Film Stew

Thursday, April 21, 2005

House of Duchovny

Former X-Files icon David Duchovny says that despite its setting in the Greenwich Village of his youth, not everything in House of D is autobiographical.

By Pam Grady

In a pivotal scene in House of D, David Duchovny's maiden feature film writing-directing effort, the drama's main character, 13-year-old Tommy Warshaw, arrives styling for a school dance, circa 1973, in a double-knit polyester jumpsuit in a shade of orange that can only be described as garish. Since the 44-year-old actor was, in fact, thirteen in 1973, did he ever own what looks like a jailhouse uniform, if one were incarcerated in, say, Studio 54?

"No," he chuckles during a recent interview with FilmStew, "but I wanted one. I was attracted to those kinds of colors, oranges and reds. I grew up in kind of a Latin neighborhood and there were a lot of colorful characters. I thought polyester was the way to go."

Duchovny seems to have gotten over that. On this sunny day in San Francisco, so warm that he is conducting all of his interviews on his hotel suite's expansive terrace, he is dressed for success in a buttery soft black leather shirt. It is a simple garment, but one that measures the distance between a teenager's flamboyant daydreams and his adult self's success.

In House of D, Tommy (Anton Yelchin) finds himself nursing his first big crush while worrying over his depressed, recently widowed mother (played by Duchovny's real life wife Tea Leoni). His father's gone, his mother's emotionally unavailable, and his best friend, the child-like middle- aged janitor Pappass (Robin Williams), is too slow-witted to advise him in affairs of the heart. So, Tommy turns to an anonymous inmate he only knows as 'Lady' (Erykah Badu), at the nearby Women's House of Detention, for counsel.

The movie is set in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Duchovny's childhood. He wrote the first draft of his screenplay in only six days, a feat he ascribes to his familiarity with the milieu. "These were images, somewhat, and certainly places from my childhood," he explains. "They were just deeply embedded in my psyche and they were very easy to access once I started writing."

Still, he claims the story is not quite autobiographical. His father, the writer Amram Ducovny, did not die when he was a child. It was his dad, in fact, who provided partial inspiration for the Paris location from which the adult Tom - - played by Duchovny - - reminisces about his life-changing thirteenth year. The elder Ducovny (he dropped the "h" in the family name as a young man only to have his children return to the original spelling), who passed away in 2003, retired to the City of Lights where he enjoyed his son's X-Files success from afar.

"He was known as 'Pere du Mulder,'" laughs Duchovny. "He said, 'You're helping me get free coffee. Thank you!'"

Duchovny remained confident as he was working on the script that this would be his first directing effort, given his knowledge of the environment and time period. But, as with so many independent endeavors, financing was tenuous and he went through periods where the money was an on again, off again proposition.

While that uncertainty vexes many a filmmaker, Duchovny admits that sometimes he would find it a relief when his backing fell through, an attitude he candidly chalks up to fear. "There were a couple of times when I'd lose my money, I'd go, 'That's OK. I won't make this movie.'"

"Maybe that's a defense mechanism," he admits. "But I think I was scared, scared to direct, so I was like, 'At least nobody will know that I didn't really want to do it, because I lost my money and it wasn't my fault.' But then I'd think, 'I really can't do it. I can't do it, so it's great that I lost my money.'"

Casting might have been the easy part for Duchovny, particularly the role of Tommy's troubled mom. For that, he never even had to leave the house to find the right actress, tapping his awesomely talented bride Leoni for the part. He had no hesitation about directing his spouse, but he allows that while he had every confidence in Leoni, she fretted over the role.

"It was really difficult for her, because she was really conscious of not failing me, because she knew how important the whole project was for me," he explains. "She was just really scared that she wasn't going to get it, that she wasn't going to do it right. It was tough her for emotionally."

If he had any trepidation about casting Williams, an actor who so often goes over the top or gives into off-putting sentimentality, Duchovny will not admit it. He will only say that when Williams first brought up the subject of using prosthetic teeth and altering his ears, he was concerned both from a budget perspective, in that false teeth cost a fortune, and because he did not want Pappass to have any recognizable condition, such as Down's Syndrome.

