Directing Mother Night – An Interview with Keith Gordon

Directing Mother Night – An Interview with Keith Gordon

Directing Mother Night – An Interview with Keith Gordon

Chances are you know the scene: Rodney Dangerfield, playing Thornton Melon in Back to School, has a “major paper about Kurt Vonnegut” almost due and he’s yet to even start it.  As his son Jason warns him about failing the class, there’s a knock on the door.  “Hi, I’m Kurt Vonnegut.  I’m looking for Thornton Melon.”   Actor Keith Gordon, playing Jason, twists his face into a mask of incredulity as the famous author takes off his hat.  For Gordon, it was only the beginning of his professional involvement with Vonnegut.  Fifteen years later he directed the film version of Mother Night starring Nick Nolte as Howard W. Campbell, Jr.  It’s one of the strongest adaptations of Vonnegut’s work, as Gordon and screenwriter Robert Weide captured the moral complexity at the heart of the novel.  Since then Gordon has directed episodes for some of the best prestige TV shows, including Dexter, Homeland, The Leftovers, Fargo, and Better Call Saul.

In an interview with The Daily Vonnegut, Gordon shares his thoughts of first meeting Vonnegut and the challenges in bringing Mother Night to the screen.

 Q: Your scene with Kurt Vonnegut from Back to School has received over 100,000 views on YouTube and the film remains a favorite Eighties comedy.  What do you remember about filming that scene?

Keith Gordon:

The biggest thing I remember is some regret that I didn’t talk to Kurt more because I was really intimidated.  He was such a hero figure for me, and I’d never met him before. Kurt was the nicest guy in the world, and we did chat.  I was able to say thank you so much for your books and we talked, but I would’ve loved to have just hung out, and as I learned later when I got to know him on Mother Night, it would’ve been fine, but I felt afraid of imposing. So we talked a little bit, but that was it. I remember feeling, “Oh, I wish I had been a little bit braver about talking to the guy.” But I was never very good at that.

It’s funny. People don’t think of people who work in movies as being starstruck, but we are, like anybody. I mean, it has to be the right person. I’m not starstruck just by fame, but if it’s someone who’s talent I’m in awe of.  I met Meryl Streep and I was a babbling fool.  Kurt was a childhood hero, but he was super nice.  He seemed to really like Rodney. They really hit it off, which in a way makes perfect sense because they both were very funny.  Kurt always appreciated a good joke and Rodney was literally a walking joke catalog. They seemed to just get along famously. In some ways they couldn’t have seem more different, but boy did they click. At least it seemed like it, and it was great. I was very glad to have had the opportunity to meet him, even as I thought, “Why didn’t I bring my books for him to sign and why didn’t I ask him about how he wrote this…?”

Q: It sounds like you were already a Vonnegut reader.

Keith Gordon:

Oh yeah. I was a Vonnegut fan from when I was a pretty young kid. I started reading his stuff probably when I was too young to fully understand it. I think the first one was Cat’s Cradle, and I was 10 or 11.  My parents were reading it, and I read it and I actually kind of got it. Certainly I don’t know that I got all the subtleties that I got a few years later, but I still really enjoyed it and thought it was kind of amazing. Probably some of the subtle humor went over my head, but it still made me curious to read more, and by the time I was 15 or 16, I had read everything of his that was out up to that time.

I read Slaughterhouse-Five and then Breakfast of Champions, which I think I read right when it came out. That may have been the first one I read contemporaneous to its release into the world. I remember reading it and at that point all my friends were also into Kurt. I think it was in high school that we were all sitting there with copies of it at the same time.  It has stayed my favorite of his books because it was so funny, but ultimately so emotionally moving. It’s odd because in some ways it’s a book about getting old, and I don’t know how I understood it at that age.  It should have gone over my head, but when it gets to the ending, with that line, “Make me young,” I just started bawling when I was a kid. I was completely affected by that, and so I think because of the combination of it being so creative and idiosyncratic and weird and inventive, and then being so powerful, it was the one that got me on a real visceral level more than any other book because it did both at once.

It was funny and sad and crazy, with all those drawings, and I thought, “Okay, this guy’s my favorite writer.”  That was definitely the high point for me. Not that I haven’t enjoyed tons since, and I’ve gone back and reread a lot, especially the early works.  Maybe because it’s the stuff that I fell in love with when I was so young and impressionable, it still speaks to me.

