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September 2004
When Will I Be Loved: An Interview with Director James Toback

When Will I Be Loved: An Interview with Director James Toback

By Todd Gilchrist

James Toback has never been one to shy away from controversy; attacking such subjects as gambling, drugs, violence, and corruption with an unflinching eye, his films have provided some of the last three decades' most riveting portraits of human lives flip-flopping on the edge of disaster. With "When Will I Be Loved", his latest, he finds a way to work many of those themes into one electrifying narrative, about a young woman (Neve Campbell) who decides to give two suitors a taste of their own medicine after they underestimate and marginalize her intelligence and maturity. Toback recently spoke to blackfilm.com about the experience of making the film, about his tribulations with the MPAA, and about maintaining an independent voice in Hollywood's studio system.

What made this story an essential one to tell?

James Toback: (The main character is) smart, erotically charged, beautiful, a lot of repressed anger, indolent, aesthetically inclined all the things that make someone watchable, and also to put her in a context with two guys who are in over their heads but don't know it, who think that she's in over her head with them that to me seemed to be an inherently interesting dramatic situation, to place a woman who's younger than, and apparently less experienced, than these two guys, have them take her for granted and think they can manipulate her.

How do you think you succeeded in creating this character where other male writers failed?

JT: Well, I'm obsessed with women, so I can imagine my way into a female consciousness very well. I think that [it's] also because I turned the role over to the actress. I mean, she created that role much more than I did. Once I had an idea for it, I let her go with it, and take it wherever she wanted to. And once you have an actress talk about the role she's playing as though it were her role and not yours, you know you're in good shape when an actress doesn't need to come to you to find out what she's supposed to do, because she knows what she's supposed to do, not because you told her already, but because she's figured out the character. Which is why, in the sexual scenes, to me, it's bad enough to tell an actor to do; it's ridiculous to tell an actress what to do. So, for instance, in the lesbian scene she has, first of all, I introduced her to about 8 girls, and said, 'just pick the one you like the best,' and then when we were about to shoot the scene, I said, 'just go in the other room, take as long as you want, and when you come up with a scene, show up, and we'll shoot it.' And then we did, and I had no idea what it was going to be, nor did the Steadicam operator, until they were doing it.

Whose decision was it to shoot the lesbian scene behind a curtain?

JT: I didn't ask them, but I think that one of the reasons was that it enabled them to do more than they would've been able to do if the curtain hadn't been there. That is to say, the actions were pretty aggressive and specific and bold, and I think that if the curtain had been away, it would've made the absence of nudity more glaring and less credible. If they had done it naked, it would not have been in the movie.


JT: Well, because you can't have girls licking each other naked. I mean, you can, but you're not gonna get an R. This R shit is real censorship. IFC's not gonna go with a movie without an R, so there's no movie if you do that scene. So this was the best way of going as far as you could go without actually getting into NC-17 territory. I've had this ongoing battle with the Ratings Board the guy that was my [incomprehensible] is no longer there so it might be a little better now. But the whole psychology of the Ratings Board is insane. I mean, it's worried about how many elbow jerks or head bobs there are. While things are being blown up, people are dying, there are 15 adults sitting around a table, saying, 'you know, Bijou Philips' elbow jerked 6 times in that scene.' They actually say that stuff! One member of the Ratings Board said to me, when Downey was giving head to Heather Graham, 'do you know that his head bobs 18 times?' And I said, 'no, I did not, I never counted.' And she said, 'you can take my word for it.' I said, 'okay, uh, what are you suggesting?' She said, 'I doubt very much that you can get by with more than 3 head bobs.' So I said, 'I want you to introduce me to the guy who got you off with 3 head bobs,' and she didn't even crack a smile. But that's the level on which they're debating things. And I felt that, if this movie was going to be sexually charged which it is there were certain visual strategies that had to be adjusted. If you're gonna have Neve masturbate in the shower, you gotta shoot from the back, and let the muscles twitch a little bit, and not shoot it from the front, or it's not gonna be in the movie. I think they, on their own, figured out they needed the curtain in order to do that. You know, it's a form of strategy and response to what amounts to censorship which, by the way, everybody seems perfectly willing to go along with. I mean, people making movies now are primarily interested in their survival and their career and their money, and if it means that they have to play ball on this level, there's not the kind of indignation that there used to be. I find that, even among directors now, there's [a feeling of] 'well, you do what you have to do, you adjust.

