IGN FilmForceInterview: David Duchovny
We talk to the director/writer/star of House of D.
April 12, 2005 - Ever since his departure from the long running and highly successful X-Files, we haven't seen a whole lot of David Duchovny. He has turned up in some smaller roles such as last year's Connie and Carla and a very amusing role in Zoolander, but outside of the commercially disappointing Evolution, it's almost felt as if Duchovny has stepped out of the Hollywood limelight for good.
Not so. As it turns out, Duchovny has been quietly slaving away prepping and then shooting his directorial debut, The House of D, which he also wrote and co-stars in. Beyond that, Duchovny now says that plans are in the work for a new X-Files film, and that creator Chris Carter could have a film ready for production as early as 2006! Duchovny's hiatus from the public eye could come to a screaming halt at the hands of rabid X-Files eagerly chomping at the bit for new stories.
In House of D, Duchovny stars as Tom Warshaw, a bohemian artist living in Paris who one night decides to tell his French wife the long and complicated story of his checkered youth. We head back in time to 1970s Greenwich Village, with Anton Yelchin portraying the young Tommy. His best friend growing up is a mentally challenging individual named Papass (Robin Williams) and the two deliver meat together after school. Tommy's home life is falling apart after the death of his father. He is close to his mother (Tea Leoni) but she has had trouble facing reality since the loss of her husband and spends much of her time medicating herself out of dealing with life. Tommy soon turns to the unlikeliest of sources for advice. When passing the infamous ladies House of Detention in the middle of the city, Tommy befriends a cellmate (Erykah Badu, known only as Lady in the film). She is stuck in a cell above and can only see Tommy through a piece of broken glass she holds out to see the boy below. Tommy comes to Lady for advice and she eventually encourages him to break out of his shell and move on with his young life. Duchovny also grew up in Greenwich Village in the '70s and admits to certain shared similarities in the story and his own upbringing.
IGN FilmForce recently spoke with Duchovny in Los Angeles about his transition to directing and exactly what he's been up to these past few years.
House of D is a very personal story for Duchovny, but he says it's not really an autobiography in that sense. His own story was more of a jump-off point for the story of Tom Warshaw. "There's a lot that is absolutely from my childhood," Duchovny says with a smile. "Not so much scenes, but environments. I knew what a stickball game should look like, I knew what riding that bike around feels like. I know what it's like to live in an apartment where you only have one bathroom, so while you're taking a shower your mother comes in to pee. I love that reaction in the audience because it's always split. It's like half gasps because they've been watching Oprah… And half laughs because they know, you live in a small apartment, you gotta pee, you gotta pee. It's not child abuse, it's living in Manhattan. So that feels real to me. What actually happened? It's funny to say and insignificant in a way, but the thing with calling a girl flat and then the girls coming and saying, 'Small balls,' that actually happened to me. And I thought I had to leave school… The raised stakes of being 12 years old. 'Oh my God, my life is over. These girls don't like me…'"
The name of Anton Yelchin is likely unknown to most, but his performance in House of D could be his breakout. "I didn't care how the kid was going to look. I knew I could dye his hair. He had to be Caucasian. That was it, you know, in order to be me, it didn't matter… I just wanted the best actor… It's a hard role. This kid has to be really available emotionally, he's got to be funny with Robin Williams, he's got to have integrity, he's got to seem like an artist, he's got to be sensitive, he's got to be strong and it's hard to find a 14-year-old that can do that… I was just lucky that late in the process that Anton, a name that I'd heard from people that know kid actors, came in and he just, never a question after that, from the moment he opened his mouth…"
Duchovny had at first envisioned himself as the simple-minded Papass, but soon realized that the intense demands for that role, on top of directing a film for the first time, would be too much to take on all at once. He decided to take a smaller role as the adult Tom Warshaw. "The role of the adult boy I kind of intuitively understood, just having written it. The amount of days, which was maybe eight or nine out of the 34, was doable. The role was doable for me. Actually, as an actor, I found it really kind of interesting. My mind was so off of the performance that I think it gave me a certain kind of freedom and lack of self-consciousness because I was thinking about a lot of other things. It only really got in the way when I'd be, like, in a two shot with Robin or another actor and if they started to do really well or if I thought the scene was going really well, I'd kinda get excited and I'd go, 'I can't start smiling, I've gotta stay in the scene…'"
