Devil Talks
Interview with Illeana Douglas
interview by Paula Nechak, 17 January 2003

One look at her and she's immediately recognizable: Illeana Douglas is one of indie film's most exotic and constant presences. She's starred in four Martin Scorsese films (Robert DeNiro memorably bit a hole in her cheek in Scorsese's 1991 remake of Cape Fear), played a lesbian ice skater avenging her brother's murder in Gus Van Sant's To Die For and won the role of a lifetime as songwriter Denise Waverly/Edna Buxton in Allison Anders' Grace of My Heart. She's turned up in Kevin Smith's Chasing Amy, Terry Zwigoff's Ghost World, Robert Redford's Quiz Show - and even played an amateur hypnotist in Stir of Echoes. These are just a few titles on a resume that features some forty films.

Douglas, the granddaughter of the great Melvyn Douglas, the guy who got Greta Garbo to laugh in the 1939 Ernst Lubitsch classic Ninotchka, and Helen Gahagan, a Broadway performer who left the stage in order to pursue a political career, is similarly driven - and versatile. She's not afraid to tackle any genre; not television, where she's guest starred on everything from Seinfeld to Six Feet Under. She's done live theater and stand up comedy, executive produced a movie, written a short film (Boy Crazy, Girl Crazier) and oh yes, has just donned her signature director's cap for the fourth time.

It's why we're having this long-distance phone call. Douglas is about to take Devil Talk, a deftly clever and funny short that she wrote and directed, to Sundance in a week and she's tying up loose ends -- including this last minute interview prior to her departure.

Devil Talk is only five minutes long but it presents that guy in the red tights and horns in an entirely new light. Douglas's devil - played by Michael Panes - is a little neurotic about his image. Tired of being presented in an over-the-top fashion in the movies, he's hired a publicist to reinvent the way he's perceived.

Douglas draws upon her favorite classic comedy acts -- Mike Nichols and Elaine May and talents like Albert Brooks and Mel Brooks -- as inspiration for her film's humor and she's hoping - despite upcoming roles in The Kiss and The Californians - that this directorial effort will turn into a feature-length movie. But for now, with her eye on Sundance and other film festivals, Douglas says she'd simply be thrilled to get her film shown and seen and start the whole world "devil talking."

Paula Nechak: So, Illeana, can you tell me how many studio executives you based your devil upon?

Illeana Douglas: [laughs] Well, that's a secret. Actually I'm hoping to turn this into a little feature. The conceit is that this is the real devil and all the other people who have played him in movies he's just sat back and watched. But he's the real devil and he's finally going to have his shot.

PN: Assuming a viewer is not familiar with you as an actor, or who you are, how do you fantasize you'd be perceived as the creator of a film that pushes the devil with a publicist?

ID: That's a good question. I use the devil as an every person so I'd hope they didn't think I was too evil. I used him as a conceit to express all these funny ideas I have.

PN: What's the genesis of the film? You've said in other interviews that you think films that have anything to do with the devil are fun. What's the basis for your attraction to him?

ID: That's true. I've always had a strange fascination with devil movies. I do think they're very funny, you know? Rosemary's Baby, The Devil's Advocate, The Omen -- they're all just a little over the top. I've always had a lot of fun with them. Plus, I'm Catholic [laughs]. The devil gets a lot of movies made about him, he's had more movies made about him than God and it's probably because he seems so complex. A couple of things have always fascinated me about the devil in all those other devil movies: one is he never has a mother so I thought if he did, she'd be some piece of work. Second, I used to work for a publicist [laughs]. The notion of the devil having a publicist has been kicking around in my head for years.

PN: When and why did your interest start to shift from acting to directing? Was the pull to direct always there and when did you know it was the right time to begin this facet of your career?  