"I wanted [Pappass] to be mythical," says Duchovny. "The point was that the guy was the childhood protector who you outgrow. He's a fairytale character. He's an ogre. He's a dragon. It's 'Puff the Magic Dragon.' Little Jackie Paper grows up and poor Puff has to stay behind alone."

When Williams showed up on set for the first time in full makeup, including the prosthetic teeth, Duchovny's fears were allayed. "It was subtle and yet profound, but that was really all the directing I did with Robin, just stay on the same page with this guy."

But as vital as these adult roles are, the most important character is that of young Tommy. Duchovny found himself drawn to the now 16-year-old Yelchin, a three-time Young Artist Award nominee and a winner for his role as the little boy at the center of Hearts in Atlantis. The filmmaker found the combination of the Russian-born teenager's physical presence, which he describes as coming from another time and his accent irresistible.

"His parents are Russian émigrés, they're both figure skating coaches, and I think because he speaks Russian at home and they have such heavy accents, he's got a real interesting way of speaking that is not typical American," Duchovny observes.

More than that, Yelchin's maturity wowed his director. "He's such a unique individual. He's really an artist at the age of 14, which to me is shocking. Anton just brought that every day," raves Duchovny.

With his cast locked down, Duchovny moved on to bigger challenges in re-creating the 1970s in 21st century Manhattan, finding a suitable substitute for the long gone Women's House of Detention, and answering a variety of technical problems. He happily discovered that re- creating the period was not as daunting a task as it appeared to be on paper.

The whole period thing for me was putting a car in front of something that said, you know, 'Re- Elect Clinton,' things like that," he laughs. "I did want to get a big bus. I brought that bus everywhere I went. 'Why is that bus in the background of every shot?' It was like a green Opel that you see four, five, or six times in the movie, but it's almost like a magic trick. You give people certain clues, like the cars, and hopefully, they don't notice anything else.'"

In the end, Duchovny found his House of D in a disused armory, being careful never to show the top of the building where silo-like armaments are a dead giveaway to its actual identity. But this location proved to be the movie's biggest challenge. The scenes involve Lady several floors up in her darkened cell talking to Tommy on the street and using a mirror that she thrusts between the bars to be able to see him.

The technical issues were enough to give Duchovny's cinematographer, the legendary Michael Chapman, lensman of such classics as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, fits. "Chappy scared me to death, because he kept saying, 'I don't know. How are we going to shoot that House of D stuff? I'm really worried about that,'" Duchovny recalls. "'I don't even think we should ever see her.'"

Once filming commenced, Duchovny and Chapman would meet at the armory every weekend to discuss the scenes' problems, which involved not just the contrast between light and dark, but sound issues, as well. These scenes are intimate, yet the two characters are spatially far apart. Did Duchovny really want the two actors yelling at each other?

Eventually, the two men worked out solutions to the location's problems, so much so that when they were done shooting there, Chapman finally conceded, "You know, I didn't think you should show her, but now she's stealing the movie. She's great."

Though Duchovny had directed a couple of X-Files episodes, this was his first real trial. The experience was a happy one and he looks forward to doing more. "I really enjoy directing. I love collaborating. I love giving people the chance to do great work, hiring people like Chappy and [[production designer] Lester Cohen and [costume designer] Ellen Lutter and being the recipient of their talents," he says.

"I like to run a set where everybody feels like they can - - not that it's chaotic and everybody's directing - - but I want to hear their ideas."

As a final example, he talks about the day he shot at Kennedy Airport. He used scarce budget dollars to rent a crane for a complicated shot, but his script supervisor suggested a simpler setup in the terminal hallway, and Duchovny agreed that that offered a superior shot. "And I sent away my crane," he remembers with a laugh. "I paid for it and I didn't use it. I felt kind of ballsy and yet stupid at the same time."