Keith Gordon Interview
We have a guest online with us on dh I love the fact that he's with us because they love his work be or or one eh? I just love the trajectory he's taken to get where he is and continuing to change as the realities of work in the business change hey started as an actor on dh then whether it was demoted or graduated into being a filmmaker and now does film and tv as well please welcome ladies and gentlemen mr keith gordon hello hey, how are you keith good thank you so much for taking time to join us. I want to talk I want to look at a little bit of your trajectory as an actor because you started on stage correct? Yes. Although I was very lucky because I was able to go back and forth between stage and fell from a very early age on before I sort of professional actor I was making films in high school. You know, back in two days we had surveyed and actually petite things together pieces of things and it was it was big before the dinosaurs but so that was that was actually first up that it w...
as, you know, make little films with only friends on dso my initial interest is still making and then there was this very on trajectory that really probably full circle back to what my first excitement passion have been well, speaking of dinosaurs may be a little before or after the dinosaurs. This is not a history class, but there were apes throwing bones in the air, and these bones became monoliths, and I, the history books tell me that you were a kubrick fan in the two thousand one fan. Yes, I heard you just mentioning cooper, you're is you're talking. Yeah, that was two thousand one when I was the film that really made me trickett turn on the film with possibly as high as a little kid. My dad took me when I was sixty eight, so I would have been seven years old. Andi, uh, I don't see you don't understand it, but I wasn't too young to know I didn't. And that was what got my brain go. I was, like, obsessed with thiss puzzle and the amazing that's how it should stretch time, like my thoughts could work, and I thought, that's really cool and that got me released movies, and I started trying to see he's like crazy, and so that was the ball that started rolling the drag my father back to about nine times on uh, yeah, that that lead tio seeing lots of movies and a little, we're going to revival houses. Again, another era, we didn't be adjusted noah's dvds, but new york city was full of great places where you're going to see all the wonderful movies, you know, on a big screen, and I spent way too many hours in my adolescence doing that sort of homework. Um, and I actually worked in a museum water are, which is a great film, archives and library, and I worked there was an intern helping to file articles again back before there's, even microfilm on this stuff, and I would just file articles on will be small over the world and saw a lot of film, and that became my invert. Those calls what's interesting, just one little anecdote about moma. If you go see a film and moment, one really fascinating artifact is you can hear trains passing back of the screens, literally. The subway is it is sort of right there, so you can hear trains during this screening, just a little quick bit of wikipedia for you moment was going to change that they were going to change their screening room, and three filmmakers wrote a letter to moma I said, please don't do that, you may have heard of them woody allen, clint eastwood in stanley kubrick co wrote a letter to moments that please we've the train exactly leave the screen exactly where it is that's what makes moma moma for us? I want to obsess on kubrick a little bit because I had tend to do that but especially thinking of your work keith in your trajectory que brick amongst his many quotes that click one is he called a director he said a director is a kind of idea and taste machine and he said actors are essentially emotion producing instruments again that's how like but your work to me is it's not that it's the opposite of that your work has used performance and you're an actor. How do you reconcile that? When we look at someone like kubrick, who is an expert technician? How does the actor fit that into film? As as experts science? How does that work what's that balance? Well, the fact is, was even with kubrick there was more play in his work, then even his quote sometimes lead people. We'll feel I mean the famous sam search sure, you know, is not model improvising, singing in the rain in a rehearsal period, and that was that became a huge piece of that movie, so even somebody who is perceived as a pure technician in the way that cooper is were first like crazy with actors, which is not anything since people I think people think of techno directors doing on dh would take things out of those rehearsals and think that growing happening this personal so no matter how you try prepare and how you know formally your candidacies are the best directors no matter what their individual tastes are let what happens between the actors and material influence how that was going to be and and that's true but it's true of funds are crossed here anybody you can think I was a real formalist filmmaker unless you're going for completely non naturalistic form is the acting supposed be alive at all stuff's going to happen and it's going to change your vision and I think really every director does that s so I think that there's a bit of a mis understanding of people who are more quote unquote technical directors is that they're good they're still wanting their actors to bring things to them that maybe surprises you're saying that you're so spot