what they are doing are in the child's best interests. My hope was to find the funny, and serious, sides in this situation. And yes, it does remind me of me and my father, of a lot of my friends and their fathers. And now that I have a child, I'm aware of it in a very different kind of way. In trying to tell the story of a child who can't say no to his father, it's ironic that he can only break away only to protect his own kid.

Q: As a Washingtonian, would you ever want to make a film about the city as a place, as opposed to its stature as the seat of government?

Henry Bromell: I'm actually working on a script now about a family of strippers. [The audience roars with laughter]. Yes, you're right. It's ridiculous, but would I ever do it? You bet. Only because I know it and you write about the places you know. The people in Hollywood generally think in terms of what already exists. Washington is where the President lives. If you make a film here, it's a political thriller.

Q: Why did you feel [Bill Macy's character] had to kill his father at the end of the film?

Henry Bromell: Therapy failed. [laughter, again] I wrote this two years ago and the impulse I was following then was that Bill Macy's character is so incapable of acting on his own behalf that when he is finally able to, the only way he can do it is fifty degrees out that way. That, in a kind of literary way—which is probably a weak way—is turning the things his father taught him against his father. I'm obviously not promoting killing our fathers…most of the time. But, like the ancient Greeks, I think there's a lot to be said about telling stories in which these kinds of things happen. Because sometimes it's the only way to get at those very simple, crude, nasty things. [Attempting to liven up the audience] … Am I the only one who feels he has problems? [we liven up].

Q: Why couldn't the Bill Macy character have lived happily ever after? Why did he have to be punished for his crime at the end?

Henry Bromell: I don't remember [laughter]. I think it was just bad luck. His character can't seem to get it right. He did go out with a smile on his face, though. For two reasons: He's finally done the thing he needs to do. On a subliminal level, he's relieved to be going. I didn't look at it as punishment. Actually if I had thought of it that way I might not have done it, because I didn't want people to think I was punishing Alex [Macy's character].

Q: What was your experience like working with the actor playing Alex's son?

Henry Bromell: David Dorfman was amazing. Here's what happened. I read over 100 kids for that part and I couldn't find anyone who could do it [right]. I realized the reason was that I was originally casting for a seven-and-a-half year old. The kids all had done commercials and sitcoms, so they had learning all these terrible, terrible habits. I couldn't break any of them, so I called the casting people to look for younger talent, perhaps someone who had never acted before. I could rewrite the script down to that age level. What started as precocious seven-and-a-half year old became a precocious six-and-a-half year old. David, a bright boy with little experience, showed the naturalness I wanted. He wasn't even reading yet, so he never referred to the text in his mind, instead learning the lines from his mother. That's part of the reason you see no retreating in his eyes. In terms of how I did those bedroom scenes with him and Bill Macy, I built a tent about the size of the front of this room [approximately 10 x 20 feet]. I put the bedroom set in there, and only I, the director of photography, and the camera operator were allowed in there along with the two actors. Even the sound guys were outside. The camera was on a crane, pointing down. David never knew I was filming. I told him we were going to practice a lot. I didn't use the word rehearsal. I never said "action." I never said "cut." I just ran film. David Bill did those scenes two or three times each. The risk—or failure—of the way I chose to shoot the whole movie, is with single takes. To not cut it up a lot. The danger of that is that you have to get everything going right in one scene. If you get anything wrong, you have to start all over again. If you're shooting different angles, you can always cover with other takes. In those bedroom scenes, I had them ad lib at the beginning to loosen them up. It came natural to David. A funny little story around that ad libbing. It was going on quite a while this day and I was wondering if David had forgotten there were lines to do. I started to creep forward toward the bed and a little hand shoots up. I hear a voice, "I know what I'm doing!" [audience: huge laughter] About two seconds later he hit the line.

Henry Bromell: There's a group of us in Hollywood who get together every Tuesday. (audience laughs at the sarcastic reply) That's one of the things we decided. Out in L.A., there are prisons for people who smoke.

Joe Barber: I will tell you right now, having done a lot of radio work over the last two years, this gentleman's concern about the cigarette smoking is not uncommon. There are many people who call into radio talk shows that raise this same issue.

Q: The character of Sarah (Neve Campbell) at the beginning of the film had been very adamant about not sleeping with Alex. Why did she change her mind?

Henry Bromell: There's a scene that I shot in which Alex offers her four- million dollars [laughter, of course]. I'm not sure I know either. The characters are mysterious to me. When these two people meet, as different ends of life as they are, they each has a complete chaos or confusion going on in their lives. That's what they have in common, and they recognize that in each other. When Alex comes to Sarah and says he can't do this—this thing that they haven't done—only then did it feel that it was something she didn't want to lose. I can't point to any single healthy reason for her actions other than my sense that she really did like him.

Q: How did you assemble your cast? Every actor seems perfect for their role.

Henry Bromell: Sometimes when a writer writes a script you have actors in mind, because it helps you picture the characters. In Panic I didn't. So when someone finally said to me, "let's cast it," I went, "duh." I had to sit down and really about who would be terrific for these parts. It wasn't easy. Just conceptually. After a lot of thinking, I came up with basically these people. I think they're all my first choices.

Q: Did anyone say no after reading the script?

Henry Bromell: [slyly] Sylvester Stallone. [the obvious reaction]. I don't remember, honestly. I'm sure somebody did. It took me a while to think of the right actor for the role. I kept putting it off. There may have been one or two actors who were busy with other movies. But in the asking and then accepting, it took an amazingly short amount of time. And I couldn't pay anybody! The low budget forced me to pay the actors scale, the bare minimum that the Actors Guild allows. If I were to hire some kid three minutes out of college, he would get the same fee I paid to Donald Sutherland. No one was in the film for the money.

