Could you make an intensely sexual, intellectually ambitious, seventies-style drama in today’s movie biz? That’s what Alec Baldwin and James Toback set out to investigate in 2012, when they attempted the patently insane by making a movie about making a movie while at the Cannes Film Festival. The duo, who, shockingly, didn’t know each other before the project, had come to Cannes to sell a concept: Last Tango in Tikrit, a drama starring Baldwin and Neve Campbell as two people damaged by the Iraq War who try to exorcise their demons through incredibly “exploratory” sex. Cameramen in tow, Baldwin and Toback hustled for financing on the streets, in the marché (the international market where deals are made), at parties, and in many, many meetings with investors — resulting in a hilarious, demoralizing string of rejections as they’re told their $15 to $20 million dream budget is absurd, and that neither Campbell nor Baldwin is bankable enough.
For context, they called on Martin Scorsese, Bernardo Bertolucci, Roman Polanski, and Frances Ford Coppola to tell them how moviemaking had changed, and got an incredibly charming interview with Ryan Gosling about his days as a struggling actor, and a near-death experience in a plane that seemed to be going down (his first instinct was to finish his steak). I’d trailed Baldwin and Toback at the 2012 Cannes, observing the curmudgeonly comedy team on several pitch sessions and interviews that made the cut of the resulting documentary, Seduced and Abandoned (it refers to how “film is the worst girlfriend,” as Baldwin says). This May, I met up with them again, on the sunny patio of a luxury hotel, to check in, now that the documentary had been completed and bought by HBO. (It premiered Monday.) They first comforted me over getting mugged a day earlier — read about that, and Baldwin’s own mugging story, here — then talked about the risk-averse movie industry, their own struggles in Hollywood, and Gosling’s charm.
How is this Cannes different for you guys than 2012, when you were filming?
Alec Baldwin: Well, when we were here before, it was obviously thrilling, and energizing. Literally, every cliché you can think of is apt. It was a really deliriously exciting and rewarding experience running around, even though we risk making fools of ourselves because we look like we were members of the press corps sometimes and I think people were kind of looking at me and going, “God, I didn’t know Alec was working for CNN. God, how low he has stooped now! I guess that TV show [30 Rock] is over. How sad.”
You mean being perceived as a member of the press corps is a step lower than working for NBC?
Baldwin: Yeah, yeah, exactly. [Laughs.] But we had this really wonderful experience. And now, obviously, it’s nice. Especially for Jimmy to come here and have it be a success and enjoy the film. I’m just very, very grateful for Jimmy that the film has been accepted for the way we intended it to be.
But not grateful for yourself?
Baldwin: Well, it has nothing to do with me. I viewed myself as a facilitator. I don’t view myself as the star. This is an unusual film because I mean, I’m not Mike Wallace, but I’m doing a lot of the interviewing myself. You notice in a lot of the shots, I’m not on film. If you look at the Scorsese interview, I’m not on-camera really at all. And I wasn’t interested in that. I wasn’t interested in injecting myself unnecessarily into the whole thing.
You were interested in actually getting to ask Martin Scorsese all these questions.
Baldwin: I wanted to hear what they have to say. And then this other component of ours, which was us trying to sell the film, I was really like —
Toback: That was [Bob] Hope and [Bing] Crosby.
Baldwin: Yeah, I’m more like Groucho Marx and Margaret Dumont. I’m your foil. I’m the one that, when I leave the table, I’m getting humiliated and eviscerated by the Mark Damons of the business [producers], which is fine with me.
You weren’t serious about making Last Tango in Tikrit, were you?
Baldwin: Oh yes.
Oh, you were?
Baldwin: Well, remember, this is essential: The way we pitched it may have been silly. And the way we pitched it might have been satirical, because when you talk to the Mark Damons [again, producers] of the world, you have to present them with a pitch that could fit onto a Bazooka Bubblegum comic. These are not people who are interested in any kind of explication or any kind of deep analysis.
Toback: Or as [producer] Avi Lerner says, “I don’t read scripts.”