on man with this thing, but even someone like glenn tch lynch gets so in there with the actors and give them you know, one of lynch's favorite notes is I need more air, more air and the performs like he the actors are part of the palate, you know? They're so beautifully integrated you're absolutely absolutely right and they're gonna they're gonna catch you off guard they're going to surprise you, they're going to take you take a scene somewhere he didn't think it should go and then the taste machine party was the director has to go wow I never thought this scene was really about that or had this intensity or was so quiet or so loud it was so funny and then you have to decide in the moment is that something that's actually improvement over what I had in my head or am I losing what is really important? One of the amongst so many of the really interesting turns and steps you're your journey has taken is the project at sarah lawrence with brian depalma I don't know if a lot of film students know about this love for you describe it but this to me is is must listen to content doing home movies the project was called home movies correct yes and it was I've never heard of anybody doing anything quite like it before or since which is too bad because it was a great thing to do brian was teaching a class in independent filmmaking at several large university and really decided somewhere I think during the year that it was too theoretical in the only way to really teach a bunch of young people how to make a film was to make a film instead of just sitting and talking about it so brian took some money and got some money from still bergen and coppola and other luminary type people I also brought in a broadway producer bringing a little bit more money and put it in just a few hundred thousand dollars. It was four hundred thousand dollars all in, and we basically and harder than a bunch of professional actors, and I was lucky enough to get fired. It was kirk douglas and nancy allen of it. Spreading in base is an old story of brian, but he only had an outline and he had students write a script on basically the entire crew where these folks is thesame talk. There was a young professional, but the rest, the camera department with students, the production design that is they believe that there was a student. Everybody was sort of film students, and we made this movie and brian directed it. Although the students got to direct a lot of the second unit charge would be the second unit shots exterior, establishing jobs. And it was a remarkable experience because everybody had this kind of hands on time making this movie, and at the same time, well, the crew didn't know what they were doing the way provincial crew did. There was a level of enthusiasm and excitement that was insane, so well, there were rough edges to the making of the film. There was also a sense of fun and camaraderie and it was basically we're making moving having class at the same time and for someone like me was an aspiring filmmaker it was it was nirvana me as fire is an actor but very quickly went to ryan said tonight you like one of the classic come hang out in the editing room, come to all the dailies and you know, he was kind enough to say asked which was huge for me because it was a chance to warning what I wanted or as well what you went on to work with department again correct, you did dress to kill after that or was that a yes tricycle followed about a year later, right originally that ruling but actually for much younger kid and they're having a very hard time casting it. And so brian called me one day that week you come over, just read some of the scenes with nancy so I could see this place like with somebody who's, you know, seventeen eighteen, not twelve which I think the way it was with her ten and we played with that and he said yes, good work and that was how I got that job, which was a very good thing, you know, I love I love the story in so many ways that want to obsess on one particular component of because I worked with david mamet and mike nichols and observing them on sets and that was my sort of film school what did you if you can revisit that even now like what have you brought into your work that you say you would say you learned from brian depalma specifically sure well I mean look every director I work with it learn from brian was in wonderful director brian another director that people think was a real technician was very um playful with the actors and that was actually the thing that I learned brian did a lot of takes his attitude was always you know the cheapest thing in the world is to do an extra take and do we spend all this time setting up and to rush through and run away is foolish let's get if we're going to spend the hours of setting up the lights getting everything ready to take the extra ten or fifteen minutes to do it a few more times that see if we gotten everything we could get out of this is sort of the thing to do on dh he was he would give us his actors a surprising amount of latitude often we would do it seemed great we've got that that works well can you try one angry you try one sillier and you try one faster you driving quieter on give us a fairly general least meet fairly general direction and then let me fill in what? What that meant on dh there's a sense of freedom that as an actor which was great because you knew you were going to just do it once you know sometimes especially tv where you're moving so fast but also in low budget films you could get this high speed mode and it sort of if those set doesn't fall down you move on which is creating really