ID: There's that phrase, "…but what I really want to do is direct." Well if I had a T-shirt it would say, "What I really want to do is act." I really love acting. It's the greatest gig of all time but after a while as an actress you find, unfortunately, some of your opportunities are limited. Years ago, believe it or not, I started as a stand up. I've done everything but commercials and soap operas. The great thing about doing stand up is you can express your ideas about the state of affairs of the world and do your own mini editorials. As an actress it's limited, so what writing and directing gives you is a forum to express your ideas. It just comes full circle to what I started out doing, which was expand my stand up into a movie. I'm a huge Nichols and May fan; Albert Brooks, Mel Brooks and Bob Newhart too and the movie owes a lot to a certain sensibility that I grew up with.

PN: That said, you've worked with some of the most innovative directors in the business: Scorsese, Van Sant, Anders, Savoca, Redford - what was the prevalent universal lesson you learned from the collective group?

ID: I love directors, I've always gravitated toward them in terms of learning. What they do, how they hold everything together, well, it's the one position on a movie set that's always fascinated me and despite it being so incredibly difficult it's always what I wanted to do. Gus Van Sant taught me about the camera and what this or that lens does. With Marty it was like nine years of film school. I learned everything about editing and getting emotion out of the camera. It's been a learning thing with every director I've worked with.

PN: You have an incredible heritage: Melvyn Douglas and Helen Gahagan are your grandparents. In a sense, your grandfather's choices late in his life - in films like I Never Sang For My Father or The Candidate - would be defined today as independent films. Did it consequently feel like a very natural and logical place for you to make your own entrance into the profession? You certainly have been one of the most pervasive and forceful influences on the genre over the past ten or so years.

ID: I came from somewhat of an arty family and I knew I also wanted to do something in the arts though I wasn't exactly sure what it would be. Acting was always my first choice but I didn't know if it would be possible to attain all that I wanted to attain. That's why I think I started out doing stand up. I would have been happy to do stand up, being a comedy writer for Saturday Night Live -- that's what I first wanted to do in high school and is what I thought I'd end up doing. But I was lucky, I guess, because I ended up getting more and more acting work.

PN: Is there now an area of show business that feels more comfortable for you as you get older and gain more wisdom and experience?

ID: I still lean toward comedy. My favorite performance I've done was in Grace of My Heart because it accomplished everything I wanted to do in terms of drama and comedy. It was a perfect part for me and was the closest thing to me I've ever played. Unfortunately, opportunities like that don't happen often. There's not a lot of comedy out there that's the type of comedy I want to do.

PN: You inject almost all of your work - save for films like Cape Fear or Goodfellas - with a sense of humor and wit. You always appear to be having a good time on screen. How did you come to acquire such an ease in a business that thrives on insecurity? Is part of your comfort in a difficult profession drawn from the fact that being exposed to it so early on, you never had any illusions about it?

ID: That I'm not really sure of. From the first movie I was in -- New York Stories -- I just couldn't believe I was actually in a movie. It was the most incredible thing to me, being on a film set is amazing, just the greatest place on earth you can be. Maybe some of that translates on screen. It was after To Die For that independent film parts started coming my way and the nature of the studio system changed and after 1998 it was harder to get independent films made. That was when I turned to television.

PN: You've now directed three short films and one documentary. What changes would you like to see made as far as how short films are integrated into the cinema-going experience? One of the only venues for shorts is the film festival. What would you like to see happen because of Devil Talk?

ID: It's two-fold. One thing I'd love to see with short films is -- and remember I grew up watching them on SNL -- they'd play on that venue or, say, HBO would commission me to do three short films on a given subject over the course of a year. I'd like to do a one-minute short film for the Sundance Film Festival - I have a great idea for one - and incorporate short films in front of features. I love short films and I grew up watching the Children's Film Festival where I'd watch films from all over the world on Sunday. I think there would be opportunity, not so much on network television, but the kind of outlets where someone would give you a commission and a topic and just let you go and do two or three a year. As far as directing goes I'd obviously love to turn Devil Talk into a feature. I've got a couple other feature ideas too, but, for now, well, this is the one I'd like to do the most.  Copyright © 1996-2005 by Nitrate Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.