Baldwin: Exactly. They’re all the same. They want a number, they want a star, they want to know what kind of film, genre: Action, Gerard Butler, money. This, that.
Toback: They want, what’s her name, Natalie Portman.
Baldwin: What’s her name. Whatever. And we’re not saying truly in any judgment of them. That’s the business they’re in. And so we do have a film that we’re working on, and we borrow the Last Tango template in terms of — we want to set some tableau in our case — like in Last Tango there’s a kind of a psychological nihilism that those people exist in and for us we wanted to add a political component to that. Because the times we live in of perpetual war now are so enervating if you have any kind of consciousness at all. And you sit there and you realize, “Right now as we sit there, the United States is shooting drones and bombs and killing people. Around the clock there’s killing, killing, killing going on in the name of our national security.” And I’m not there to argue that point, but when you look at the kind of soul-crushing reality of what happened in Iraq, we wanted to put people in that tableau. [The characters] experience it as the end of the world. They’re two people who are so completely incompatible politically, yet they nonetheless come together for some need for intimacy.
The Neve Campbell character: Is she a conservative or a liberal journalist?
Baldwin: Well, listen, these are all unsatisfying short hands, but she’s like Lara Logan. She’s a journalist for the Washington Post or the New York Times, who comes to write a story about a Blackwater operative who’s been accused of killing all these people and he’s gonna be put on trial or whatever we decide. That’s the McGuffin. What happens is these two people end up in a hotel together and something happens that you just can’t even imagine would happen, but it’s about humanity.
Did you actually manage to raise any money?
Baldwin: Well, we’re too busy doing [Seduced and Abandoned] and he’s gonna finish that script, and we’re gonna collaborate about that and then we’re going to take it from here. But the goal now, I think, is to do whatever we can in my mind to not shoot with any U.S. funding. The U.S. is — and I don’t mean this as a judgment, everything we say and every conclusion we’ve come to now is just an acceptance of reality — and that is that it’s a terrible time to be in the movie business in the United States.
Yeah, well, I think the movie proves that pretty well.
Baldwin: It’s a terrible time. It’s more competitive than ever. The people who are calling the shots are more detached from what films really are and ought to be. They’re more risk-averse than ever. I mean, they’ve always been risk-averse, but now — the kind of insanity level we’re at now is you always had people who were risk-averse, but they knew there was risk. You now have people who are on the hunt for the risk-free movie business. They want the no-risk movie business, which doesn’t exist. And we can’t participate in that reality because it’s completely not real. So we think maybe we could probably raise the money better over here [in France].
Did you come to any lessons from having done the documentary? Like, will you have to ditch Neve Campbell and find someone more bankable? By the middle of the film, you seem really ready to do so.
Toback: I think there are two ways of going about movies. One is you are adaptable to reality and the other is you are insistent on no compromise. I believe that while there are loads of areas where I can’t compromise — I can’t do someone else’s movie, I can’t let anyone tell me how to do my movie in a fundamental way — there are compromises that I have to make. And money is the one that I’ve landed on as it’s okay to compromise with. And the alterations that I’ve made are all financial alterations. The way I word it in the film is, “Tell me how much money you’re gonna give me and I’ll work around that number.” Which often means adjusting various things to suit that number. But if you don’t have some sense of malleability, the chances of actually being able to keep working are just about zero no matter who you are. Scorsese talks about how, even though he’s working in an infinitely higher budget, needing to navigate the waters each time anew. Polanski says everything is easier now. And I feel the same way: writing, directing, editing. The only thing that gets harder is what he calls “the financement.” Bertolucci, same problem. The only one who doesn’t have that problem is Francis [Ford Coppola], who was financing at least the last several movies, his own movies, with his own money, where you only have to consult yourself on financial decisions.
Baldwin: [What happened with Neve] played out unscripted over the arc of several months. And when we sat down with Neve and said, “We’re gonna go to Cannes and try to sell the movie you’re in,” we meant that at the time. We said that we weren’t playing some game with Neve. [Toback] adores Neve. And I adore Neve. And we both agree Neve is perfect for this role. We wanted a woman that had a certain kind of quality.