Q: Eventually you directed the film version of Mother Night.  How did you come to that project?  

Keith Gordon:

It was all Bob Weide.  I had the great fortune of being best friends with somebody who was best friends with Kurt Vonnegut. So Bob and I were both young filmmakers and we were great friends, and had been for years, and we said, “God, it’d be so much fun to do something together.” It was Bob who said, “Well, what about trying to do something of Kurt’s?”  I was a little nervous because I feel like some of his stuff doesn’t adapt easily to film.  I think Alan Rudolph did a brave attempt at doing Breakfast of Champions, but I don’t know if you can turn that novel into a film.  Some of Kurt’s books for me are about being books. There are some works of literature that I think are about the form, and so you can never fully capture them because part of what they’re about is what art form they exist in.

Bob and I talked about that, and I think he had some of the same feelings. We talked about what if Kurt’s stuff could translate to film and still keep the richness and the meaning. Mostly we talked about Player Piano and Mother Night. Those were the two that we felt were grounded enough in realism, and that we could possibly raise the money for. I mean, we’re both huge Sirens of Titan fans and thought it would be a great movie, but you’d have to raise $30 million and that was not going to happen. So we also had to eliminate things that we would never be able to raise the money to do, and a lot of them also had the rights taken, too, which Bob was more aware of than I was.

We ended up both rereading Player Piano and Mother Night, and then just talking for hours and ultimately feeling that Mother Night was the most intriguing to try to do as a film.  We felt we could do it well. It’s sort of epic in scope, but when you really read it, it’s pretty contained. You don’t need to do World War II to tell that story well. Bob went to Kurt and said we’d like to do it, and Kurt said, “Well, be my guest,” and Bob wrote a screenplay.  To be honest I was skeptical because Bob had not written much at that point. So part of me felt, “Well, Bob will write the screenplay, and I’ll do a polish on it.”  Then I read Bob’s script and it was brilliant and there really wasn’t much to say, and really my only contributions to the script were mostly in the way of editing.

The first script was a little long, and we talked about how to compress it and how to change certain things for practical filmmaking realities, but Bob so captured Kurt’s voice.  Kurt said to Bob, when he read the script, that he couldn’t remember what Bob had added and what was his.   To me that was about as great a compliment as you could get from a great writer.  There was a whole sequence that Bob had in the script that Kurt said, “I don’t think that was in the book, was it?”  We told him, “Yeah, it was there.”

Bob did a remarkable job. So the film that we made was not very different from the script he wrote.  We probably took out about 25, 30 pages worth of interesting things, but we were never going to have the budget to make a two-and-a-half-hour movie, nor did we think that was the right way to tell the story. So I worked with Bob on focusing it, but the language and the feel was something that he did amazingly well, and then the hard part was getting somebody to make it.

Q: What was that process like?  

Keith Gordon:

It took years and we went through plenty of ups and downs.  We met some crazy people who claimed to have money that it turned out they didn’t have, and there was probably a book’s worth of adventures and misadventures in trying to raise the funds. We met with actors who loved Kurt but turned out to be crazy people, famous actors who said they wanted to do it but then wanted to change everything about it.

Finally we ended up in a situation where Fine Line, which is a sadly now defunct independent financier who made a lot of terrific smaller movies, was interested in doing it.  They were the art branch of New Line, which was a big company that made mostly very commercial films; they started Fine Line to do some more small art house type of films, and they loved the script, but they basically said there were three actors in the world they would do it with: Nick Nolte, Daniel Day Lewis, and Robert De Niro.

Nick Nolte was somebody that we had actually sent the script to already.  We thought he would be amazing, but his agents said that Nick made at that point $8 million a film, which would translate to $20 million today, and our total budget was a fraction of what his normal salary would be.  So we kind of moved on, but then as luck would have it, I had been an actor for a lot of years early in my career, and a casting director I knew from my acting days called and said, “I’m casting this movie and we’re looking to get interesting people in little bit parts and cameos and I don’t know if you want to do any acting.”  She said, “It’s called I Love Trouble and it’s got Julia Roberts and Nick Nolte.”  I said, “That sounds interesting. Could you get me in a scene with Nick?”

