INTERVIEW: DAVID DUCHOVNY
David Duchovny's feature directorial debut, House of D, opens in limited release this weekend. Starring his wife, Tea Leoni, and Robin Williams, as well as a couple of fantastic young actors, the movie is a coming of age story set in New York City in 1973.
Of course, when you're interviewing David Duchovny - Fox Mulder! - the X-Files 2 question will come up, so the journalists at the roundtable figured out who would get the honors and Jeff Wilser of Latino Review was the lucky winner. Just giving credit where it's due.
Also, be sure to read to the end, when a special guest joins the interview...
Q: When you decided to come back to New York to shoot the movie, were there any issues with budget and with getting the places?
Duchovny: Sure. I was so desperate to shoot my first movie, and I felt like I was close, because I had a certain amount of money -- I would have shot it in Romania if they said, "Let's go there." Because I just wanted to do it. And luckily I wasn't able. There were many mistakes I could have made in making this movie out of over-eagerness. And that was one of them. Richard Lewis and Adam Merims figured out how to do it within my budget, and also how to get me to Paris. We actually scouted New York locations for Paris when we were here. And we had a place. It was an enclosed courtyard down by the East River. It turns out it would have been more expensive, because we had to pay off all these people that lived above it. So actually it was cheaper to get on a plane, just the three of us, and go to Paris to shoot it.
Q: I was really impressed that you were able to recreate a 70's New York. I grew up in New York, and that world doesn’t really exist anymore. How hard was it to recreate that on the streets today?
Duchovny: It was hard with my budget. I think If I could have painted CGI stuff it would have been easier. And I probably regret that I didn't put more garbage on the street. Like in the middle of the movie, I went, "There's not enough garbage! Shit!" But I didn't want to go back and forth with the garbage. It has to do with cars, mostly. Because I know the city so well, I knew places where it was the same. Any city changes a lot -- obviously this city changes all the time -- but in a big city like this, there are places that kind of remain the same.
Greenwich Village was hard to shoot in, because of the one-way streets, and people have some money [laughs] and they don't like to be disturbed. But if you go to Brooklyn, they have a little less money, and you can give them some money, and they'll let you shoot on their street. So we shot on the home base street in Brooklyn, and real New Yorkers will know there's no two-way street like that in the Village. Forgive me. The major thing that we had to do in terms of making that street look like the 70's -- and this is such an odd thing, but it's so appropriate when I realized it -- there was an American flag in every window, you know, post 9/11. So we just very politely went around and said, "Do you mind if we take. . ." Because if there was a flag in this movie it probably would have been burned at that time. So that was an interesting realization. It was done with cars and clothes, mostly.
Q: Where in Brooklyn? I'm from Brooklyn so I’m curious…
Duchovny: I wish I could remember. Somebody just told me, because they said, "That was two blocks from my house."
Q: It wasn't Park Slope.
Duchovny: It wasn't Park Slope, huh?
Duchovny: These were beautiful old brownstones, you know?
Q: There's a European sensibility that I felt, kind of going back to 400 Blows.
Duchovny: Yeah. I hate to say yes, because it's almost like saying "Guilty." It’s almost like saying, "Yes, your movie will make no money." You know, to say that you like or want to emulate European films. But certainly The 400 Blows was an inspiration of how to deal with childhood honestly. I look at many films in America about childhood, and however good they might be, they're kind of bullshit a lot of the time.
Q: Tell us of the way you filmed it with the moving camera and -
Duchovny: I was just trying to direct for the first time. And Chappy -- Michael Chapman, my cinematographer who's legendary -- he said, "It all went to hell when directors tried to become cameramen." So I had to really beg to be let in sometimes to move the camera around the way I wanted to. He said, "You can have two pan-downs the whole movie. That's all you can have." I said, "I get that, I hate pan-downs, too. But you’re shooting in New York. You gotta pan down."
But I don't think I answered your question yet. Really "Cinema Paradiso" was an inspiration, too -- a more recent film -- the framing device of the man trying to unlock his present unhappiness with an event or relationship in the past, much like in that film.
Q: Since you're a writer, and you've been a poet for a long time, was this story ever supposed to be in prose? Were you ever thinking of writing this as a novel, or was it something you saw as a film?