sad because it means you leave a lot of the table on dso knowing that you were going to do everything five, six, seven, eight, ten times and then if you did it one way would be looking at that works let's let's go away is always the chance to try the other ideas that you have back your head, which all good actors hopefully do the actors you work with you want to have brains full of ideas, brian, you there was always a sense you're gonna get to try it and if you don't like me wouldn't use the word say that doesn't work throw that out but he wasn't gonna go to waste and that was wonderful and I thought I wanted if I ever get to direct I want to try to do that as much as I can with my actors to give them a sense of we won't leave stuff on you know you're right, we'll try to get it out there if there's any way to do that I love that because to the untrained eye dare I say even to the fan of depalma you think of this kind of clue clinical clockwork you know this kind of gestalt of filmmaking but I love I love that edict or that idea the cheapest thing to do is another take and that's such a actionable thing I think for young filmmakers and you know it's fascinating, I wouldn't before that one other component of this because I want to talk about your acting you're acting rear view mirror do you have any recollections of kirk douglas at the time observing his craft again? Because that was a fascinating cauldron of ideas you have you ever observed? And I guess in general have you ever observed an actor and said I can pick something up simply from observing and actors that is that viable? Well, I again I think it's what the most valuable thing for me now as a director, I mean one of the young actor I would watch actors and how they worked in a different way and that was very valuable always that you've seen how different actors would approach the material and how they would sort of, you know, trying to get things out of it and but the thing that runs to continuing through my active work directing work, writing, producing whatever is that every actress of different actors are really unique creatures and if I learned anything it's that new tractors were like and the best way to get the work best work out of an actor's dismisses no rules there are general directions you can head but every time you try to go all of this is what works for actors you're going toe trouble is going to work for that after talking to that actor right? You know uh at this point in his career what is that very present he was coming in he wants to get in and out fast he would get frustrated if it was you know, he didn't know what he was doing this I think a little bit of a favor and so brian and adjusted that brian you know had because we were nobody get paid anything in court kind of had a little bit of this, you know? I don't want to hang around with students think going on so there was a certain thing with car there weren't as many takes off there were there was more of a tendency like let's get this right and go on because he would stick right? Um there are other actors that you know, I've worked with wonderful actors who usually are actively committed phil do their very best work and early on in the process in the first take the first you take so I did a film with robert downey and robert was at his very best when you were a juror was very fresh with him to the point where I ended up doing his close ups before we would do the masters. The wide shot, while course reverse what you normally do. But it was so evident to me that before you know, when he was I was just coming out of him. It was so amazing that would ever possible. I would try to capture that right on, phil. Wow, I worked with other wonderful actors really critical. I love who comes out of the theater background and billy tended. If the spy friends get warmer and warmer and warmer, warmer, if he would just he would just read and read and read and read and find more and more and more in the material. So I know that we were the first you takes probably weren't going to be it. I know the first you take should be good and that the six or seven would be amazing. And even if I thought we had right, I go further just because I I just found that the more I let him go, the more they'll be some new surprise for me in there and something beautiful that I could get excited about. So for me, it was really about realizing the huge panoply of how, after work, and they need different things, that some actors need a lot of support and talking and hand holding and and analysis material. Some actors need you to back off from given space, and and I actually learned that as an actor to I did a play with michael bennett, who did a chorus line, and, you know, it was an amazing, amazing theater to record one of a whole bunch of tony's and to dreamgirls, and but I do want a few times he did a nonmusical play. I was I was in a three character piece, and the three was re enactors and were very different training in our experience, and what I realized was that michael was directing us each quite differently. And here was this guy, whenever your word, you could use the biggest man in the theatre at that moment in the world, and he could have easily coming into this order. This, however, instead, he, like a psychologist, sat there and figured us each other and, like, figured out that I am a talker, and I am on al analysis, and I want to think of the director and that that would screw up one of the other young actress who was very kind of in the moment and it starts much troubles michael said look come in a half hour early it's you and me will say they