INTERVIEW: David Duchovny on "House of D"
By Jenny Halper in New York City
Most of us know him as Fox Mulder, but back in the eighties, David Duchovny was a Princeton-educated poet working towards a doctorate at Yale. Lucky for us "X Files" fans, he took a hiatus from academia and pursued acting. Following a handful of off-Broadway plays and parts in films like "Kalifornia" and “Chaplin,” Duchovny landed a lead role on the groundbreaking sci-fi series that made him a household name.
But writing was always in the cards for the son of late novelist/playwright Amram Duchovny. After penning several "X Files" episodes and directing several more, Duchovny turned his honed skills to the big screen. The result is "House of D," a coming-of-age story opening in present-day Paris and shuttling back to 1970's Greenwich Village, where young Tommy Warsaw (Anton Yelchin) befriends an inmate (Erykah Badu) in the Women's House of Detention. The film also stars Robin Williams as Tommy's friend Pappas, Tea Leoni (Duchovny's wife) as Tommy's mom, and Duchovny as the grown-up Tom.
Read on for Duchovny's thoughts on his directorial debut- and for a surprise roundtable guest. And just in case you fans were getting worried, we do ask about "The X Files." It would have been impossible not to bring it up.
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?
DAVID: 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?
DAVID: 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…
DAVID: 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.
DAVID: It wasn't Park Slope, huh?
DAVID: These were beautiful old brownstones, you know?
Q: There's a European sensibility- was that intentional?
DAVID: 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 "The Four Hundred 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...
DAVID: 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: We asked this question of Rebecca Miller too, for "The Ballad of Jack and Rose." 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?
DAVID: 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?
DAVID: Yeah, sure. Certain activities like stick-ball 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 Pappass. 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?
DAVID: 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 Badu 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 when I realized . . . and started talking about it, it was really. . . 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.
Q: Did you have some trepidation, looking back at that time?
DAVID: It's kind of part and parcel with the Lot's wife story, which is in the movie, which is looking back- I went on line to get Talmudic interpretations of that story because I thought it was really looking back on one's past and that was probably a static thing to do, a thing of bitterness. It's not that they were all like that, there were a few outrageous ones I can't remember, but it really was about not looking back, about moving forward, and so I did want there to be ambivalence about looking back. I have it, and I think we all have it. You don't get to go ahead until you look back.
Q: Were you friends with Robin before you made the film?
DAVID: I didn't know Robin. I'd met him; it's not like we were unfriendly. I would say hello to him, he would say hello to me. I don't think Robin makes movies with friends.
Q: Are you friends now?
DAVID: We're better friends (laughs). I don't think he's had as long a career as he's had by doing movies for friends. He does movies because he likes them or because he gets paid a lot of money, and he didn't get paid a lot of money for this one, he responded to the script. He said, "This is like an urban fairy tale, I've never done an urban fairy tale," and you know, I thought, "The Fisher King," but I didn't want to bring that up. He wanted to do it, and he was very loyal the whole time- he didn't care who else I cast, he just wanted it shot in New York.
Q: How did you find Anton?
DAVID: He'd come in, I was looking for a kid, I'd heard his name a couple times from my acting coach, a guy named Larry Moss, who's great, then from my casting director. He was thirteen when I first heard about him and fourteen the next time. And I didn't want to work with a kid that young- they can only work six or seven hours a day, and they've got to go to school, they baby those kids, you know? So I was looking for a young looking sixteen year old, a young looking eighteen year old- though that might be a little weird. I didn't find anybody like that and finally I said, "bring me that kid," and he walks in and it was like love at first site in actor/director way. I basically chased him out of the audition and cornered him and his mom and said, "just tell me what you need for me to make this happen. I'm scared that Spielberg's gonna call, and offer you money, and I'll never see you again."
Q: And Erykah?
DAVID: Erykah's agent called and said she loved the script and wants to act again- she was in "Cider House Rules." And so I met with her and she was really funny, and to me that was a key to this character. Because I knew she was going to be in this box, and there wasn't going to be any movement, and I thought she was funny, and I thought she got that it was funny. In terms of the other actors, my wife, obviously, and Frank Langella- I think now people finally understand how good he is, he's been undervalued for a long time. And I think he's coming into a Renaissance.
Q: Clint Eastwood's having trouble with the public response to Catholic guilt in "Million Dollar Baby"- are you worried about experiencing that?
