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November 2005
The Ice Harvest: An Interview with John Cusack

The Ice Harvest: An Interview with John Cusack

By Donovan Capwell

With enough comedies (black and romantic) to last a lifetime, John Cusack hasn't tackled film noirs since he appeared with Annette Bening in "The Grifters" over a decade ago. In his next film and with the help of Director Harold Ramis, Cusack will be combining black comedy and film noir in "The Ice Harvest". Based on the novel by Scott Phillips, Cusack plays a slippery lawyer named Charlie, who, in a snowbound Kansas town on Christmas Eve, plans to embezzle money from his mob superiors and slip away with his partner, played by Billy Bob Thornton, when his past and affairs start to catch up on him. In speaking with blackfilm.com, Cusack goes over his role, working with Billy Bob Thornton and his attraction to film noirs.

What is your attraction to film noirs?

John Cusack: Yeah, I don't think- - it's interesting because Harold was talking about that now and I saw one review, not a review but somebody wrote about it in the LA Times today and they said, "This is a stark." I think the guy liked the film quite a bit but he was like, "It's as stark and as grim as anything you'll ever see." Yesterday I came in and I go, "This is one of the best comedies since Bad Santa. This is so funny." And I think that guy had seen it alone and then the other people had seen it at some festivals in America where Harold says it plays and gets laughs as big as any comedy he's ever done, which is saying something extraordinary. So I think we relate to these characters. It's obviously a crime story, but we relate to these characters, it's about the illusions of the American dream and fitting into that and guys at the end of their rope. But I don't think we do it because we go, "Okay, let's blend this genre with this or let's do this with this." You get inspired by the characters or you think, "Oh man, that's a piece of writing that is so true. This is interesting." And then later we put labels on it to sell it or to do these things. But it does come in a tradition of those films, of the noir films, but it was just these portraits of white malehood in America that are just so disastrous and I thought Charlie had this great comic, quiet desperation to him. And I thought there were some other themes that were so interesting. I thought of this and there was no outward polemics to the movie. It doesn't talk about left and right and I'm sure neither one of these guys care who's president. It's not about that at all but there is this kind of subtle, these subtle jabs at consumerism and that these guys kind of went into some version of the American dream about get the house, get the money, get the trophy wife, get the girl on the side, get the material possessions, get the great car. Get more women. Get more drink. And none of it's making them happy and none of it's fulfilling them. So I remember Arthur Miller said an era can be considered over when its basic illusions have been exhausted. And I thought of that, I go, "Yeah, these guys are just exhausted. None of it's working." So they trade in that American dream and then go all right, we'll do the outlaw dream where we make the big last score and hit the open road. And that's pathetic and funny too. So these guys are lost in this dream world, or Charlie is. So why we respond to something, I don't know. Is it because it's a noir? Is it a genre, or we're going to do this genre? No, we just see these characters and we go, "Oh no, my god, they're so fascinating."

Terrific answer.

JC: Thanks. As you start to do this thing, you force us to actually think about why we do what we do.

What are some tricks for staying warm in the cold?

JC: Yeah, well, one thing is you kind of gain weight. I think that's why people- - you can't be too thin. Charlie was such a mess I just let myself go a little, ate salty food. They bring pizza around the set and usually because we're vain actors and we want to look good, but I was just like, "Yeah, give me the pizza."

What was it like working with Billy Bob?

JC: He's great. I really love working with him. Love it. Love it. He'll go anywhere ,do anything. There's nothing he wouldn't try on a movie set. Not that you'd do it all the time, but the freedom of knowing somebody's going to go with you anywhere you want to go. And he's so funny and so talented, so sensitive, such a smart man.

Did you do any improvising?

JC: You know, Benton and Russo wrote the script and it was so precise in these kind of characterizations of Vic and Pete and Charlie, even the bartender who's thinking violence might not be the answer and breaking guys' thumbs. Renata and Charlie, it was so precise that it was one of these movies where you actually didn't want to improvise. We did a bit. We played with language a bit but Benton and Russo are great writers.

Were you surprised to see those names on the script?

JC: Well, I didn't know. That's one of the reasons I opened it. You see The Ice Harvest and then you see Benton and Russo and you go Oh. So you know you want to read. One of these guys is a Pulitzer Prize Winner and the other guy, I don't know how many Academy Awards he's won for writing and directing. He wrote Bonnie and Clyde, didn't he? This is a great writer, great filmmaker so you know you'll want to see what they're going to do with this.

Then when you read it?

JC: At first I read it and I thought, it might have been just where I was in my life but I started reading it and I went, "Oh, man, I don't want to do- - this is too dark." But I didn't realize it was funny or a comedy because it was so real. It was so gritty. But then I started to understand there were some of those elements of satirical Americana in there. And then I thought it was funny. As soon as I realized it was going to be funny and grim, then I thought, "Oh man, this is something to do." And I wanted to work with Harold.