Toback: The only reason she wasn’t in it [Seduced and Abandoned] was she was gonna be eight months pregnant when we were shooting.
Baldwin: But the other thing is, when we got over here, people tell you that “We’re not gonna make the movie with Neve Campbell,” I think the most fair thing you can say is that Neve is aware that that’s how the game is played as well. And Neve knows me, her, any one of us is gonna get their throat cut. It’s like being on a lifeboat and you sit there and you say, “In order to get this movie made, one of you has to be thrown over the side of the boat in order for the boat to make it to the shore.” And you realize, it could be any one of us. I’ve never made a movie, other than this with him, in the last ten years where there wasn’t the hand of commerce at your throat crushing your windpipe every day. I’ll never forget, one day I was doing a film and — this is going to sound like a silly anecdote, maybe — but I’ll never forget how stupid it was. I was doing a film and this director said to me, “Now, in this scene, you’re handcuffed in the back of the squad car. You’re this tough guy and you’re a criminal and these other two criminals have kidnapped you. They’re corrupt police officers. And you’re going to escape the handcuffs, you grab the gun from the one guy, shoot him in the back of the head, struggle with the other guy, shoot him, get out — ” They had this whole action sequence planned for a night shoot. The cops drive me out to the edge of town to kill me and we’re in the parking lot of — what’s the big park in L.A.? Griffith Park.
Baldwin: This little movie, Thick As Thieves. I did it for a friend of mine, and we’re sitting in the picnic area of the park. And I say, “So what’s your shot sheet?” And the guy goes, “I don’t have one. I didn’t do a shot sheet.” And I said, “Well, what you’ve just described, the action you want to do, sounds to me like it’s about two dozen setups. And you’ve got about nine hours of dependable night.” They all kind of looked at me embarrassed because it was actually the shortest night of the year.
Toback: [Cracking up.]
Baldwin: I said, “You guys have about nine or ten hours of the shortest period to shoot this.” So I said, “Let’s sit down with a piece of paper and map out how we’re really going to do this sequence, economically, in about a dozen setups, and I’ll show you what I would like to do. Maybe we’ll cut some things, change some things.” And the director and the producer were like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s great.” I said, “Now, when we get to this one part where in the end I’m gonna light the car on fire and blow up their bodies” — I’ve killed them and I’m going to torch the car. I said, “That will be when we’re really, really going to have to take some time to rehearse that and we’ll have video playback before I light the match.” And he goes, “Video playback?” I said, “You don’t have video playback?” The producer and the director look at me and say, “We didn’t have the money in the budget for the video playback because, well, you know.” And they pointed at me! Meaning, “We gave you all the money we had to do the film and it left us with none of the money we needed to do the film properly.” And I thought to myself, That’s the modern independent film world: “We’ve paid you $250,000 to come here for four weeks and we don’t have money for ice or water for the crew. We don’t have a generator. We’re plugging the camera into that old lady’s house, into her trailer. We’re plugging the camera into that ranger’s station over there.” But it was like, every movie I’ve done has been a variant of that.
All of them?
Baldwin: Over the last ten years, yeah!
You seemed ready to throw yourself over the side of the ship, too, if it meant it would be easier to get financing for Last Tango in Tikrit. If Gosling would have signed on, you would have been willing to drop out.
Toback: Well, it would’ve been with Gosling, a younger guy and an older guy.
Baldwin: Listen, as I said to Jimmy, the business is always reminding you when your fortunes in the movie business dip, that you are a castaway on an island and the planes are flying overhead and you’re waving to them and waving to them, or you’re hoping the plane’s gonna fly overhead to come and save you. And then eventually you make peace with the fact that you’re on the island. And you build a home on the island. And you learn to exist on the island. And sometimes you say to yourself, “Even if the plane came and got me, I’m not quite sure I’d go back.” You don’t know, you don’t know. Meaning, how I live my life now, what I do, what I don’t do, I really don’t care. As I said to Jimmy, I have done films since — the first film I did was in 1986. So that’s 27 years ago. And in that time I’ve done every kind of film you can imagine, and I’ve done big parts, little parts, blockbuster films. Then I got drummed out of that corps, so to speak. Indies, comedies, TV. All these things I’ve done. And then I realized that in terms of movies — and forget about 30 Rock and things like that—but in terms of movies, they’ve been challenging and they’ve been exciting to some degree, but they’ve rarely been fun. They’ve almost never been fun.