DAVID: When I wrote it, and when I shot it, it wasn't topical. When we were shooting it and when we were shooting the scene where the relatives tell Anton she's in a persistent vegetative state, I had this memory, Karen Ann Quindlen, can we reference her? And she was a few years later, '75, '74, so we couldn't do it. The crux of the movie is that the boy remains unknown to his own family for this reason. Whatever side of that debate you come down on, it has huge consequences for him as a human being. That he in effect becomes hidden in that moment that he runs away after doing that.
Q: Was it hard to decide how to divide screen time between the past and the present?
DAVID: Yeah. It was a hard struggle, how to alternate scenes, how to keep it up in the air so you could laugh and perhaps be moved. And then also make it realistic and like a fable. Make it look like real New York and have a fairy tale underpinning to it. I'd play with it. In the script there was more back and forth. It had been written so that Tom was telling the story all night, and you'd check back in with him three, four times. And when we did our first screening, it was a consensus that once you get to the boy's story you want to stay there. And that was something that I didn't know. You don't want to go back and forth after that because you get so involved with the kid.
Q: You really nail the banter between the 13 year olds-
DAVID: That's how I talk (laughs). No, I can hear that, I can hear the way kids talk.
Q: And directing all those kids?
DAVID: Those kids, they were pretty good. What I had to do in the dance sequence was I had to tell them to dance worse! Every single one of them was good at dancing! And I had a choreographer come teach them 70s style dancing, and I told them, "you’ve got to make it lame." Make it much more lame. So that and no high fives, those were the rules on the set, the crew wasn't allowed to high five- I didn't want any of the kids to see it. No high fives, it had to be down low.
Q: Can you talk about the music you chose?
DAVID: The Altman brothers was the only song that was written into the script. (Tommy's girlfriend) was always to be Melissa, so that was the song that they played at the dance.
Q: Why was she named Melissa?
DAVID: 'Cause I liked the song, and I thought it'd be nice if his buddy put it on during the dance. It was one of my favorite girl name songs, so I had that. But it's in the commercial now. And I think that's good, because if you're out of the room, you'll think, "wow, another house of D commercial!" (Laughs) No, there's like, one "House of D" commercial playing every day.
Q: And the other songs?
DAVID: I loved that music from when I grew up, it's not the best music, that's up for grabs, but it means something to me because I was a certain age when I heard it. And so within my budget, which was low, I got a list from my music supervisor for songs I might have, and basically what you can do on a low budget film is basically the way the actors work, for very little up front, with a chance to make some money if the movie makes money. So some people went "no," they wanted their flat fee, they wanted their hundred grand up front, so there were a couple songs that I wanted that I couldn't get. We played a lot with the opening song credits. I had "Crimson and Clover" in the bike stealing scene for the longest time, but then I saw "Monster" and it was in that.
Q: Before anyone asks you about the "X Files…"
DAVID: You can sense that moment…first the awkward silence.
Q: The bike- Is there a metaphor in there?
DAVID: For me, it's like a car for an adult, it's freedom, it’s the ability to get away.
Q: The adult is also riding a bike…
DAVID: Yeah, yeah. The more things change, the more they stay the same. You know? He still is a lover of bicycles. I just thought the bicycle would be the same color as the girl at the dance, green. I'm not controlling it, I'm just going to the most fertile place and waving at it. The bike is what you dream about before you dream of cars, before you get into girls or whatever you get into. The bike was supposed to represent everything to the kid.
Q: Did you really see "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre?"
DAVID: Thank you for enjoying that joke! The movie gets a lot of laughs, but they never laugh at that massacre thing.
Q: Tell us about seeing it-
DAVID: It scared the shit out of me! It killed me! My brother knew I loved horror movies, and I was easily scared at 'em. And we went to see it at the Greenwich Theater which is where I would have shot that scene if it still existed, it's now Equinox Gym. On Greenwich and Twelfth. And we walked home and my brother kept making that sound, like leather face and all that…it killed me.
Q: What's next for you?
DAVID: I'm going to Montreal to shoot a film called "The Secret," Vincent Perez, the French actor, is directing that.
Q: Will there be an "X Files 2?"
DAVID: The only word that I have is I’ve said that I’ll do it, Gillian has said that she'll do it, and Chris has said that he'll do it, and Fox says they want to do it.
Q: Do you think it'll happen?
DAVID: It seems to be a no-brainer decision. You have a home grown concept- all these people are digging through comic books to find good ideas.
"House of D" opens in select theaters today.