When Neil LaBute made his feature directorial debut with In the Company of Men, many viewers mistook his protagonist Chad's misogynist diatribes for LaBute's own beliefs. While Roger Dodger features a similarly articulate and mean-spirited central character named Roger Swanson (Campbell Scott), no one will accuse him of being a mouthpiece for his creator, writer-director Dylan Kidd. Roger's imposing and arrogant manner is a marked contrast to Kidd's more unassuming demeanor.
Roger Dodger is Kidd's first feature, but he's getting recognition for his film that most veterans would envy. The tale about a sixteen-year-old named Nick (Jesse Eisenberg) who makes the mistake of consulting his bitter, lecherous uncle for tips on wooing women, has earned the filmmaker three awards at this year's Venice Film Festival. A film instructor, Kidd graduated from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts and won awards for his 1997 short film Ian's Ghost. He also directed a commercial titled Evolution, which earned him a "Best Spot You May Never See" from Shoot magazine.
Kidd was in Kansas City to promote the film as part of FilmFest KC. Despite the fact that he was able to recruit Scott and other name performers like Isabella Rossellini, Jennifer Beals and Elizabeth Berkley for his low-budget film, Kidd takes the acclaim and the criticism in stride. When he looks at a photo I've taken of him, he comments, "I stopped reading my press ever since I was described as a 'roundish fellow.' As least I look like I'm not Sidney Greenstreet." For the record, Kidd is a balding red-haired man of moderate proportions and of substantial talent.
Dan Lybarger: Did you ever work in advertising?
Dylan Kidd: I did not. I have some friends in advertising, so I drew on them a little bit for reference. I have not ever worked in advertising.
DL: I read that you had actually directed an ad that won an award.
DK: At some point I was trying to get some commercial directing work, so I spent my own money and did a spec spot, and it got mentioned in Shoot Magazine, an industry trade paper. But that did absolutely nothing for my commercial career [laughs]. It's just sort of a bizarre little offshoot.
DL: How do you explain your scenes to actors?
DK: I think that all you can do as a director is to express as clearly as you can what the meat of the scene is. I think that a lot directors picture themselves as intimately crafting each little moment with the actors.
Obviously, I was on the set with people who had done fifty movies apiece. So for me it was much more this is where the audience needs to be, and this is what the scene's about. Really, you're just sort of there for morale, and you try to create an atmosphere where they feel like they can take a chance, and if they screw up, it's not a big deal.
I really feel the director's biggest role is to set the vibe on the set. Most of the notes I would give the actors between takes would be "Let's not repeat ourselves. What can we do that's different? You basically build the performance in the editing. Like a lot of first time directors, I had expected there would be this perfect take. "Oh, we got it. Great." And then in the editing room, you'd always use take threes, but you get good moments in all of [the takes], so you just cut and paste. By the end of the shoot, I'd walk up to the actor and say "We need to do one more for safety. What haven't we done yet?"
DL: How did you assemble the cast?
DK: The story was that it was blind luck in that as you guys all know the industry is set up so that it's very difficult for untested writers and directors to get scripts into the hands of name actors. So my producing partner, Anne Chaisson, and I spent six months last year trying to do this. We had a couple of actors in mind for Roger, and we just hit that firewall of agents and managers. We were making slow progress: the no money no actor and no actor no money Catch-22.
Out of desperation I started carrying the script around with me and ran into a couple of actors, and they were very polite, but they said, "I can't accept unsolicited material. You'll have to talk to my agent." I knew that was just sending it into the void.
One day I walked into a coffee shop I'd never been in before in my life, and Campbell Scott walked in five minutes later. Of course, I had a copy of the script with me because I'd been practically sleeping with it for the past three weeks. I went up to Campbell and was fully expecting to get the usual speech. The universe had sent me to the one guy who runs his career a little bit differently. He read it and said he'd call me back in two weeks. I never thought I'd hear from him again, but he called back and said he liked it. He wondered if I was interested in directing it. I said [I] was. I showed him a short film I'd done. We met, and he came on board.
Not only is he the lead in the film, but he's one of the executive producers. I think sometimes when I see an actor or actress get an executive producer credit, I think it's a sham/vanity credit. Campbell earned that credit by bringing us Jennifer Beals, Elizabeth Berkley and getting us to our money people.
