Investigating Alan Rudolph
interview by Paula Nechak, 14 September 2001

There's a fountain in Seattle's luxury Four Seasons Hotel Garden Court that's an unwitting metaphor.

It emits an illusion of pretty wilderness within which to eat one's salad, crab cakes or drink a martini but it's an expensive false front, a facade, not dissimilar to the movie business and it's shift from storytelling, industry and art to a present preoccupation with money, demographics and the mundane.

The Garden Court isn't open for dining right now but there is plenty of storytelling, industry talk and maybe art, going on. Alan Rudolph, the director, has agreed to meet me there - and he's not thrilled with the state of things in film today or it's deteriorating, corrupt cousin, film criticism - not especially when it tinges upon his own movies.

Rudolph, the son of director Oscar Rudolph and prime protege of Robert Altman, maverick of that overused phrase, independent cinema, is distraught and understandably so; Hollywood keeps trying to sell us a carelessly manufactured, factory-churned, teen-age premature ejaculation of product. Think Firestone Tires on film.

Though Altman has found a critical voice for his ensemble pieces and enjoyed a renaissance of late through such varied efforts as Short Cuts, Dr. T and the Women, Cookie's Fortune and great buzz on the upcoming Gosford Park, Rudolph, a director of darkly ambitious mood pieces like dusky-bluesy Remember My Name, neon Choose Me, post-coital Afterglow, Parisienne The Moderns and that The New-Yorker-iconography spun around Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, continues to struggle for his place in the sun (never mind that for a long period of time Altman was anathema to critical acclaim and audience as well).

Rudolph makes European movies about cities and architecture, arbitration, ideology and idealism as well as the complicated eternal struggle between men and women, and when he's accessible - tiptoeing comedically over love - he's lightly applauded; but when he delves under the surface for deeper meaning, he's pooh-poohed by the journalists and movie-goers who haven't got time or a clue, much less understanding for the mysterious, potent potion that makes a movie.

Rudolph is really here because he's upset over the distribution of his latest film, Investigating Sex. In fact he's trying to buy it back from the overseas company that holds its rights in order to oversee its release and prevent it from going to straight-to-video purgatory. After the knee-jerk reactions to his last two movies, Trixie, and an adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions, in which Bruce Willis was not embraced by audiences because he was playing a complicated character outside of his usual action hero oeuvre, Rudolph has a right to be nervous.

Investigating Sex feels Viennese (it's set in pre-Depression America) in essence and sensibility; it's Freudian and arty and is rife with two things Americans despise: sex and communication. In fact Rudolph says he strived to make the movie "high-minded but low-brow" for that very reason. He even acknowledged to actor (and the film's executive producer) Nick Nolte, "This is a dangerous movie for me because it confirms everyone's worst suspicions about me." But like it or not, Investigating Sex is at least about something as it comedically watches a professor and his rich underwriter investigate sex with a select group of men and how the dynamic changes when two young women stenographers are introduced to record the conversations. The end result strives for thought without blowing a single building or body to bits and eschews a current trend for mind-numbing revisionist history and cheap thrills. It stars, besides Nolte, Dermot Mulroney, Alan Cumming, Neve Campbell, Robin Tunney, Tuesday Weld and Til Schweiger - a dream cast by anyone's standards, but truth is, no matter who's in his movie Rudolph is unmarketable to the young Turk movie executives who don't get him and can't fathom how to sell one of his films to a pre-adult mall multiplex patron.

I tell him that there is a parallel between his career and a line in Investigating Sex. In the film a character says, "The search for objective truth requires certain sacrifices." Rudolph begins to laugh, saying, "I wrote my own obituary yet again!"

But he has a list full of less frivolous, real concerns. After all, many of our "of a certain age" directors are reaching out to cable in order to be able to make the films they want to make; Mike Nichols, Mark Rydell, Norman Jewison and John Frankenheimer have all made films for the small screen recently but it's an area that Rudolph says he "doesn't know much about."

"I'm a one trick pony and I've only made feature films, mostly on my terms, but it's been a trade-off," he mulls. "I think I'm going to make a sign that says 'good work at reasonable prices' because it's scary [right now]. Twenty-five years ago my first legit film, Welcome to L.A., was made and at that time there was no cable, no cassettes or CDs, no art houses other than foreign film houses, no indie cinema and no internet or internet cinema, no digital, no anything. Robert Altman produced that film and he took it to New York and United Artists said, 'We wouldn't have a clue how to sell this, you guys can have it back.'"

"We released it ourselves and at a time when such things didn't happen we forged through. Now twenty-five years later I find myself in the same situation. I made a film that must be so out of step that people are either saying, 'I don't know what this is' or 'It's got too much dialogue.' So history repeats itself."

Unfortunately, the film's first betrayer was, as Rudolph calls it, "the enemy inside our shell." Using a European distributor, who was at first supportive through the first cut of the film, Rudolph found the tide turned when they "found out if it had been a porno movie they could have sold it quicker so they treated the film with such disdain and carelessness, like moving a piece of china with a bulldozer, that it turned out to be a terrible situation."

"There were no screenings or anything until Darryl (Macdonald, director of The Seattle International Film Festival) called about the festival and we decided to show it up here," he tells me.

"I don't say this from bitterness," he reminds, "But I think this business of movies has changed in the last year and a half. Once the only goal we tried to reach was our own particular truth and the integrity of film in order to be humbled by it instead of being arrogant and to try and do things differently. Altman used to say, 'How can people wait in line to see pictures they've already basically seen? Why are they so afraid of what they haven't seen?' I find the mystery of film, the essence of it must be indestructible because it's been under attack for a hundred years and never more so than now."

Some of the problem, he surmises, is the new "independent cinema" and what it does - or does not - truly represent. "When the independent label came up I knew it was dangerous, as are labels," he cautions. "I know the spirit behind it but in fact, what it's allowed is too much success and it has finally imploded."

"Indie distributors are owned by the majors, though they pretend they're not, or they posture as indie or have no money whatsoever. The best and worst thing that happened recently was Sony Pictures Classics got the Ang Lee film (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and it was such an enormous success that that's what they all want."

So why did it all change, Rudolph wonders; when was it that an audience, critics and distributors could no longer surrender to the screen? "When did it happen and why does everybody have a certain agenda, or, if it's not like something else or it unfolds on its own terms it's not right, it's not a good thing?" he asks.

Despite his predominant worry, he's still cautiously optimistic that things will change. "I think the apple cart is primed to be turned over, though I have no illusions about my place. I'm just some guy connecting the dots. If you go back and look at all the films I've made, they were either with a company just starting out or the last film a company made before it went under." He laughs and then reassesses the state of things with gravity.

"Never has there been more encouragement to make films, what with digital and whatnot, and yet there have never been so many snake oil salesmen out there. Right now the cutting visual edge in filmmaking has never been so close to the comic book. I mean, what is the difference between a Guy Ritchie film, a Sprite commercial, a Dogme 95 movie or an MTV something? They all look the same, not that it's bad - it's very thrilling - but that's where the energy has gone, that's where the thought has gone." And, concludes Rudolph with a kind of practiced wisdom that separates him from the need for speed, expensive special effects and pat storylines, "it's not all that hard to do visually. What's hard is to try to not do that and to do something else entirely."  Copyright 1996-2005 by Nitrate Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.