will ripped the scenes apart we'll talk through each day but but that we will do it away from the other actors where it was getting in their heads and it was a brilliant thing to do when it gave me what I needed it protected the other actors and it made for really happy working way working method and there was this guy didn't have to be that thoughtful and rose it was in his interest just to be kind to be observant and to be a psychologist but I think it really a good director has to be with actors you've got to really be ableto watch and go what is this person need to feel safe and to do their best work? And I think all the best directors in one way or another have that in common man I love that it's not a sentence of that it doesn't I know just to go back to robert downey the idea of reversing the trigonometry based on what you're seeing in the performance in the classic the classic economics or let me ask you a cynical cynics view for a moment because you've seen both sides of it do you think actors command too much power not in a level of agents in that but do you think that they're there to much of the object of energy in the film set, or do you think and what's the balance? I mean, do you think actors sometimes preoccupy the process to to to unilaterally? I think they certainly can't, I mean, and they are in the position where they can, and a lot of actors know that they can, they can monopolize your all. Your focus is the director, and especially their wanted to lead actors. If they choose to make things difficult, they choose to be, you know, they can bring everything repression, halt if you don't get them what they need. And I've been in that situation a few times in my life and it's, not pleasant, because I feel is the director does distort what you're doing, and you end up standing all your energy on this one actor you end up ignoring other actors, other elements of the process are slipping through the cracks. That's. Why, I mean, one of things I try my best to do is to avoid working with one of the biggest part pieces, the process, to be his director, especially for making my own film is in the casting to be very, very careful, not only the cast actors who I think are wonderful, but you cast actors that will be good collaborators on dh that, you know comes either out of meeting but them or reading them if they're not big stars, but even if they are big stars, um, you know, talking to a lot of people who work with them, and I walked away from a big movie stars who could have gotten financing for projects because it was clear that it would be a nightmare and that all abroad agree about would be surviving this person, and it wasn't worth it to me. And in every case, I eventually got the film made somebody that was wonderful on with somebody who was a collaborator and, you know, any actress women need crime, attention care and so there's a fine line because they're they're much on the line with nobody else that I felt it right there, standing up there in front of a camera, knowing that hundreds of thousands or millions of people going to watch this, they're ripping out their own emotions, exposing themselves so there's to me, I've got a lot of forgiveness for actors were being nervous for being neurotic, for being vulnerable from meeting attention on it doesn't bother me, but there's a kind of version that becomes very selfish and very destructive to the whole process into the other actors. And that I really tried to avoid and I've been lucky and I really and so not to take the remark because it may be extra actor ex who's going to get your movie made and you go well, but look at my movie made, but I will say I've never regretted walking away from an obvious like there, I've always got somebody better in the role and having a really good experience. I mean, I made five feature films and I did not have ever had a serious problem with an actor, and that is something I would want to continue if I made another film of my own tv's all different come in as a guest director, that cast has already said there's really not much I can do, but again we're gets around. If there's a tv serials where an actor is known to be a going to take monster, I will often say to my pages, I just don't want to do that it's just going to be not fun and not worth the anxiety I don't need five ulcers, I'm fine with the four I have exactly we'll be making and then directing and it's it's hard and scary and difficult on the best dave, but if your collaborators aren't collaborators, it goes from hard too miserable and it is quite hard to be thought hard can be wonderful and challenging and you laugh together and, oh my god, how we get this done in the sun's coming up, we're dead and we've got twenty minutes to get three pages of material, those things you actually if you're going to do this need to live for those, but the the people make you want to tell yourself for them really are worth it, and I think there's grounds, he said, just trying to avoid the worst of those tastes there aren't as many of you know, I mean, actors only get a bad rap. I mean, I've worked with actors who have had difficult reputations who are wonderful and yes, they needed some extra time attention or they were demanding about the work and to me that's really being demanding that the work is very different, then showing up three hours late or throwing attention and walking off the set because you know your coffee's cold or even to me that's, very different that's what he's like I want to get this right because it's, we need to go deeper and well, that scary. While the clock is ticking, it also usually