What makes your improvisational, elliptical style preferable to something more straightforward?

JT: I think you get more from a certain kind of actor. If you get an actor who can't do that, or doesn't want to do that, it's gonna be ruinously dull. But if you get actors who are innately articulate and that would include anyone from Neve Campbell to Mike Tyson who have their own way of speaking, who are able to think and speak without inhibition and with confidence, and who have a sense of themselves physically, if you open the frame to them, shoot with a Steadicam, let them move and talk the way they want, open the behavioral possibilities up, you get rewarded. They will do things for you and for themselves that they simply won't do if you're treating them like 6-year-olds, which is basically what you do on a normal set. 'Hit the green mark over there. When you hit the mark, turn up, look at the wall, take your right hand, and move it slowly up your side, and then deliver the line.' That's the way you talk to a 5-year-old, and most actors are trained to accept that that's the way you make a movie. But I don't think that that means that they're just gonna really go along with it. What they're openly gonna do is be depressed, or rebellious. They're gonna fuck with you in some way, or they're just gonna, in resignation, do it. Whereas if you basically say to them, 'it's your decision, you have the whole frame, don't worry about where you say the line, change it if you want, invent the behavior,' [then you get] 'really!? You wanna see whatever [I can do]? Well, then, okay!' If an actor is equipped to do that, the more inspired you should be by the opportunity to do it. Since I like to work with actors like that much more than the robotic actors, it has been more and more a criterion in choosing actors to seek them out, and to shy away from actors who I know are made uncomfortable by it." Neve? "I didn't know for a fact that she was as free-wheeling and open as she was. I suspected she was, only because I had seen her over a period of years do a number of different things in a number of different ways, and from stories I had heard, [she seemed to be] a bit of a loner, and a searcher, and not rigid in any way, and kind of curious and an adventurer I thought it, I didn't know it. When I met her and we hadn't agreed to do the movie before we met it was in the Beverly Hills Hotel, 2 o' clock in the afternoon, we were supposed to meet for an hour, and we ended up meeting for 12 hours. By the time the 12 hours had expired, it was very clear that it was way beyond what I had hoped for. I mean, she was ready to not only do anything I suggested, but come up with ideas that I hadn't thought of, to take the character to a place where I couldn't have gone." How did she do that? "the openness to the freewheeling sexual behavior of the character, the eagerness to have a scene where she explodes with rage, the willingness to accept a narrative that was basically planned but not really thought through, the idea of starting with a sort of episodic movie and going into a narrative movie without being too clear about where one was going to end and the other was going to begin, the complete freedom to transcend the normal need of pandering to an audience's 'good guy/bad guy' expectations. You know that when someone's getting the point of everything, and they laugh at the right time, you know you're going to have a rapport that's going to be completely on all the time. And that you don't have to go through the tiresome manipulations you have to go through with someone that you don't have that kind of rapport [with], where every time you want someone to do something, you're worried that you can't just say it, because if you do, it will be taken wrong, it will be defended against. To shoot this in 11 days which we did, all over the city required a massive amount of energy. I mean, there was no way you could have a normal day. Every day, we were going for 20-25 set-ups, shooting all over the city, people were exhausted, 'don't worry about that, let's shoot anyway, let's do this anyway,' changing at the last minute all that stuff was acceptable to her, and even exciting to her, whereas a lot of actors and actresses would've just said, 'I resign from the process, I'm not doing that, I refuse, what are you crazy?'

Were you attempting to do an NC-17?

JT: I don't think I ever felt that there would be serious distribution possibilities with an NC-17 on the movie.

