CONTRA COSTA TIMES

Posted on Sat, Apr. 23, 2005

From Duchovny's files

By Mary F. Pols
CONTRA COSTA TIMES

DAVID DUCHOVNY wants to make you cry. Oh, and he'd like you to laugh, too. That's important.

In order to do so, the former "X-Files" star has stepped behind the camera, directing his first feature film, a quirky little tearjerker called "House of D," which he also happened to write.

It's a coming-of-age story, but not what you'd call Lindsay Lohan material; the lead is Tommy (Anton Yelchin), a teenage boy whose best friend is a mentally disabled middle-aged man, played convincingly by Robin Williams. The setting is Greenwich Village in the early '70s, where the duo spend their time delivering meat from a bicycle cart and hanging around outside a woman's prison (the House of Detention of the title).

With a premise like that, you've got to ask: Would Duchovny have stood a chance of getting a movie like "House of D" made if he weren't a veteran of one of the most influential television shows of all time? Probably not. Still, on a recent April day, sitting on a terrace at the Ritz Carlton in San Francisco, Duchovny recalled the struggle even he had to find financing.

"There was the getting of the money and the losing of money," he said. "Five days before shooting there wasn't any money and four days before shooting there was. Then two days before there wasn't. I stopped paying attention. I just thought it is either going to happen or it's not. I've got to just keep working."

Duchovny wanted to break the typical mold of movies about teenagers, ones that tend to pander to adult sexuality, citing "American Pie" as an example. In pitching to the money types, he kept telling them there should be room for a movie that makes the audience feel something.

"That was always my pitch, that this is a movie where you are going to laugh and cry. That is the cliche movie-going experience, you can't get any more mainstream than that. So this may seem small and quirky, but if people go to the movies to feel something, if they go to laugh and cry, then this is a blockbuster."

At 44, Duchovny is heart-meltingly handsome. Tall and lean, clad in a soft leather shirt, dark jeans and a pair of Ray Bans, he seems far more a movie star than a director. He knows how to charm; one senses he's adept at switching conversational gears depending on his interviewer.

But he's also a guy with an unusual resume, one that points to interests far beyond starlets and fast cars. He'd already gotten his master's in English literature from Yale and was close to finishing his doctorate when he developed an interest in acting. After years of reading screenplays, learning their style almost by osmosis, he decided he wanted to write them. He wrote a pair of "X-Files" episodes back in the day and has two more feature film scripts in a drawer somewhere.

The script for "House of D" came rushing out of him in six days, which makes one wonder about the circumstances.

"You mean what drugs were involved?" he says with that trademark Duchovny wit. Or how does a dad with two small children running around the Malibu home he shares with his wife, actress Tea Leoni, get anything done? (Here's a twist: Leoni plays Tommy's mother in "House of D" and Duchovny plays him as an adult.)

"We have a home office I just kind of disappear into," he says. "When I'm in that way, when I'm with child (as it were), with script, I will tell my wife that I've got to go do this now. And I'll write in 20 page clips."

"I remember studying John Berryman's poems and some critic said that he used to write his first draft of a poem and then he'd put it under a glass plate and he'd stare at it. He wouldn't allow himself to change it, but he'd go crazy with wanting to revise it until he couldn't stand it anymore and then he'd take it out. That's kind of me with writing."

The first spark of writerly inspiration came from his own childhood. The House of D had been a landmark in the New York City neighborhood where he grew up. He doesn't remember it, but he'd heard about it from his mother. His plot is structured around that place, with Tommy befriending an inmate (Erykah Badu) who offers him advice from her window.

"My mother told me that you could just be walking by on your way to work and some prisoner would yell at you. That doesn't happen in America (anymore) and I thought, that is a really interesting dramatic situation, a fascinating one."

From inception through final production, Duchovny was a hands-on director. He took a particular interest in casting Tommy (sensibly, since the success of the movie hinges on Yelchin's bewitchingly touching performance). The story of how he found his young star is fitting for a man who wants to make his audience weep.

His personal acting coach and the casting director had both urged him to look at Yelchin, who had starred in "Hearts of Atlantis" in 2001 as a 9-year-old. But Duchovny didn't want to deal with the time constraints that come with child actors. He wanted to cast someone older who looked younger. After a succession of interviews, including one with a kid who, he says, "had chest hair!" Duchovny finally relented.

"In despair I said, 'Bring me Anton Yelchin, bring me the head of Anton Yelchin!'" he joked. "After about 30 seconds of him reading I started to cry because I knew that he was the right kid."

Mary F. Pols is the Times movie critic. Reach her at 925-945-4741 or mpola@cctimes.com

PROFILE

WHO: David Duchovny

WHAT: Director, screenwriter and star of "House of D"

WHEN: Opens April 29 in select area theaters

The D-Files

Here are a few things you might not know about actor turned writer/director David Duchovny.

He's got something in common with President George W. Bush: He went to Yale, where he earned a master's degree in English literature and started work on a doctorate. His unfinished thesis was titled "Magic and Technology in Contemporary Poetry and Prose."

He's sporty: At Princeton, where he got his undergraduate degree, he was a shooting guard on the basketball team. Now he does triathlons.

He's not afraid to be edgy: In "Twin Peaks," he played a detective who also happened to be a transvestite. On "The Larry Sanders Show," he played himself, only a version deeply attracted to Garry Shandling. In "Sex and the City," he was one of Sarah Jessica Parker's lovers, who just happened to have checked out of the mental hospital for a few days.

He's co-starred with Brad and Angelina: He appeared in "Kalifornia" with Pitt and in "Playing God" with Jolie.

He's done erotica: For four seasons, he narrated the erotic anthology series "The Red Shoe Diaries."

He's a devoted dad: Duchovny and his wife, actress Tea Leoni, have a daughter, Madelaine West, 6, and a son, Kyd Miller, 2. Both kids go by their middle names.