It was amazing. In one week we went from not being able to get anyone to return our phone calls -- being one of 10,000 people in New York who have a script and a dream -- to me sitting with Campbell going, 'Who do you want for Sophie?' I had my stupid list of everyone I wanted to work with, and it turns out that Jennifer Beals was my first choice before I even met Campbell. I thought this is unrealistic because Jennifer Beals would be my first choice. "Oh, Jenny. I'll call her no problem. What about for Joyce?" I'd say, "We'd need somebody big like in the realm of an Isabella Rossellini." "He'd say, 'What about Isabella? I've worked with her." It was something I was hoping he'd say [laughs].
It was like Alice in Wonderland. I met Campbell in July; we were shooting in October. In three months, it was insane.
DL: What about the kid, Jesse Eisenberg?
DK: He's in another film in the festival, The Emperor's Club. Jesse's about to hit big. When I was first writing the script, I was keeping a wish list in my computer as a motivational tool, so if I saw a movie and I liked the way the art director or the costume design was, I'd write a name down in case I had a choice of anybody to work with. Then I saw Jesse in a promo for a Fox show called Get Real a couple of years ago. I jotted the name and didn't really think much of it. I thought he'd be good, but by the time we make this damn movie he'll be too old or whatever.
The first thing Anne and I did when we had a draft of this thing we had a screenplay reading in New York. And our casting director, when I first met with her, held up two headshots for Nick, and one of them was for Jesse. And I had one of those gut moments like it has to be him. It had to be him. You're not going to ignore all these coincidences. He absolutely blew us away at the reading. He absolutely owned the reading. We never read a single other actor for him.
DL: The dialog seemed so natural. How much was written down and how much was improvised?
DK: People ask if it's an improvised film, but it's completely scripted, but [the actors] are so good that it just feels spontaneous. When Campbell first agreed to do this, he said, "Jesus, it's like Hamlet, so I'm going to have to approach this as if I'm learning lines for a play." His theater background helped him because he's used to having tons of words.
DL: How do you keep a scuzzy character like Roger from being too repulsive for an audience to stomach?
DK: I wish I knew. Much of it is just luck. You just trust your instincts, and I know I'd been a really big fan of Mike Leigh's Naked, a film that has a really despicable main character. Maybe the lesson I took from that film subconsciously is that if you have a character who's very smart and who's passionately expressing ideas, then that's charismatic. There's a lot of very cynical, very bored people in the world, and as long as you really believe what you're saying, there's something really compelling about that even if what you're saying is a load of shite.
We got a miracle of a performance from Campbell. It's all him. He didn't soften the character, but there's something about Campbell that makes you keep giving him the benefit of a doubt. With the wrong actor, people leave the theater by page ten. "Who wants to listen to this jackass for an hour and a half?" But there's something about Campbell that you just feel like, "Oh, maybe if I keep hanging in, he'll find some redeeming thing."
DL: Which of the two characters do you find yourself more like?
DK: In a way they're both idealized, so I would say I'm probably somewhere in the middle. I definitely think that Roger is definitely fascinating. I love them both. I feel that Nick is a little more of a blank slate. Roger is a little more a product of his environment.
I'm interested in people who are shaped by where they live and what they do. I think Roger represents a certain New York type. This is a guy who's basically confused his work with the rest of his life. He can't decide if he's trying to seduce somebody or he's advertising, and he's the product. It's all kind of mixed up. It's not excusing his behavior, but I definitely feel that anybody who lives in a city deals with imagery. It's very difficult to find out who you are and your connection to anybody else in this bizarre world we've created.
DL: Roger seems to be a really miserable individual.
DK: He's completely miserable. I assume that anybody that's such a know-it-all -- when I meet people in real life who are in-your-face, almost cocky -- I assume they're miserable. Nobody can be that way unless there's some big problem. Maybe it's just me. I never take people at face value. I always feel like people who talk a lot are shy people. People who are quiet have a lot to say.
DL: It reminds me of what Oliver Hardy said about his regular character. He said something like I play the biggest fool in the world; I think I know something.