It was really one of those pieces of bizarre kismet where I got to be in the film. I had one line, but I also luckily ended up in a sequence. It was this big train wreck sequence, and so I was there for days. I got to talking with Nick and I told him about the project and he was very friendly and claimed that he loved Kurt. But then his assistant and I started talking, and his assistant said, “Look, I know your other films and I can tell Nick that you’re for real, and I’ll also make sure it doesn’t fall off his radar because it’s a problem with Nick, so much comes in and out that even if he means well, that doesn’t mean he’ll ever actually read it. It was really the most lucky of lucky’s. Even then it took forever to get Nick to read it and we didn’t hear from him and we thought, “Oh, he probably didn’t like it.  Then one day I had a message on my answering machine: “This is Nick Nolte. Listen, I read this script. It’s great. It’s great.” I literally thought it might have been Bob Weide just screwing with me because it was so goofy that Nick Nolte would just call my answering machine.  But it was Nick, and once we had him, obviously everything changed.

Fine Line was true to their word and they were willing to make it with him. Sometimes in the film business, what happens is that somebody says, “We’ll do it if you get this person.” You get that person, and they’ve changed their mind, or say, “Well, now if you can also get Tom Cruise to play this part.”  But Fine Line stuck by what they said. So we were able to make the film and it was a remarkably wonderful experience and Kurt was around at least some of the time. He came and visited during shooting and was actually in the movie, which thrilled me.

He never came and looked at it while we were editing it. That was the whole thing with Kurt.  He really stayed away from getting involved, giving opinions. .He didn’t see the film until it was done.  He said, “The book is the book, the film is the film.  I trust you guys.”  That’s part of why it was so scary when he finally DID see it; if there was something he’d hated it would have been very, very difficult to make any changes at that point. Your nightmare is disappointing him.

But he seemed to legitimately like it. He spoke really well of it to other people and came and saw it several times.  He seemed really enthusiastic. So I actually believe he was happy with it, and he was pretty vocal about films that had been done from his work that he wasn’t happy with, with us, but also even publicly. So the fact that he was so endorsing of it really was a huge relief as much as anything. It was still one of the great experiences of my life. I mean, to work on a film by my favorite writer with one of my oldest friends?  How good does it get? So it was pretty great.

Q: Was Kurt’s part at the end of the film in the script or was that something that occurred because he happened to be on the set?

Keith Gordon:

I hope I’m remembering this correctly, but it wasn’t in the script. The whole idea that Nolte’s character froze on the street and was looking at people, that was something that Bob had in the script, but it was only when we realized that Kurt was going to come visit.  I think it was my idea, that it just seemed like a very Vonnegut sort of touch, like Breakfast of Champions, to have the author meeting his character and having that perspective change. I think I was the one who said, and I hope I’m not taking credit for something that I don’t deserve, but I believe I was the one who said to Bob, “Hey, if Kurt’s going to visit, any chance we might be able to get him to visit when we’re doing that scene, and that he might be willing to do it?”

And Kurt was willing to come at that time and to do that moment and it was really thrilling because it was not something we had planned on. But a lot of times when you’re making a film, the things that you like best are things that you didn’t necessarily plan. Opportunities arise that you didn’t see coming, and that was one of those really magical things.  It’s one of my favorite moments in the movie, sort of a little piece of magic.  The film had a lot of those, magical things working out really well.  With film there’s always roles of the dice involved, and all the dice came up really well. Nick turned out to be the greatest guy. There are a lot of ways that it could have gone south, and none of it happened. It was just all really great.

Q: It’s an excellent film. I watched it again a few nights ago and it struck me very much like a stage play. Howard W. Campbell Jr. is a playwright, and there are many scenes with just one or two characters in very tightly framed scenes. Was that part of your vision for the film?

Keith Gordon:

Yes, and I think that also goes back to Bob, and Bob and I talking about Campbell being a man of the theater. It not only affected the way we shot the scenes, but we did a lot with very theatrical spotlights and things that were not naturalistic. We definitely had that feeling about a theatrical world, and it was another wonderful thing that happened, one of those pieces of magic, that the scene where Howard re-meets with his fairy godmother takes place in the theater instead of a warehouse, which was how Bob wrote it, and it made perfect sense. We were looking for warehouse locations and nothing was very interesting, and then our location manager in Montreal said, “What about a theater?”