Baldwin: Never, never. They’ve been interesting, but you always felt that hand of commerce at your throat. With independent filmmaking, it’s “We don’t have enough money in the budget.” Now when you go do the movie with the studio where there’s a lot of money, the difference is this: There’s plenty of money. It’s awash in money. The budget they have for Altoids on that movie is the same as the entire budget of our film [Seduced and Abandoned]. But the problem is you’re sitting in a room with those [studio] people and they say to you, “Who’s going to play Sally Hemings in this biopic of Thomas Jefferson?” And they say, “Sandra Bullock is going to play Sally Hemings.” And you say, “Well, I mean, Sandra Bullock is not an African-Ame— ” And before you finish the phrase they say, “Are you saying Sandra Bullock couldn’t play Sally Hemings?” The producers are saying, “Are you telling me she could not find a way to play that part? Our Sandra? You mean to say our Sandra, in the studio system, are you saying that she’s not qualified to play, that she couldn’t find it in her reservoir or repertoire to play?” It’s a whole other set of problems. When I did this movie with him, we had fun. We had a lot of fun. It’s the most fun I’ve had.
How much truth is there to the part where that one Australian financier tells you your brand is The Hunt for Red October and you have to add things to the movie that are like that?
Baldwin: [Australian accent.] “You’re thinking submarines, mate!”
Toback: That was totally legitimate.
Baldwin: Totally. I was taken aback.
Toback: That was the biggest distributor in Australia and the biggest distributor in Russia, and they’re the two biggest clients of Mark Damon. They just happened to be there at that moment, and when he said, “I just happen to have two distributors here,” that was real. That was what they would have been saying to him: “If you want us to get interested, how about sex on a submarine?” One guy was saying, “Let’s redo 30 Rock,” and the other guy was saying, “Let’s redo Hunt for Red October.” Because that’s the way they think: “What worth is he to us? Hunt for Red October, that was a hit. 30 Rock, that’s a hit.” So they have a frame of reference.
Baldwin: But the most important thing is you go into these rooms and you see, “That’s those guys doing the best that they can with what they have.” I don’t complain or lament. [To Toback.] You might make fun of them every now and then. I don’t complain or make fun of them. You know, Mark Damon is a man who’s like a real estate broker; he needs quantifiable numbers, square footage, location. These guys are more like real estate brokers; they’re not filmmakers. Mark Damon wouldn’t know what a good movie was if it came up and bit him on the ass at the bar of the [Hotel] DuCap. He wouldn’t. But he’s not in that business. He’s not a filmmaker. He is a businessman who is trying to sit there and say, “This one’s worth this and that and this one’s worth this and that,” and he leaves the filmmaking, presumably, to other people. And he and I understand that in this business, you just have to persist.
It must have taken away some of the sting of rejection to get rejected on yachts or at villas.
Baldwin: Rejection is the daily bread of this business and you learn to make peace with that. I’ll never forget one time, I was cast in the movie Ransom and they were very candid with me. Gary Sinese was cast in the film Ransom with Ronnie Howard, and then he became unavailable, and I got a message on my phone — it was right around the time that my daughter was born in 1995 — and they called me up. It was literally ON MY VOICE MAIL, I’ll never forget, it was Ronnie Howard, Brian Grazer, Mel Gibson. And the three of them left me a voice mail together, you could hear their distinct voices saying [chipper], “Hey, Alec!” Another voice said, [deep] “Hey, Alec, it’s Mel.” And the other one said [nasal], “Hey, Alec, it’s Brian.” And the three of them left a voice mail that said, Congratulations to me, I was going to be playing the villain in Ransom, because Sinese, who they wanted, was unavailable. In Hollywood, when you call someone that way, that’s really the white smoke coming out of the chimney that it’s done and you’re going to be in the movie. Within 48 hours, they rescinded the deal because Sinese did become available, and they cut my throat and rehired Sinese and backed out of the deal with me because Sinese’s other project fell apart and they had Sinese. And you realize, it’s like the business, when it goes even remotely well, even when it goes okay, that’s a holiday. Most of it is difficult and tedious and weird. And he [Toback] and I almost made ourselves a promise — I don’t mean to sound too turgid about this — but we sat down and I went, “Jimmy, we’re gonna have a good time. We’re not gonna let this bother us.” Because there’s a lot of shit that could’ve bothered us.
