Christianity Today

Coming of Age

Former X Files star David Duchovny "grows up" to the silver screen in his directorial debut, about a young boy wrestling with life's realities in the process of becoming a man.

by Jeanne and Stefan Ulstein posted 04/12/05

In his seven-plus years as Agent Fox Mulder on the popular TV show The X Files, David Duchovny's character had opportunity after opportunity to explore the paranormal, trying to find explanations for the inexplicable. Duchovny eventually wrote, co-wrote and even directed a number of those episodes, so it was only natural that he would want to do the same with a feature film some day.

That day has now arrived with House of D, Duchovny's feature film debut as a writer and director, which is now playing in limited release. In the story, Duchovny explores not so much the paranormal, but the deep things of memory and how our past experiences shape our present and future. The plot follows a grown man, Tom (played by Duchovny), who must make peace with his past. As he reminisces, the film flashes back to him as a 13-year-old, where we meet some of the key figures in his life - - his possessive, widowed mother (played by Duchovny's real-life wife, Téa Leoni), a mentally challenged janitor (Robin Williams), and a wise female convict (Erykah Badu) at the local prison, literally The House of Detention from which the film's title comes.

We caught up with Duchovny, 44, recently in Seattle, where he was promoting House of D, and chatted about the film, his characters, and the process of a boy becoming a man.

What was the genesis of the idea for The House of D?

David Duchovny: Living in Greenwich Village in the '70s, I had heard that there was a women's prison, The House of Detention, right in the middle of my neighborhood. It intrigued me that there was this prison right where people would walk by, going about their business. It was torn down before my time, but the idea just intrigued me.

There's a park there now where the prison used to be. I wondered, How can I use that to mirror the way people change? How do I tell a story about what keeps a man imprisoned and what it is that makes him free? I wanted to use that frame, the change from a prison to a park, to show how people imprisoned in their own lives can blossom and grow emotionally and spiritually.

The strange relationship between the boy and the woman convict serves as a centerpiece for the boy's coming of age. Was it possible for people to hold those kinds of conversations between the sidewalk and the prison windows?

Duchovny: Mostly it was prisoners yelling to their husbands, boyfriends and pimps, but I liked the idea that this kid would find wisdom from this faceless, imprisoned voice within the walls. I was inspired by films like Cinema Paradiso, Amarcord and even Stand by Me that dealt with kids learning about life and feeling loss as they have to grow up. The woman [in House of D] is a convict, but she has a lot of life wisdom and she is the first one, before Tommy's mother or Pappass, who realizes that to grow up he has to move on and cut ties.

"Lady," as she is known to the audience, is not embittered by her situation. Despite being locked up, she's full of goodwill and she cares about Tommy, and she is in tune with the ways that his life is changing.

Can you elaborate on that?

Duchovny: I was always moved by the song - - this will sound corny - - "Puff the Magic Dragon," where the boy has this great friendship with the dragon that he has to leave as he grows into a man. We grow up and we have to leave relationships that don't grow with us. Like Pappass, the mentally challenged man, and Tommy. Tommy is becoming a man, but Pappass will always be a child in a man's body, locked into a certain age. And there's also the relationship Tommy has with his mother. She's so possessive that he can't grow up without, in a sense, leaving her behind.

The friendship between the mentally challenged Pappass and Tommy is a key part of the story. Did you know someone like Pappass when you were growing up?

Duchovny: There was a kid in my neighborhood who had a very close friendship with a man who was mentally challenged. I didn't really know them, but their relationship was very natural, and a part of the community. I wondered what happened to them as they grew. You know, When I became a man I put away childish things. I drew from that.

This is a pretty controlled performance from Robin Williams. Did you have to rein him in?

Duchovny: Robin couldn't just go off on his wild verbal riffs because, after all, the character is mentally challenged. He could improvise visually though. He's really intense about getting the scene right. He'd do take after take - - "Just one more, boss?" His wife was on the set because their daughter, Zelda, plays Tommy's girlfriend. I'd just ask his wife, "How do I stop him?"

Music plays a big part in creating the atmosphere and mood of this film.

Duchovny: Music is like smells. You hear a bar or a phrase and it takes you back to where you were. I wanted to use period music from the '70s, but the budget was limited so we had to hunt around. Some of the musicians were very helpful and gave us a good deal based on future royalties if the film does well. I felt that the music was needed to take the viewer back to a particular time. I especially wanted the Carlos Santana instrumental, "Samba Pa Ti," but it was just too expensive. I asked the band if they knew it and they said, "No problem." They just played it and it was great.

Did you set out to create a character-driven film as opposed to a plot or action driven film?

Duchovny: I was intrigued by the idea that these tiny, tiny occurrences have huge reverberative consequences. Steal a bike and your life changes forever. I believe that's the way life works.

I wanted to write a $1 million dollar movie so I would be able to get financing, so that kept me from writing in a lot of action or locations. But really, I wanted to write something that audiences would care about. Everyone comes into the theatre wanting to care about the people on the screen. That's what really interests me.

The relationship between Tommy and his mother is extremely close, in a dysfunctional way, yet we feel a great empathy for her.

Duchovny: She's a single mother whose husband is dead and she has a son who is very special. In her desire for him to have the best, she becomes too attached and she doesn't understand that he will need to grow up and, in a sense, leave her behind, so I think it's kind of a heartbreaking relationship. I didn't want her to be a villain in any way, but rather to be a good person whose actions come out of her pain and her good intentions. I didn't want her to come across as just clingy or needy. I wanted to walk a fine line between making her protective and making her overprotective.

There is a physical closeness that makes Tommy uncomfortable as he begins to grow into puberty.

Duchovny: It was a difficult line to walk deciding how much space to invade. I grew up in a small apartment and my mother would come in all the time to use the bathroom when I was in the shower - - and when she'd flush you'd be scalded! It was interesting to see that scene in a theatre. Some people laughed and some gasped, like, "What an intrusion!" But for me, and for anybody who grew up in a neighborhood like mine, it was normal. I mean, we had only one bathroom, so you had to.

Is there anything about the heart of this movie that you wish interviewers would ask about but they don't?

Duchovny: I guess what I am afraid of is that I set out to make a movie about how hard it is to grow up, but because of the closure at the end, people might miss that. I wanted to have a happy ending, you know, in the movie sense. I don't think that life has happy endings, but movies certainly can. The prison has become a garden. I wanted to draw relationships that were difficult, between the mother and the child, and between the boy and this mentally challenged man, and the prisoner and the boy. And between the minister at the school and the boy.

There was a lot of misunderstanding [in those relationships] and a lot of good intention leading to difficulty, and I wouldn't want that to be lost in this becoming a lark, or a breezy coming-of-age story. I certainly wanted it to be funny, but I wanted it to have some weight at the same time.

A hopeful ending, as opposed to a happy ending.

Duchovny: Yes. I don't think it really has an ending because this guy has finally copped to his past. He's tried go back and say thank you. His secret has been destroying his life. I wanted to make a fairy tale with that at its heart. Now he has a chance to move on.