Do you think the film is a comment on censorship?

JT: I think all these movies I do have been, because they are going right to the limit, and saying, 'okay, where do you intend to stop me? At what point do you feel you have to step in and behave like the blockheaded, pinheaded retards you are? When do you have to exercise these absurd prejudices you have against sex?' Which is all it really amounts to, because you can torture people to death, you can cut their eyes out and force someone to eat them, but you can't show things that people do all the time. I mean, it's just so ludicrous, but it is what it is, and it's coming from where it's coming from. The thing that I find depressing is how directors, writers, actors to say nothing of the obvious studio executives are only too happy to accept it as long as they can keep making the money and plowing ahead. There's no movement against it. I think the movie itself deals with these questions indirectly, because you're basically talking about rules and laws, and what you find here is an anarchic spirit on the part of this character. They're all dealing in a somewhat apolitical context; they're all basically acting as if there are no laws and no rules. None of them has any respect for the law or rules. They're all, in their own way, violating all moral, political strictures and boundaries, which I think is much more fun anyway.

Did Neve's character feel used, and that's why she set the men against each other?

JT: I think she feels that they took her too lightly, and took her for granted, and I think that her nature is somewhat vengeful and angry. You see it in her relationship to her father. Her father is a guy who tries to control her and dominate her, and she does not brook his domination. She'll take his money, but she will not let him control her. Her empathy and sympathy is with her mother, who has been pretty much defeated by him, and who's sort of drinking her way through life. And I think that sense of being someone who can get what she wants from a situation without giving up what she doesn't want to give up is natural to her, and I think the idea with the two men is sort of existential it's going minute by minute, and she's responding to each minute as it comes up. The scene with Dominic, which is very delicately calibrated, and unlike the rest of the movie, planned beat by beat, shows you that she is literally taking each moment and making the most of it, and arriving at her conclusions as the moment occurs. The only time when he gains the upper hand, and it's just for a minute, is when he starts to leave after having given her the million dollars. Everything else has been like an almost uncannily quick manipulation on her part into getting him to up the ante, which she wasn't even planning to do. It isn't like the scene started, she thought, 'I'll bump him up to a million dollars from $100, 000.' It's that the scene, minute by minute, got to that point. When he brings back the million dollars, he finally gains the upper hand by leaving. Except he doesn't leave. He allows her to regain the terrain, by saying 'what's your rush?' And then coming back. That's where he made his mistake.

Do men give themselves up that easily?

JT: I think I could name, without coming up for air, about thirty famous, established, rich, successful guys who have turned themselves into helpless, pathetic buffoons because of sexual obsession. I will say, just because it's in the news and I'm not revealing anything new, this whole saga of Kirk Kerkorian I found quite fascinating. Here's the most powerful and successful businessman in the world, or close to it, who marries this fourth-rate tennis player, who's 55 or 60 years younger, has a child with her, and then she announces she wants to get divorced and get a lot more money than he's ready to give, even though what he was ready to give was an astronomical amount. Now, there's where he finally drew the line, and said, 'I better check this out.' It turns out he's not the father of the child so now he doesn't have to pay any money to the woman or to the child. But here's my point- how did a guy of Kirk Kerkorian's sophistication, experience, knowledge, and power marry someone who was looking to hustle him that way? Not go out to dinner with her once, not have three dates, but marry her. That's a mismatch of epic proportions: 27-year-old would-be tennis player against Kirk Kerkorian.

Do you wanna work within the system?

JT: I mean, I'm always ready to take a lot of money from anybody, to make a movie with. But under the right conditions. I can't do it if I'm not going to be able to do the movie I want to do. Right now, the studio system's constituted in such a way, that unless you've made a few massive hits, and you're well-connected, any kind of generous budget is going to be scrutinized. The movie's gonna be scrutinized the script, the actors, the story, the changes you want to make in a way that, to me, counterproductive to the point of defeating. So I'd rather make it for much less money and do it the way I want to do it.

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