Q: [About his experience in television]

Henry Bromell: I've had more experience in TV than this one movie. On the other hand, I've watched a lot more movies than I have television. In a way I know more about movies than television. Working in it was very similar, in terms of the day-to-day life. The art to television—if there is an art to television—is to try to make something good very fast with relatively little money. Guess what? Same thing in making a movie. The difference is that you have longer to write it, because you're not writing for deadline. That's neither a good or bad thing, Generally, you also likely to work with better actors on a film. Certainly more experienced ones. The main difference is that you can think more visually. This movie, because of the nature of what it is and its low budget, doesn't get to utilize half the things a movie can do that television can't. Like chariots and stuff. Even within those restraints, you have the art of shooting, of lighting, that you can't do when doing something for television. It's a much more vivid canvas, a more vivid screen to play with.

Joe Barber: How long did the shoot take?

Henry Bromell: About twenty-five days.

Q: If you were making this film today, what might you do differently?

Henry Bromell:  You know I watched the film tonight for the first time in a long time, in a room with people. It's an odd experience. The answer is: I would not make this movie today. I did it. Whatever the needs were when I made it aren't there today. In terms of what I would do differently, the film as it exists is the one I wanted to make. I fought all the battles. I won all the battles. There it is. Now I look at it and I'm not sure all the battles were worth it. There's a part of me that goes, "Well, how good is that?" Is it Bertolucci? Well, it is the movie I wanted to make.

Q: What's your next film Henry? What kinds of themes and issues would you like to work out on the big screen?

Henry Bromell: Speaking of Ben Hur…. Oh, God [he moans].

Q: [mimicking the film, someone in the audience screams] Tell us how you feel!

Henry Bromell: OK. I'm currently writing two things to direct. One for HBO. One for Showtime. Both cable. The reason I'm doing that is they want to do what I wanted to do. I'll pursue those as far as they go. I'm also beginning to see a movie I've wanted to write for the [big] screen about Federico Fellini's 1956 visit to L.A. when he was collecting an Academy Award for La Strada. My notion has him sneaking out of his hotel, renting a Cadillac convertible, and, while driving down Wilshire Blvd., hitting a dog. He finds a veterinarian down the street, a striking woman. Because she is caring for the dog, she is late for an appointment, for which Fellini offers to drive her. And so forth. Chet Baker's playing his music. And the surfing world was very interesting. Somewhere in there may be a movie.

Q: Did you get final cut?

Henry Bromell:  I did, but there are bodies on the floor. There may be no such thing as director of total control—which I'm not even necessarily sure is a good thing—it would be when you have final cut. It's the Woody Allen formula. His financers agree to fund his next movie project "x." They don't know what it's called. They've never seen the script. And as long as he keeps he below whatever the budget is, say ten million, that's it. They see the movie the first time everyone in New York sees it. That's total control. God bless the man. For the rest of us mere mortals, it's a constant struggle. One of the reasons I shot the movie the way I did was to try to make it uncuttable. There's a producer who could testify to that. Because he tried.

Q: I really liked your opening. I was wondering where you shot it, how much it cost, how long it took? You started with a voice-over by Macy that you abandoned.

Henry Bromell: To be honest with you, originally there was voice-over at the end, too. Which I got rid of, even though it would have balanced the one at the beginning. The other truth is that the opening voice-over is really a prelap of the conversation he is having with John Ritter [playing the therapist]. It was shot at the Design Center, a place I've driven by hundreds of times and always wanted to shoot something in, because it has those big sheets of green and blue glass. It didn't cost a lot of money. Nothing cost a lot of money in this movie. We shot it in [facetiously] twelve minutes. Which means I had to know exactly what I wanted to do before I got there.

Q: Could you tell us about the alternate ending that you alluded to earlier?

Henry Bromell: No, no. Multiple endings. I'm making fun of myself. I have a tendency to write eight endings to everything I write. Sure enough, there are, like, eight endings to this movie. A lot of people think it should end when (Macy's character) is by the side of the pool, as the camera pulls back. Someone else could say definitely end it when Sarah is crying as Alex's son walks out the door at the therapist's office. I happen to like how I ended it.

Q: Have your parents seen this?

Henry Bromell: [after the cackling dies down] Yes, and they stagger off into the night… The last time I heard they were ok. They persuaded themselves the film was myth. In a way, they're absolutely right.

Q: Some of the camera shots look more like home movies, particularly the son's birthday party, where Alex appears in devil's costume. Can you explain?

Henry Bromell: Weird light bulbs and projectors. [after the laughter stops] Every time I see this movie I'm amazed at how different each print looks. For the life of me I can't get anyone to explain this to me. There are many, many things I saw in this print that were different from the previous one I viewed. (answering the question directly) There's nothing intentionally done. It's not that, suddenly, I was using a 16mm camera or doing something funky with the lighting. Or hand held.

Q: What was the contribution of the ACLU and Amnesty International?

Henry Bromell: [perceptively] Very good! John Ritter wears in his lapel the pin of the aforementioned organizations. In the end credits, I didn't write that thank you thing. I was a little taken aback, too. Anyway, they are great groups.

Q: Were you every thinking of "Guns don't kill. People kill."?

Henry Bromell: To be completely honest, not while I was writing it. Afterwards I did, yeah. I do agree that people do the killing. On the other hand, I know for a fact, as we all do, that if you don't have old guns around, not as much killing gets done. Simple as that.

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