We went and saw this amazing old theater and we realized, “Oh, again, so perfect. He’s a man of the theater,” and so the moment of the curtain rising and him being lit and on stage, with his life becoming a performance again, it added so much to that scene and that wasn’t something we planned. When you’re making a movie, sometimes those things present themselves, and in retrospect it looks like you did this brilliant piece of planning and instead it fell in your lap.

But certainly even in the performances we tried to find a very fine line of a slightly theatrical tone. They’re not naturalistic performances. Hopefully they’re not too broad, but we weren’t going for a strict, normal cinematic naturalism.  Kurt’s writing isn’t that, and neither was Bob’s writing of Kurt.  But we were inhabiting a theatrical man’s memory. This is his (Campbell’s) writing of his memoirs. He wanted to live in this sort of theatrical universe, and that was why his whole taking on being a spy was appealing to the theater man in him, the playing of a character. The real point of view is Howard’s view of his past, of having lived a life that was a bit of a play.

It also was something that was useful for us because we didn’t have the budget to do anything huge. When you’re making a film on a limited budget, you think, “How do we use our limitations to be a plus, not a negative?” We talked about it early on, to keep our focus very small, but so that it would feel intentional, something we’re doing to make a point, not just because it’s the best we could afford to do.

Q: When the film was released, there was a screening for the organization PEN America that turned out to be somewhat antagonistic.  What is your recollection of that experience?   

Keith Gordon:

It was really weird and ultimately disappointing to have an audience of a group that was theoretically all about writers defending free speech attacking us on grounds that often seemed like, “Do you guys read Kurt Vonnegut? Do you understand what the movie’s about?” It was one of the most unintellectual reactions.  People said, “You’re supporting a Nazi and you’re saying that he’s a good guy, and he’s a Nazi.”  It was the most simple-minded way to view the movie.  That was kind of shocking because I thought that if anybody was going to love Vonnegut and get the complexities, it would be that audience.

There were some weird things, like when we talked about the film being a black comedy, and someone said, “That’s a racist term.”  It was very strange and disappointing, certainly not something I expected.  We went to all sorts of places with the film, and not just the most urban or urbane places, and the people who came were often Vonnegut readers.  They were smart and they got the complexity of it, and it was usually delightful sharing the film with an audience.  But the PEN America experience was weird and disturbing. I don’t think I’ve ever had one quite like that before.

Q: Do you think you could get that film made today?  There seems to be less of an appetite for complexity now than there was in 1996.

 Keith Gordon:

It would probably be harder. Occasionally, artistic films sometimes find their way to sneak through. Every year there’s a few films where you think, “How did that get made?” At that point there were more companies doing more of those films. Also what’s changed, and in some ways it’s been for the better but not for a film like this, the budgets that people are willing to put into these films have generally gotten much smaller. Very, very few artistically chance-y, weird films about the nature of good and evil are getting made for the kind of budget we had.

There are a lot of amazing films made now because the equipment has changed to the point that you can make a film for nothing, which is kind of great. It’s led to a democratization of filmmaking. You have filmmakers all over the country, not just in New York and L.A. You see amazing films come out of Alabama or Montana.  Somebody basically gets their iPhone and if they have a story they passionately want to tell, you can do it and edit it on your computer, and it looks good.  But only certain stories work well that way, and for stories like this, that would be very, very difficult indeed, and what’s also changed sadly, is that back then getting a Nick Nolte meant you were in. Now, even with a major star, the companies that do financing have gotten smarter and realized, “Oh, a major star in an art movie doesn’t guarantee it’s going to make money.”

I think back then there was more of a sense that you could make the worst piece of junk, and if it has a huge star, it will be okay. Now, it’s proven not to be the case. There’ve been plenty of movies made with humongous A-list stars that never see the light of day, and so people have gotten even more cautious. So even if you’ve got a great actor and great material, they still run the numbers, and the numbers right now are daunting. Now you need the equivalent of a Broadway angel.  In film you’re looking for those very few people that have that attitude of passion over business sense because the business numbers right now don’t work very well.

Q: If you had such an angel, would you want to take on another Vonnegut project?

Keith Gordon:

It would depend on if I felt we could do it well and what it would be. I’ve had people bring me Vonnegut projects, but very few screenwriters have been able to capture what I felt Bob did in capturing the complexity of Vonnegut’s voice. I would hate to do a Kurt movie badly. I’d rather not do one than do it and have it come out mediocre. It would have to be something really special.

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