Duchovny: No, but after I wrote it, I thought it would make an interesting novel. I thought it was kind of novelistic. And actually the guy who edited and published my father's novel -- he published a novel when he was 73, first novel at the age of 73, so that's kind of inspirational -- the guy who published that has published screenplays, books, but not changed, just published the screenplay. So maybe I'll do that.
But when I first wrote the screenplay, it had a much more novelistic ending. It wasn't resolved as it is in the movie. This guy goes back, and it was more like life, in that if you go back 30 years to try and make things right, and try and thank somebody, they're dead or they've moved or they're gone and you can't find them. And that was originally the movie I wanted to make. And we talked about it and tried to get financing, and people want resolution in movies where they can't have it in life. So it became, okay, well I'll make it a movie then. I'll make it a movie-movie. And I'll resolve it. But if there was a novel, it probably could have stood to end that way, not seeing these people.
Q: How much of Tommy was taken from your own youth in New York, from your own memories?
Duchovny: Yeah, I mean, imagistically, sure. Certain activities like stickball or that kind of school, the scholarship, I had a meat delivery job. But the three main characters are completely fictional. My mom is not at all like that mom. I didn't have a friend like Pappas. I didn't know anybody like that. I knew of people like that. I'd never spoken to anyone outside the woman's House of D. It just happened to be in my neighborhood.
So the actual movie-movie of the movie is fictional. But I kind of dressed it in things that I remember. And I thought that if I make it specific enough, it'll actually in the end be universal. I think that if you can be authentic in the way that you describe things or portray things, instead of barring people from them, it's my idea that people actually get more into it. Because they go, "Oh, it's true. It feels right." Pissing on your mom's cigarette butts feels right, because it's not what I've seen before.
Q: What made you want to tell this particular kind of story as your first film? Were you in a situation like the Thomas character is at the beginning of the movie?
Duchovny: Maybe. Not consciously. I didn't choose this to be my first film. It just happened to be the first one that I wrote that got produced. I didn't make that choice. And I didn't choose to write the movie. It just kind of . . . If I'm lucky enough to have an idea -- and I don't have that many of them -- I just write it. I get through it as best I can. I felt like the idea chose me at that time, and I went after the idea. I get a few ideas, and I always ask, is this a movie? Is this a poem, is this a novel, or is this a movie? And this one felt like a movie.
But I think what you say . . . there’s some truth to it. As I look at it now, when I made the film -- it was really about a kid becoming a man. What do you have to do to become a man? You rebel. You isolate. You move away from your family. You reject those things and people that want you to stay a kid. You know: Mom, this mentally handicapped guy who can't make it with you, and Erykah, who by being in prison can't physically go with you. And that's what I felt the movie was about. Along with a guy kind of unlocking the key to his past, the mystery of that.
But then I realized the guy coming back is kind of the opposite movement of what the kid does. And at the age of 40 or whatever, it seemed to me that to become a man you actually rejoin in some way. You know that this guy had isolated himself too much, even from his own family, for reasons that we see -- what happened between him and his mom, and the awful decision that he has to make. But then he's got to join his own family. He's in a family but he's not in it. To become a man again within his family, he has to join up.
Q: Was there some trepidation, though, in looking back at that time? I like at the beginning there's sort of a paradoxical - you have the flashback with the story that you tell, but the music is telling you "Don't look back," the Van Morrison or Them song, or something.
Duchovny: Yeah, Them.
Q: Where was that fear of looking back coming from, do you think?
Duchovny: Well, it's kind of part and parcel with the Lot's wife story, which is in the movie. Which is looking back and turning into a pillar of salt. I actually went online to get Talmudic interpretations of that story because I thought it was really about looking back at one's past, and that was probably a static thing to do that turned you into a thing of bitterness. Pretty much they were all like that – there were some outrageous ones that I don't remember that weren't right for the movie, but it was generally about not looking back, about moving forward. So I did want there to be an ambivalence about looking back because I have it and I think we all have it.
Q: Can you talk about the cast and what you wanted each person to bring? Was it easier to cast the film with your friends?