[Hilaria Baldwin comes to join us.]
Baldwin: She and I are gonna go. I’m going to take her for a walk. We have to pick something up at the store, so I’ll leave you with him [Toback]. Ask me what you want to ask me.
What is life after 30 Rock like for you? Are you trying to do more movies?
Baldwin: I don’t know. I don’t think about it. The only thing I’m concerned about right now is my wife’s having a baby and the baby’s due at the end of August and we have a raft of things we’ve got to deal with, with decorating baby’s rooms and baby’s nurses.
Hilaria: It’s not that bad!
Baldwin: Oh, you know, what I’m saying is it’s all great, but I’d much rather be keeping my focus on that … my lifestyle is much more important to me now than work.
It’s not like you have this idea of the kinds of roles that you want to take on now that you’re free of the yolk of Jack Donaghy?
Baldwin: I want to get away from the comedy thing. You know, I did these Capitol One commercials. That’s going to end in the next twelve months, I have one last cycle with them, because they paid me, you know, this extraordinary amount of money. By the time I’m done with them — they paid me about $14 million and we gave all of it to arts-related charities, and that’s the only reason I did it.
Hilaria: And to Hurricane Sandy relief.
Baldwin: And to Sandy. Different charities. And that’s something where the television show — I thought to myself, Well, while I’m on TV I might as well be all in. Because it was an opportunity to make a lot of money for a charity. But that’s going to end as well, and then — I really mean this: If in a year from now I end up getting a real estate license and I wind up selling real estate in New York, that’s okay with me, too. Like, if I keep acting, it’s fine, and I really don’t care. I’ve kind of, like, done that for the last 30 years and if I find opportunities for me that are interesting, I would. But to act just to make money, I don’t really want to do that anymore.
Lena Dunham had said you want to be on Girls.
Baldwin: Well, when you’re around Lena Dunham, you’ll say anything, she’s so charming and so funny. I think I told Lena Dunham I would clean her apartment as well, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m going to show up with a mop and some hand towels. No, I told her, “I just love the tone of Girls.” I never heard from her.
Did you envision what you’d do if you could go on Girls?
Baldwin: I don’t think there’s any question, there’s only one role I could play. That’s the mayor of New York. I mean, what else could I play? I’d be the mayor of New York, who intersects with them in some way.
[He and Hilaria go for their walk and leave me with Toback.]
Baldwin: I’ll be back.
[From here out the answers are from Toback. Until Baldwin returns.]
Okay, Jim. Realistically, if and when you make this Last Tango and Tikrit movie, how much money do you think you can get for it? Because you started with an ask of $15 to $20 million.
I have decided there are several ways of doing it. One of them is that they’ve come back FROM the Middle East, so what you’re getting is the same drama, only it’s in the aftermath. And in a way, that’s more interesting to me. It’s financially radically less expensive, and my guess is that depending on who [is cast] — because I’m seeing it as not just the woman but her husband or boyfriend, who’s younger, and if we had someone like Ryan Gosling in that role, and not what’s her name, Natalie Portman, because I’m not a huge fan of hers, but if it’s somebody else who’s so-called “bankable,” the budget is accordingly higher. I have been literally unable since The Pick-up Artist to make a movie that was not the function of what a preordained amount of money was. No one has ever said to me, “Yes,” period. It’s “Yes, and here’s how much money you’re gonna have to do it.” So I accept that as a given.