What was that like?

JC: He's great. He's a great director. Amazingly bright man. And he's been around a lot of these I think seminal things in comedy and film for a long time and TV. Animal House, Second City Television, Lampoon, I mean those are- - those actually were as groundbreaking to me in terms of thinking of comedy and film as Monty Python was. Kind of Mel Brooks as a kid. These were the real stars and subversive and intelligent and counterculture and disgusting yet sophisticated. He's been around some of these really important things to me.

How did he steer you?

JC: Well, in this kind of a film as opposed to something else, there's specific things that you know are going to be funny like with Oliver and this kind of Falstaff character he does, this great fool that he does. And when you hit your head, there's pratfalls that you know okay, this is going to be funnier if you do this. But in this kind of movie, he doesn't really talk that way. He was just trying to realize the characters, then all the laughs come out of that. So we weren't really going for laughs. We were just trying to make the scene work and then it would be funny in a very real way.

Any room for your script work on this?

JC: Nah. Didn't need it.

Reconcile two parts of character, being altruistic and killing someone?

JC: No, I just thought that seemed really interesting.

Ever had to buy last minute Xmas gifts?

JC: No, I've never gone to a convenience store drunk. Wait, that's not true. But not for Christmas presents. But what you were saying is I think these characters, if you look at character the right way, there just seem to be endlessly fascinating and when a character's written with that kind of precision by these terrific writers, they kind of leap off the page and you want to do them, and they're filled with contradictions. I remember the last time I was at a bar, I saw a bar fight. A friend of mine, some guy made some racial epithet at a guy and all of a sudden it went bad. Then it broke out in this very kind of animalistic way fights sometimes do, and all of a sudden everybody gets triggered. I saw this guy go and punch this guy and he could've been like Schwarzenegger from some movie. He was just pure animal right and he did. And as soon as he finished it, you could see regret, shame, all these things wash across his face, just for a minute. And they're totally contradictory things. One was absolutely animal and macho alpha male predator and the next minute he looked like a little baby about to cry. So what we really see of a character is what's so interesting.

Talk about shooting and having to learn to kill?

JC: Well, you seemed like you were pointing out the contradictory natures of some of these characters and I thought that was what was so real about it. I don't think anybody views themselves- - most people view themselves as good guys but I don't think anybody views themselves as a bad guy. I think we rationalize things and we get put in these bizarre situations. These guys are definitely custodians of their own realities. They made their mess, they're responsible or it. But in another sense, they just don't- - no matter how low you get, I think people always want to be redeemed and they want to be free and they want to be loved. They want all those things. And then they find themselves in these horrible situations and then they have these impulses to be better than that. I don't know, that's how I see them.

What are some of your favorite film noirs?

JC: Gosh, probably the same ones that are yours. The Killers I thought was great. I think Asphault Jungle. What else? Double Indemnity. Chinatown, right? What else? [Body heat?] Yeah, that's a good one. [Big Sleep?] yeah. You could go on. There are so many great ones.

How delicate is the line between noir and black comedy?

JC: I don't know. That's what we were saying before. It sometimes hurts these- - we try to put them into a genre box and I think- - I don't know. I just know that this one feels funnier than most noir films. But I don't know, maybe it's some hybrid genre but I just think the characters are very real.

Did you have discussions about nuance?

JC: Oh yeah, all the time. But Harold, he is just trying to figure out- - the movie kind of takes on its own rhythms and has its own laws once you set the tone. It's not going to be some arch satirical tone, it's going to be played in real time, in reality, emotionally real and you're going to try to reveal as much as you can about these characters. We tried not to make it stylized in any way, so then it becomes what-- the film kind of becomes what it is and now we're trying to give it a genre label now, but it definitely has elements- - I think Harold said it's a film noir with a lot of laughs.

What's next for you?

JC: I did two. I did one called The Martian Child with Menno Meyes as the director. Amanda Peet, Oliver Platt, my sister Joanie, Sophie Okenado, a young actor named Bobby Coleman. Then I did The Contract with Morgan Freeman and Bruce Beresford in Bulgaria.

Any Better Off Dead memories?

JC: It was so long ago, like people say stuff from that movie and I go, "What are you talking about?" It was just a gig that I got when I was 17 so I don't have any kind of connection to it. But I will say that that movie was like what Harold did with SCTV. It was doing this teen comedy but it was trying to do this kind of absurdist take on it. And I think obviously seeing things like SCTV and seeing some of the weird stuff they did, I was attracted to it that there was some kind of idea or fresh version of that. It was some kind of absurdist black teen comedy I thought. I never thought those were executed well so I don't think about them.



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