U-San Bernardino County Sun

Duchovny's new direction

'House of D' puts actor behind the camera - and back in the New York of his childhood

By Evan Henerson
Staff Writer

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Sunshine spills down on an unspectacularly typical April afternoon in Beverly Hills, where David Duchovny - an Angeleno who spent a significant part of his early career chasing aliens on location in Vancouver, British Columbia - is asked whether the New York City of his youth still exists.

The writer and director of "House of D" - which tenderly re-creates Duchovny's Greenwich Village stomping grounds of the 1970s - considers for a moment.

"Someone asked me that question when I was walking in New York about a month ago," says Duchovny, "and I started looking around and I saw a lot of things were different, and then I realized I don't see what's changed. I walk those streets and I imagine I see the same things I always saw. It's really weird. Unless it's dramatic, to me it looks exactly the same, but I realize it's not. So that was a kind of odd realization that I was living in a fantasy world."

"The most dramatic thing is the World Trade Center being down," says Duchovny. "But I would say the most dramatic change is the franchised nature of New York. It hasn't fully gone, but a city like New York used to be about individual businesses. You didn't have Starbucks on every corner."

"House of D" filmed on location in the Big Apple, which was an artistic necessity as far as the film's young star, Anton Yelchin, is concerned.

"Vancouver or Toronto are fine, and there's nothing wrong with working on a sound stage," says Yelchin, who plays the film's hero, Tom Warshaw. "But New York is New York. It's its own place and its own world. And being there with David, who grew up there and who could say, 'I used to hang around here' and 'I would deliver meat here.' It made me feel like I was even closer to New York than I was."

Fantasy and autobiography both play a part in "House of D," a coming-of-age tale about a 13- year-old (Yelchin) at a critical juncture in his life. The former "X-Files" star cherry-picked experiences from his own childhood, including memories of the Women's House of Detention, which gives the movie its title. He elected to act in his feature directing debut - playing the grown-up Tom - in part to have one less role to worry about and in part to please potential financiers. The film, distributed by Lions Gate and opening today in limited release, also stars Robin Williams, Frank Langella and Duchovny's wife, Tea Leoni.

Often fairy-tale-like in structure, the film follows young Tom Warshaw, his prickly mentally retarded sidekick, Pappass (Williams), an unseen lady in a tower (Erykah Badu) and, yes, a winsome young maiden (Williams' daughter, Zelda). The story is told in flashback as the adult Tom - living in self-imposed exile in Paris - tries to explain his malaise to his French wife.

When Duchovny says his next film (tentatively titled "Bucky (expletive) Dent"), will potentially be more commercial than "House of D," he quickly corrects himself. "I have this fantasy that 'House of D' will find a large audience, so I don't want to say it's not commercial yet because that would be giving up.

"I didn't set out to make an art film or just to make a personal film," he continues. "I set out to make a film that would be satisfying to a big audience of different kinds of people. My heart doesn't lie in making Stan Brakhage movies about the theory of film and philosophy and existentialism," he says, referring to the director of nearly 380 experimental films. "I like movies that entertain and that are smart at the same time."

Duchovny's own film career includes roles in "Beethoven," "Kalifornia," "Playing God" and the romantic comedies "Return to Me" and "Connie and Carla." Now 44, the former Princeton and Yale University literature major (Duchovny earned a master's degree) was largely a journeyman actor when, in 1993, "The X-Files" launched the conspiracy-minded Agent Fox Mulder into the realm of pop-cultural iconography.

Duchovny stayed with the series through 2001, appeared as an occasional guest star in 2002 and joined co-star Gillian Anderson in 1998's "The X-Files" film. By his own account, he began feeling creatively restless by the time the series had reached its third season.

"I learned a lot about acting in the first three years because I had to do it every day," he says. "The first year was really just about survival. I remember coming back every night and saying, 'I can't. I can't do it again. There's too much pressure. I can't learn these lines fast enough.' "

By year two, comfort had set in and, a year later, Duchovny began to wonder what kind of an actor he could be outside the alien hunt.

"It could seem like a lack of gratitude, but it's really not," says Duchovny. "I just think it's human nature to want change and to see what you can do."

On later seasons, Duchovny wrote two "X-Files" episodes and directed three. In addition to teaching him about the rigors of series TV acting, the show, he claims, gave him lessons in plot construction.

"I think I had a knack for dialogue, but now all of a sudden, I learned about story," says Duchovny. "Everybody was kind of liberated by Quentin Tarantino in terms of dialogue, and, to me, his language has been his greatest influence. It was like, 'Oh, yeah, you can have a scene where people just (expletive).' Nothing necessarily has to happen but the language."

In past months, Duchovny has recounted the anecdote of spit-balling projects with noted L.A. and New York acting coach Larry Moss. Duchovny gave Moss a script to read. Moss came back with, "You can do better. What else are you working on?" Duchovny started talking about the half-formed idea for "House of D," which reduced Moss to tears. Inspired, Duchovny wrote the script in six days.

"I think I had been thinking about the story, and obviously thinking about 'House of D,' since I was a kid," says Duchovny. "I knew about this place, so I think we file away a lot of things and sometimes they kind of coalesce into a story if you're lucky. And that's kind of what happened." According to Duchovny, the fact that "House of D" will make it to the screen at all represents something of a cinematic "perfect storm" of securing Williams, getting Yelchin ("Hearts in Atlantis") when he was just the right age, and other logistical good karma.

"I would never want to do this movie again because I don't think we would get it done," says Duchovny. "There are so many steps along the way where this thing could have gotten derailed, and that's hard to live with, because you know when it's being derailed. Somewhere we got lucky, even down to, like, the weather when we shot.

"You do have the sense when you're doing it, that, yeah, everything's going to work out," he adds. "You've just got to believe that. But in a way, that's a function of my innocence. Maybe that's part of what got the movie made was that I just always thought, 'This is a good movie. This is going to get made.' "