Your typical budget is not $15 to $20 million, is it?
No, I’d say commensurately I’ve been going down in budget. Exposed was in 1982 and it was $18 million, which would be like $75 million today. The Pick-up Artist was 1985. It was $19 million, $20 million, which would be like $70, $75 million. Since then I’ve been on a sliding escalade going down and down. And the fact is that in both of those movies, and in only those two movies, where I had many, many more days to shoot — I think I had 68 days in Exposed and 65 days in The Pick-up Artist — I felt that it was counterproductive. These other movies that are eleven days, thirteen days, nineteen days, I much prefer fast schedules, not just because I’m quick and I like doing things fast. I feel I have yet to meet a good actor who doesn’t work better when he’s working fast.
When he’s not thinking so much.
Yes, when he’s not on the phone for three hours, when he’s not sitting in his camper with eighteen distractions. I mean, Robert Downey, what the fuck he was doing in his camper during The Pick-up Artist, you know? Let’s say, I love Downey in Two Girls and a Guy; I think he’s sensational. The part he did in Black and White was terrific. We shot the whole movie, Two Girls and a Guy, in eleven days. His part in Black and White, we shot in four days. As I said, it was 65-odd days in The Pick-up Artist. It was so much worse for him.
Was he on drugs the whole time?
Who knows? I mean, yes. Probably. But easily distracted actors — you give someone time to waste and most people will waste it, me included. You have a two-hour lunch and you decide to make it a three-hour lunch and you’re a little tired, so you say you need a nap for an hour and a half and they call you, they’re ready to shoot, and you don’t really feel like shooting, you’re on the phone. I was on the set of The Devil’s Own, [director] Alan Pakula is a friend of mine. I got nauseous! And I said to Alan, “How the fuck can you survive this shit?” It was two actors on two separate channels, Harrison Ford and Brad Pitt. I didn’t see either of them; they were both in their camper not speaking or whatever the fuck it was. And I said to Alan, “How can you live with it?” And ironically, he said, “This is killing me.” And you know what happened after he finished editing it? He was beheaded while driving on the Long Island Expressway.
He was driving out to the Hamptons, he’d just finished editing — Alan Pakula, a very good director, he did The Parallax View, and The Devil’s Own was a good film — driving out the Hamptons, and some sharp object flew off the back of a truck —
— and beheaded him! I mean, the odds are 20 billion to one! If you had a flying saucer and you had 10,000 chances, you would not be able to just behead the guy. As he’s driving, beheaded. And his last line to me, as I was saying good-bye, I said, “I don’t know how you handle this shit,” and he said, “It’s killing me.” Spooky.
So that to me is — I don’t mind, I’d like to get more money myself. I keep doing these fucking movies for no money for myself and a piece of the back end, which somehow never materializes. I think Tyson they’re finally admitting they’re in profit. But in terms of speed, I honestly believe there is a chemistry that works better for at least my movies. I know that Exposed would’ve been a better movie if there hadn’t been so much time, and The Pick-up Artist would’ve been a much better movie if there hadn’t been so much time.
Is one lesson from trying to sell Last Tango in Tikrit that violence sells more than sex, that sex doesn’t sell anymore?
Well, I think sex has never been an easily saleable element in film, because when you use the word, nobody, including actors, knows what you’re talking about. What do you mean, “sex”? Immediately some people will jump to thinking it’s a pornographic film. Why would you say sex if you didn’t mean “pornography,” or “soft-core pornography”? And if it’s nudity, exactly what is being shot? Are we seeing my dick? Is my dick hard? Are we watching my tits? You don’t ask that about violence. You don’t say, “Are we going to see the spleen erupt or is it just going to go through the body?” No one gives a fuck. You say, “Okay, we’ll assume it’s going to work out.”
So sex is more complicated than violence.