Duchovny: I didn't know Robin, really. It must say somewhere in the notes that we're friends, because I get that a lot, but we're not. I mean, I met him and we were friendly. I would say hello to him and he would say hello to me, but we weren't friends. And I don't think that Robin does movies with friends. I don't think he's had as long a career as he's had by doing movies for friends. You have to do a movie because you like it or you're getting paid a lot of money, and he wasn't getting paid a lot of money on this one so I think that he liked it. He responded to the script. He said it was like an urban fairytale, and he had not seen that. And I thought immediately "Fisher King!" but I didn't want to bring that up. And he was very loyal the whole time. He didn't care who else I cast, he just wanted it shot in New York.
Anton came in. I was looking for a kid and I heard his name a couple of times from my acting coach and then from my casting director. I knew he was 13 when I first heard about him and 14 the next time, and I didn't want to work with a kid that young because you only get 6 or 7 hours a day and there's an hour for lunch and he has to go to school and an hour for nap – I don't know, they baby those kids! I didn't want to be hamstrung by a kid, so I was looking for a young looking 16 year old, or a young looking 18 year old although that might have been a little weird. A young looking 40 year old would have been fantastic. I didn't find anybody like that and finally I said bring me that kid everybody keeps talking about. He walked in the door and it was like love at first sight in the actor way, or the director/actor way. I actually chased him out of the audition and cornered him and his mom on the way out of the building and said, "Tell me what you need to make this happen. I'm scared that Spielberg is going to call and offer you money and I’ll never see you again!"
Erykah's agent called and said that she loved the script and wanted to act again – she was wonderful in Cider House Rules. So I just met with her and she said the character was funny and to me that was the key to the character. I knew she was going to have to be in this box, there wasn't going to be any movement. I thought that Erykah was funny and she got that it was funny. That's indispensable in the role, that's why I went for her.
And my wife obviously, and Frank Langella was another fun person to cast. I think people now are getting how good he is – he's been undervalued for such a long time. I think he's coming into a renaissance.
Q: This is a Catholic film without the Catholic guilt. Clint Eastwood got into trouble going over the same ground in Million Dollar Baby and now we've had the Terri Schiavo thing. How do you feel about that?
Duchovny: It's odd that it's topical because when I wrote it and shot it, it wasn't topical. In fact when we were shooting the scene where Anton and the relatives have their little set-to and he says she's in a persistent vegetative state I had this memory and realized Karen Anne Quinlan was where this was all coming from. I said when was she, can we reference her, since it was good short hand, but she was two years later, 75/74, so we couldn't do it.
But for me it's a debate that comes up every now and then. I think that the crux of the movie is that the boy remains unknown to his own family for this reason. He can't share this. I think that whatever side of that debate that you come down on it has huge consequences for him as a human being. He in effect becomes hidden at that moment, when he runs away after doing that.
Q: Did you struggle with how much weight to give the present day stuff versus the flashback story?
Duchovny: Yeah. It was a hard struggle. It was the toughest struggle of the movie. The struggles I had with the movie were tone – funny and sad and how to alternate scenes, how to keep it up in the air that you could laugh and be moved in the same movie. And to have it be realistic and like a fable, make it look like real New York but have this fairy tale underpinning of it. And then it was how do you balance the Paris, or the adult, Tom with Tommy. I played with that.
In the script there was more back and forth. It had been written like Arabian Nights where he's telling the story all night and you check back in with him three or four times. When we did our first screening it was like that and then after maybe eight weeks I screened it for a bunch of people and it was a consensus that once you got to the boy's story you should stay there, and that was something I didn't know with the writing. That your attention shifts to this kid and you don't want to go back and forth after that because you get involved with the kid. Then it became a real frame, as opposed to something you check in with every thirty pages or so.
Q: The banter between the kids was so realistic. Did you go to schools and listen to kids talking?
Duchovny: That's how I talk! No, I've always been able to hear the way kids talk. I just remembered or I still hear it or something.
Q: And directing all those kids?
Duchovny: Those kids were pretty good. They were mostly extras. Like in the dance sequence, I had to tell them to dance worse. They were 2004 kids and they all danced. Every single one of them was good at dancing. I had a choreographer that day, which was lucky. She was going to teach them 70s style dancing, and I said that these kids are much too good. You gotta make them lame.