DK: I used to do some teaching in New York, and I used to tell my students, "The only difference between you and me is I know I don't know anything. You think you know something about filmmaking, but you don't." That's Roger's problem. He thinks he has a strategy that's working for him when all of the evidence is his life is that he's flaming out completely. Nick comes to him looking for advice, and Nick's actually more on the ball. He's got everything he needs. For me what the movie's about is the male idea that there's a right way to do something, a strategy, when if fact, life is so much more moment-to-moment. Something that Nick has to learn is that nobody has the answers for him. Everybody's just floundering.
DL: Your ending kind of reflects that. You put Nick in a situation and don't tell us what he's going to do.
DK: You don't know. You just hope something's going to work. I thought it would be better to let people imagine what Nick might say rather than if I'd written the line. This might not have been intentional, but what I think is working about the ending is that it forces people to go back over the movie and think about Nick and where you think he's going to go from here.
I think it's a happy ending. I know he's not going to turn into another Roger. I love endings that are what I call "The Parking Lot Factor." You will still be talking about it in the parking lot. "What do you think he's going to say?" To me, it's never been an ambiguous ending. I feel like Nick's going to be OK.
DL: You're originally from Massachusetts. Is that correct?
DK: I went to high school in Boston. I'm from all over the East Coast.
DL: Why does Nick come from Ohio?
DK: I don't know. It's the kind of classic stupid East Coast saying, "You need a sort of innocent character. He'll come from Ohio! They don't have sex!"
It's the same thing as the names. I think the names in this movie are so dumb. Something pops in your head, and you do it. You don't do anything about it. You think, "I'll change it if I have to, and I'll get used to it." Isabella Rossellini's character is named "Joyce Maynard," which doesn't make any sense. Sometimes you try to work in shorthand. If you're going to do a buddy movie, which is what this is, you should have the complete opposite. I didn't buy that a kid from the Coast or another big city would be as starry-eyed as Nick.
DL: Maybe he's starry-eyed because his home life is pretty dreary. He's got family problems there.
DK: I can't speak for anybody else, but when I was that age, I had the sneaking suspicion that there was some secret out there if people would just tell me, it would make life so much easier. In fact, nobody can. The joke premise of the movie is that this kid basically picks the worst person on earth to ask advice. It's like literally asking … I can't think of anything right now…
DL: Like asking Jeffrey Dahmer for cooking tips.
DK: Exactly. "Jeffrey, I need to work on my people skills a bit."
This is not a movie that has big plot twists, so the audience is going to be less forgiving about things that don't seem motivated. It's important that even if people don't know it intellectually, if they can at some gut level, can understand that Roger is angry at Nick. There's a lot of misdirected anger. It's almost like part of him thinks he's helping him, but he's torturing the kid a little bit.
DL: It kind of reminded me of the Art Garfunkel and Jack Nicholson relationship in Carnal Knowledge.
DK: Oh, God, yeah. I'm a big fan of that. When you're close to people oftentimes, you have these conflicting things. He wants to help his nephew, but he's also pissed because he has access [to the rest of his family]. "You want to know how to talk to women? Let's go." But it's like he won't let Nick go to the bathroom. He's forcing Nick to drink on that death march they're on.
DL: The cinematography's interesting. Did you use natural lighting?
DK: The movie is [artificially] lit, but Joaquin [Baca-Asay], who was our director of photography and I both really hate films that look lit. We were able to push the film stock. It's deliberately lit, but we were able to use light sources, like neon and sodium vapor. I hate it when I go to the movies and I can feel the crew just inside of the frame. "That's obviously not an apartment on the upper west side. That's obviously a boom mike here." We wanted to make this feel like we ran out into the streets with the actors.
The cinematographer-director relationship is probably the core relationship, apart from working with the cast. To me, I work in film; I want to tell stories in pictures. As talky a movie as it is, we always felt that these people live in an environment. Roger is the way he is because of the smoking, the booze, the neon light.
We shot this film stock [52-7], and it's [Hong Kong director] Wong Kar-wai's film stock. Joaquin and I were really struck by a film called In the Mood for Love. He tends to shoot this stock, which is rated at 320. He pushes it two stops.