Much more, and therefore more can go wrong, so let’s just forget that, let’s avoid the subject altogether. Or if we’re gonna do it, let’s keep it minimal. If you say that’s what it’s about, nobody’s saying, “Wow, I’m excited to finance that movie.” Listen, it’s a pathetic environment, period. It started years ago. Billy Gerber, who was the head of production at Warner Bros., gave an interview and he said, “Warner Bros. is no longer in the business of drama.” Drama used to be what film was, and now we’re not making drama anymore. It’s like we’re not making movies anymore. Now, that already was true, but he was the first person to articulate it, and it’s only gotten more and more true.
James Franco was saying in a recent interview that he thought movies needed to have more “pay-cable” moments, that pay cable had figured out a way to separate itself from regular TV by doing sexplanation, plot explanation while people have their clothes off or are in the middle of the act. That in movies, stuff happens, you have a sex scene, more stuff happens, whereas in pay cable, they’ve figured out a way to make it seamless.
There’s such a large sector of the population that is exposed, whether it wants to be or not, to everything, that trying to stem that tide is almost comical. So the whole idea of what behavior you should see and where is just absurd: “I’m going to protect you from seeing THAT.” I’d practically have to lock you up, either in a country, a city, an apartment, somewhere. So saying, “What can we show where and how, and what’s allowed,” it’s quaint as a notion. The old debates I had with these fucking imbeciles on the rating board about whether I was going to get an NC-17 or an R, whether I remember how many bobs of the head when Downey was licking the pussy of Heather Graham — and they counted the bobs! I think I had eighteen head bobs, and they told me if I cut it down to three head bobs or two head bobs, it was okay, I could have an R. And I said to the woman who said that, I said, “I want you to show me a guy who got a girl off with two head bobs. If you can do that, I’ll be happy to cut it down to two.” She didn’t find that funny. [Laughs.] There was this humorless idiocy about these discussions. If I hadn’t been personally involved in chopping up my own movies, I would have just howled with laughter at these. These were adults, sitting there at three in the afternoon, talking about how many head bobs could be in a movie.
You quote Orson Welles as saying that he spent 5 percent of his life making movies and 95 percent of his life hustling for money to make his movies. What was the percentage of hustling for this movie?
Getting this movie made was miraculous. It was 5 percent chasing money, and 95 percent making it. It was a miracle! If you’re going to do movies the way Orson is talking about, which is to say “I can’t do them any other way” — and he didn’t do them any other way — where you say, “Here’s the movie I want to do” … well, unless you made a lot of money for everybody over and over again, no one is listening. They’re saying, “That’s nice. Okay, when you’re finished let me know, because I’ll tell you the movie we’re gonna do and maybe you fit in or maybe you don’t, but we don’t give a fuck what you want to do.” And that is why even really good directors now are basically, for the most part, finding out what someone else wants to do, where the money is, and where the stars are. That’s the game. It’s a game that’s understood by even the relatively naïve 21-, 22-year-olds coming out of colleges or just coming off the street. And they’re basically saying, “I’m not doing this because I really wanna do this. I’m doing this because it’s my ticket of admission to that world I wanna get into where I don’t give a fuck. Just tell me what you guys with real money have and I wanna be part of that. I wanna be part of the big world, ‘cause that’s the only one that really exists.” When you see the Independent Spirit Awards, which are a travesty. They’re a joke. They’re the minor leagues of the Academy Awards.
Because Black Swan gets awards and it was clearly made with plenty of money?
It’s overlapping to the point where you say, “Go fuck yourself and don’t exist anymore. You’re not independent of anything. You’re the Dependent Spirit Awards.” It’s a travesty. It’s more corrupt than the Academy because it’s a smaller number of people who get together and decide what’s gonna get nominated and decide. It’s a complete fraud. Why? Because their dream is to play in the big leagues. Their dream is to step up and be part of the Oscars and not the Independent. But they still get up there and congratulate themselves and pat themselves on the back and put their dick in their own asshole. But basically it’s just a charade. The whole question of independence in movies is something that’s been under discussed. How do you make a movie independently? You never do. Film is a dependent medium. I can conceive of a movie, I can write a movie, I can direct a movie, I can edit a movie, I can choose the music. Who’s in it? That’s 90 percent of it right there. If I had a different person than Alec to collaborate with, who cares what I wanna do? The movie’s completely different, and, by the way, not nearly as good.