Adding the name Robin Williams to a movie poster also greatly helps create a more bankable film. "I knew I had to get a bankable star to kind of drive the independent financing. That's how these movies are made a lot. They call them independent, but they're actually dependent. I had a kid lead, which is bad. There are no kid stars, they don't exist. Maybe Macaulay Culkin for a little while but that was it. You don't have kids that drive financing. So I had supporting roles basically that I had to hinge my financing on, which is tricky, difficult and scary and could have easily doomed this picture to never getting made. I was lucky to get Robin early on. He's the first person I asked and he was loyal… That was really the linchpin of getting the movie made. And I wanted Robin. I always conceived of Pappas' character as a man among boys, which is really what he is. Robin has a real kind of physicality. He's very powerful. He hurt me a couple of times just shaking my hand and I'm not tiny… I wanted that strength because I wanted him to be somewhat scary if he snapped…"
At first, Duchovny has imagined the look of Papass to be pretty close to normal. He didn't want the focus to be on a physical deformity. "I didn't want him to change physically because, I said, 'You don't have a syndrome that I knew of, you're not handicapped in this way. This is a mythical guy, but we're not going to diagnose him. We're not going to go to a book…' Therefore, I didn't want him to look any different, but Robin, wanting to, as an actor, uses his imagination, uses all the tools which you have access to, he said, 'I want to do something with my teeth and my ears.' I said, 'Okay,' and then the bill came and I was outraged, because I couldn't afford it. It was like 40 grand for the aging, it was more. It was a lot. It was like a day of shooting that I would give up, and I would have made the bad decision of not using it, but Robin really wanted to do it and it was a much better idea then if he hadn't. It was money well spent."
To play the part of the mother to Tommy, Duchovny didn't have to look very far. He found the perfect choice right at home in his wife, Tea Leoni. "I order her around the house, so this is pretty much the same. (Laughs) No, it's the reverse of our relationship at home probably. It was only a week, she only had the six days of shooting and it was the first six days, so it was very comforting for me to have her on set. I could go to her and say, 'Is this s**t, does this work?' It was the first time I was seeing people speak the words. It was nerve wracking for me as well. I had had these guys, the mother and the son in my head and now they were speaking. Do these scenes have any flow, were they funny, were they sad, were they real? All these questions that jump up at you when you first shoot a film, it was nice to have her there…"
House of D has a striking and high energy soundtrack that should be immediately recognizable to music fans and those who grew up during the time period. "It was the intersection of my personal favorites and songs I could afford. Some of my personal favorites I couldn't afford and some I actually really liked that I hadn't remembered. 'Melissa' was written into the script, the character's name was always Melissa, so that song was always instrumental in the writing and the execution of the script. To have Erykah sing that version of 'Melissa,' it was great to have Erykah, to have an actual singer, to pull that off. I didn't hire her because she could sing. I wasn't gonna make an actress sing if she couldn't…"
Shooting a low budget indie film in Manhattan is becoming nearly impossible these days. Between permits and the generally high overhead of one of America's most expensive cities, most now choose to find a doable look-alike such as Vancouver or Montreal. It was important to Duchovny to stay in New York. "Location scouting was a challenge… The Village is really similar. The buildings really haven't changed that much. The stores have changed. Starbucks is gonna kill you wherever it is if you're trying to make a '70s piece. You can find it in the Village, but we actually shot Brooklyn for the Village, for the street of the home, just because it was bigger, it was less crowded, it was easier to get in and out. We could own the block. In a '70s movie, on my budget, it's really all about the cars and the clothes. So, you know, I've just gotta get the cars off the street and put my handful of period cars and, hopefully, you guys will get fooled by these gestures because I don't really have the money to do all the wizardry that other people might have. The biggest logistical problem for me was the fact that the House of D is no longer there. So how do I shoot a prison in the middle of the city in a city that doesn't have a prison in the middle of it and also stitch that location into the actual location that I do have, which is the House of D garden, which is in the middle of the Village? I was all over the city looking at buildings that could be prisons and we went everywhere… My first choice was always the Lexington Armory on 25th there, which is what we shot. It looks pretty good…"
Writing and directing a first film involves a lot of preparation and a whole lot of rewrites. When asked how similar the finished project is to his original vision, Duchovny pauses and laughs a little. "It's miles away from the original vision because the original vision is some weird daydream that's running through your head. What is the same is the feeling. I think I executed the feeling that I wanted. I wanted to make a movie that was both very specific, individual and universal. I wanted to make a movie that appeared to be personal and small but actually had a foundation underneath it of, you know, mythic power and fable and fairytale and I wanted to make a realistic movie that was also a fairy tale. And a movie that would make you laugh and cry, you know, just in the terms of the classic movie-going silly blurb on a movie… It seemed to me that people go to the movies to do that exactly…"
-- Jeff Otto