The Sacramento Bee

Published April 29, 2005

Duchovny filed away memories for 'House of D'

By Dixie Reid -- Bee Staff Writer

David Duchovny was 14 when they tore down the Women's House of Detention in his neighborhood, Greenwich Village in New York City. His mother told him tales of the inmates, how they'd yell at passers-by on the sidewalk below.

"The women would make an awful racket," Duchovny said. "You couldn't get by without being insulted, and their pimps were always out there. One reason it was torn down was because the neighborhood was tired of the clientele.

"I would have walked by the place, but it's weird, I don't remember."

Still, he never forgot his mother's stories, which inspired his big-screen writing and directing debut, "House of D," which opens today in Sacramento.

It's a coming-of-age tale in which Duchovny also plays a role, as the adult Tom Warshaw, an American artist living in modern-day Paris who finally admits to his French wife - prompted by their son's 13th birthday - the truth of his troubled existence.

As Tom talks late into the night, the story reverts to Greenwich Village and 1973, the year before the real House of D came down, to be replaced by a community park.

Now played by Anton Yelchin, Tom is 12 going on 13. His mother (Téa Leoni, Duchovny's real-life wife) is so grief-stricken after her husband's death that she's drunk most of the time.

The boy's only escape is the afternoons he spends making deliveries for a butcher shop with his best friend, Pappass (Robin Williams), the mentally challenged janitor at his school. And with his mother emotionally unavailable to advise him about a girl, young Tom turns to Lady (Erykah Badu), a bored prostitute who converses with him from her second-story cell in the House of D.

Soon, something happens that will send Tom into exile at age 13 and haunt him for the next 30 years.

While Duchovny's script is not autobiographical, the geography and characters of his real childhood "stewed in me for years," he said.

"That's what life is about, the artistic life, using what you know and turning it into something," Duchovny said recently by phone from San Francisco, where he was on a press tour. "It's all true. I wouldn't have made it up, that the prison was torn down and now there's a garden there, because it's too sweet."

Duchovny, who has degrees from Princeton and Yale universities, already had worked as a writer and director on "The X-Files," the Fox network's sci-fi series in which he starred as an FBI agent.

But he saved his Greenwich Village memories for this movie, which he describes as an urban fairy tale.

"I wanted to tell a story of what it's like to become a man at age 40, leaving your childhood and then leaving and coming back to a family. Yet I wanted it to be simple.

"I love the underlying mythology of the lady in the tower, and of Pappass being the child's protector, like a dragon, and what it takes for a boy to grow up and leave behind childish things and become a man. I wanted it to be funny and heartbreaking at the same time," he said.

The first role Duchovny cast was Pappass, with Williams at the top of his wish list.

"In independent films," Duchovny said, "it's hard to get financing unless you have bankable actors involved, and the unfortunate thing is that the star in this movie is a boy (Yelchin), and not a bankable boy. So I had to try to get a movie star in a supporting role."

He called Williams, an acquaintance and an Oscar-winning actor in 1994 for his supporting performance in "Good Will Hunting."

Duchovny told him that Pappass was inspired by a real man from his childhood, a gentle fellow who sometimes played with the Greenwich Village kids. Williams signed on, and his daughter Zelda, now 15, plays Melissa, young Tom's romantic interest.

Then Duchovny went after Badu, the R&B singer whose portrayal of the pregnant, desperate Rose Rose in "The Cider House Rules" had touched him.

"She responded immediately to Lady," Duchovny said. "She said, 'This character is so funny.' I thought that was the key. I always like funny stuff in movies, and she got the humor of that character."

When it came to young Tom, Duchovny wanted an actor who felt right for the part rather than someone who looked like him.

Now 16, the Russian-born Yelchin ("Delivering Milo") is the son of professional ice skaters who immigrated to the United States when he was a baby.

And even though he felt right for the part, Duchovny did insist that Yelchin's curly hair be blown out straight to more resemble his own.

Only one major role remained to be cast, that of young Tom's troubled mother. And Leoni, who was hovering in the shadows as her husband wrote the script, finally tired of waiting to be asked.

"It was late in the process when Téa said, 'Do you have a woman to play the mother? I can do that.' The mother is difficult," Duchovny said, "but I wanted the audience to still root for her. And Téa as a performer has this innate goodness and decency."

He and Leoni, who have two children, will celebrate their eighth anniversary next week.

Duchovny made himself two promises with this script: No one else would direct the movie, and he would shoot it on location in his old neighborhood. (A few scenes were filmed in Paris.)

He found the experience fulfilling.

"As we all know, when we go home, it's an important experience," he said. "It was weird and wonderful to be standing on the streets that I walked thousands of times as a kid and to be there working in the way I was. I won't ever forget it."