Are there outtakes from Ryan Gosling?
He’s better in that than —
— than he’s ever been in a movie.
I’ll tell you what there is. There is a 90-minute movie, Gosling, Just Gosling, that you could play without a bump. He is the most intelligent, articulate, charming, likable, seductive actor onscreen, as himself, I think, in the world. Alec is a terrific charmer and tremendously witty and engaging and quick and brilliant. Gosling has a different — he’s coming from a different angle. But it’s just as seductive. And it takes you in, and that pacing! You think that he’s coming to the end of the story and he pauses. Then he hits you with something better. When he tells the story that every actor can relate to, which basically says, “Here is the frustration and misery and failure of being an actor,” he doesn’t even mention that he actually has transcended that. He still feels that way and admits that he feels that. It’s like certain people with a huge amount of money who grew up in poverty. They never forget their poverty. That’s what’s real.
Do you have enough for DVD extras?
He’s gonna be one of the star attractions of the DVD. The guys from Criterion apparently saw it the other day and completely flipped, so I hope that that’s where we go with it.
Is there anything you can tease about? A good Gosling story that’s on there?
The reason I hate to do it is that he does it better than I can do it. His language is that of a really good writer. The specificity of it and the choice of words. Alec is the one who drew him in. Neither of us had met him until we were in the same room. And the first twenty minutes were, not awkward but they were a little bit tentative, and all of a sudden — I can’t remember what I said — I said something that cracked us all up and it was about the nature of the movie and then all of a sudden, he just became completely relaxed. And for two hours or three hours, I would say probably three hours, it was as if none of us had any vague concern there was a camera going, that there was sound going. It was just one terrific story after another.
I like the ones that you had in there about finishing his steak when he thought he was going to die on the plane and loving movies so much as a kid he’d stick them down the front of his pants.
By the way, these were not necessarily the best. It was at least 45 minutes of equally good stuff. It’s just that this fit thematically.
You asked everyone in the movie, “Are you ready to die, right now?” Did Alec have an answer for that?
Well, Alec didn’t want to weigh in. He’s definitely ready and I know he’s ready. He had a reticence about him; he wanted to be on-camera as little as possible. So, he is ready, but the interesting thing to me is that nobody just flat-out said, “Yes.” And some people said they never thought of it before. Bérénice Bejo looks as if death never occurred to her as applying to her. “No!” And Berlucci, “No!” [Cannes president] Thierry Frémaux: “Why you ask me that?” As if you’re helping me to die sooner by asking me that question. People are superstitious about death. The one who gives the best answer, for me, is Coppola, because he says something that absolutely applies to everybody, which is, “I’m not gonna worry about it because it’s gonna come and it’s just gonna interrupt whatever I’m doing.” And if you think about it, every person alive is gonna be interrupted by death, whatever they’re doing. That’s the actual truth of it. It’s not whether you’re ready or not, it’s just death is. And it’s gonna come whenever it comes and you’ll be doing something, even if it’s sleeping, which it will just end like that. And that’s what I think most people are afraid of. Not having any control. All of a sudden you’re told [claps] that’s it. That’s the way the movie ends. All of a sudden the movie ends and it’s black. “Wait a second!” That’s your first response. No, no, no. There is no wait a second. It’s over.
[We talk more, Baldwin returns, and calls the conversation back to the mugging story we began with.]
Baldwin: Are you still here? Well, again, I congratulate you on fighting off those broads.
I did feel great that I managed to defend myself. In some ways, it feels like a positive experience.
Toback: Yes, because you learned something valuable about yourself in that moment. And it’s something you cannot learn unless you are in a situation in which you have no time to do anything but react, which is, I am not a person who will allow myself to be violated.
Baldwin: You’re a tiger. Just tell us where to be at midnight, which underpass, and we’ll be there. You know what works? Wrap your hand around a roll of quarters [and punch them]. You can’t believe how much that hurts.