What Joaquin did in this movie is very gutsy. Let's go so balls-to-the-wall with how much we underexpose this film. Let's terrify ourselves. There was the big scene with Jennifer Beals. I remember going to give Jennifer a note, and our gaffer came up with a meter, and Joaquin was going "How are we doing, John?" And John came in with his meter, and it just said, "Error!" Joaquin went, "Good." There is a weird reward in film when you go for it, and we got a lot of interesting effects by working so far down in the lens. Jennifer's getting a kick from a streetlight that's a block away. The light goes from green to yellow to red. You see it in her hair. It's all Joaquin.
DL: It's interesting that with the emphasis on atmosphere, Roger's apartment is actually rather spare.
DK: You try to keep things as simple as possible. The main thing I wanted to get across to people, by whatever we do with his apartment, is that this is not happy. Isabella's apartment is supposed to be like, "stay there." He goes home to his place. There is a certain type of horrible single-professional-in-New York that has the same white door with the same peephole. It's gross. I remember that shot of him coming in the door, and somebody in the art department said, "We've got to dress it up. It's so plain." And I said, "No! Leave it! It's horrible."
DL: He doesn't spend a lot of time at home.
DK: It's the apartment of a bar fly. It's a place where you go, and you change your socks. You open the refrigerator, and there's one half-opened beer.
DL: This movie did very well at the Venice Film Festival. You've made this really verbal movie, and you'd think they'd have to know something about New York to get it, but they got it right away.
DK: Venice just went over-the-top for us. We thought we were in this little sidebar section. I'd never been to Italy before. "Why don't I go to Venice?" We were blown away by the Italian response. One theory I had was that to Italians, [Roger's] just another guy trying to make it. It was hugely gratifying to watch the film with subtitles and have people laugh at all the right parts. I hope that our international company is happy.
I don't want to take up your time, but I have a funny anecdote about doing press in Italy.
DL: Go ahead and do it.
DK: One of the things that the Italians seemed to respond to is that it seemed to remind them of a certain kind of comedy that was being done by a director called Dino Risi. Have you ever heard of him? I had heard of him, but I had never seen any of the movies.
So, we get there, and we didn't realize there was this huge buzz about the movie because the critics put us on the map. I woke up, and I was crashed out by jet lag in a chair by the pool, and I got shaken awake by a festival person. "You have to go right now because they're doing a national live radio thing, and they want you to go right now." I go, and I'm running in. There's like 200 people watching, and our voices are being broadcast over speakers over the whole lead out. I sit down, and I put on the headphones. A woman says, "Don't worry. They'll ask you in Italian, and I'll translate for you."
[A reporter] asks a long question, and the translator says, "We have Dino Risi's son and grandson here, and we can tell that your work is obviously inspired by Dino Risi, particularly Il Sorpasso, which just screened tonight. Can you talk about the influence of the movie Il Sorpasso?" It's live radio, and I'm still half awake, and I just called upon every lying instinct you develop as a director. "It's flattering to be compared to a giant such as Dino Rissi." It was bizarre. Sometime you realize that people are taking something into a movie and just running with it, giving it new meaning. It's sort of out of your hands.
DL: What was the atmosphere of the shoot like because you worked on Roger Dodger in New York shortly after the 9-11 attacks?
DK: We started shooting on October 22. I'd never been on a set like that. I'd been on a lot of sets as a film technician. For me personally it was a great way to get back to work.
I think that filmmakers tend to fall into a bit of self indulgence, and you start sweating about something that doesn't matter. What happened was that everyone's head was screwed on straight. It was a really pleasant four weeks. I usually have to yell about not having enough extras, and people were happy to be working. It, in a weird way, made for a very intense collaborative atmosphere.
DL: I understand that Campbell Scott's a pretty tall guy.
DL: Did you have any difficulty trying to stage scenes with him and some of the shorter performers?
DK: It helped us in that it played the man-boy thing. We did everything we could to make Roger look like he was towering over Jesse. We made his suit just a little bit too small so that he feels a little squirmy and uncomfortable in his own skin. He uses everything at his disposal.
As a director you try to make the movie come first, but there are a couple of guilty pleasures. For the me, it was the shot of (Scott) bobbing out of the sea of adolescents, so we got that shot. "All right. I've got my one gift for myself."
Click here to read the Roger Dodger review.