That and no high fives. That was the rule on the set. The crew wasn't even allowed to high five, because I didn't want any of the kids to see it. During the stickball game I didn't want any high fives, it had to be down low, 70s style.
Q: Was it hard getting the music rights?
Duchovny: The Allman Brothers was the only song written into the script, because it was to determine her name. She was always to be Melissa and Sweet Melissa was always to be played at the dance.
Q: Why that song?
Duchovny: I like the song and I thought it would be nice if his buddy put it on at the dance. And Jessica by the Allman Brothers is an instrumental! It was one of my favorite girl name songs.
But it's used in a commercial now. I think that's good because if you're out of the room you'll think, "Wow, another House of D commercial!" When there's really only one House of D commercial and it plays once a day.
I love that music because it means something to me. It may not be the best music or whatever, but it means something to me when I heard it, when music was so important. Within my budget – which was low – but what we did was I got a list from my music supervisor of songs we might be able to have, and basically what you can do on a lower budget film is basically how the actors do – very little money up front but with the chance to make some money if the movie makes money. Music publishers do the same thing now. There were some people who wanted their flat fee, wanted their hundred grand up front, but we couldn't afford that. So there were a couple of songs I wanted that I couldn't get. But I didn't know that Don't Look Back song, we found that. We played a lot with the opening credits. We had Crimson and Clover for a long time over the bike stealing scene and then I saw Monster and it was in that, and Samba Patee was such a great song for that, but Santana wouldn't give me the performance rights, just the publishing rights. So I had the band that was doing the score put that down.
Q: The bicycle – is that a metaphor?
Duchovny: For me it's like the car for the adult – it's freedom, the ability to get away. I just thought also that the bike should be the same color as the girl at the dance – the green dress and the green bike. The Beautiful Green Lady was like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I’m not controlling it, I'm just going to the most fertile place and waving at it. Ostensibly the bike is what you dream about before you dream about cars or about girls, so a bike can represent everything to a kid.
Q: Did you really sneak into Texas Chainsaw 'Massacree' when you were a kid?
Duchovny: Masacree! Thank you for enjoying that joke. I sit in theaters and the movie gets a lot of laughs, which is great, but they never laugh at the Massacree thing. I don't know why it’s a joke, but it's a joke.
The movie scared the shit out of me. It killed me. My brother brought me to that. He knew that I loved horror movies and I was easily scared at them. We saw it at the Greenwich Theater, which is where I would have shot that scene if it still existed, but it's now Equinox Gym. It was on Greenwich and 12th. I walked home – I lived on 11th and 2nd, so we had a crosstown walk home, and my brother kept making that sound. That chainsaw sound – oh man. And still, Leatherface and that – it kills me.
Q: So now it's the X-Files question. Any word on the sequel?
Duchovny: The only word that I've had is that I said I would do it, Gillian said she would do it and Chris said he would do it. And Fox says they want to do it. It seems to me that if all four people want to do it –
Q: Since everyone wants to do it, what timeline are you looking at?
Duchovny: It depends on Chris writing the script. I think he wants to direct it, so it has to do with his deal.
Q: Do you think it'll happen?
Duchovny: Oh yeah. It seems like a no-brainer decision. You have a homegrown franchise while all these people are digging through comic books to find good ideas – Daredevil and stuff like that.
Just then, Robin Williams came into the room.
Williams: You know, some people say there are no Jewish superheroes.
Duchovny: I’m half Jewish.
Williams: Retail Man.
Q: What’s next?
Duchovny: I'm going up to Montreal to shoot a film called The Secret. Vincent Perez is directing that.
Q: You know, a lot of people think that House of D stands for House of Duchovny.
Duchovny: It's a problem. But we know what my real name is, right Robin?
Williams: Mr. David Du-cock-knees.
Duchovny: My name is Robert Ducudny. I'll tell this story quickly - I was working in LA and this homeless guy came up to me and said, “Robert Ducudny! I love all your series.”
Williams: Yeah! I saw you in da Z-Files!
Duchovny: I went back to work on the X-Files and and the crew kept referring to me as Robert.
Duchovny: Robert Ducudny, da greates' actor eva.