leads to a better piece of material. I love that, and later we're going to have visits from david morrison, casey lemons and this idea of tough collaboration you know we is ones were it's in the service of the work I think you're right it's it's healthy one last topic I want to cover with you keep before we say goodbye and men these air all gems I want to talk about you work with nick nolte and I found it really interesting digging through it what kind of collaborator he was we've been talking in this course about preparation we've been also talking about this course of how much technical acumen benefits the actor how much it detracts if you could speak to a little bit about your experience with nick which seems so fantastic and inspirational on both those points at the point of preparation in the point of interfacing with the science from an actor's process well well nick was um it was amazing I mean he was one of the very, very best actors I've had the block to work with and this will be a great guy but the two things that blew me away with we got I work with making a little phone call mother night was five million dollars film which was less the next normal salary at the time was our whole budget so he was doing this quote unquote for fun and yet not only did he invite us to have a reversal in his house but when I went for the first when I showed up in his house for the first day of rehearsal there were bulletin boards all over the place with, you know, cards about breaking down the script by in chronological order, breaking on the script by emotion, pregnant script. There were photos from the area that some took place the thirties in the sixties nineteen thirties, nineteen since these photographs, they argue, is playing a player right here also, information about german players in the nineteen thirties and who they were, what they wrote, like what kind of facial hair they had, what kind of clothes that he had done, the kind of homework that you would think a twenty year old kid would do on their first job because they wanted to impress everybody. And here is this guy was at that point, the mid fifties, huge, huge movie star, one of the biggest part of the world at that time, and he had done this a mass amount of working at assistants, helping him get more work done, and it created a book on the character. I mean, he had a car bombing, it's not, we'll start from, but he created this gigantic, just fold out book of history and the characters biography, and it was incredibly inspiring, and we all stole from it, by the way, I am very happy, wow, you've done a lot of work that I haven't done that's, what dress and it was, you know, the characters, most of a radio show, he was all sorts of radio from that era, and it was just remarkable what he bring it into a hangar and with joy, I mean, you did it with the sense of that was, I think part of the fun for him on dh, so that was very inspiring, and the other thing that was that was wonderful was that naked on someone we think of it as a method actor in that very emotional this work, he's he's very present, he throws himself in, you know, he really feels a lot of what his character is going through, but he's also a beautiful technician and that you don't often get the combination you do it's amazing, they had a real appreciation for cameras, for lenses, for what they do, you know, whose ass is what lends? We were on how close we were, what we were seeing, and he would really modulate his performance, and there were times that we'd be doing tight close ups, and he'd bring a performance so small that I was nervous that we weren't getting enough. I'm like I'm standing there watching with my naked eye, this is before everybody stands student from the monitor all the time mothers were thank good, yet on I didn't trust another people you see we're getting much more which I was watching that being a few feet away and I was going I don't know that he's given me enough and I go to dailies and every time out be blown away that would be behind his eyes be emotional be way back there but the king knew what the camera would do when you got into that kind of close up on it was education for me is a director on you about lighting there three times that we would be honest and I've said it a shot now what if I just over two more feet my faces or half in shadow and his instincts were beautiful and he really appreciated that as part of his are and I wish more actors would do that because I think a lot of actors see the camera see the lighting see all the technical part of the process as the enemy they say is getting in the way of their expression and in a way that's too bad because me those things really are best when they danced together and nick was that wonderful actor that he really appreciated how this artwork supposed to stage and then he could use those things to help his performance be better on it was incredibly inspiring again I wouldn't talk actor writer director stage film tv there's nothing you haven't covered meant I'm telling you you are so inspiring seeing your work historically this sends a little trite, but, you know, when I first saw him in night clear, I thought, this is this is a filmmaker writer who loves actors and understands that you know, the balance between a beautifully shot film in a beautifully acted film, waking the dead and now you know, you're doing more episodic and it's a different signature, but you are truly inspiring, and your eloquence is rare on, and I appreciate it, it's a great balance of perspectives, my hope as we as we go away, is one day to con you into making a short film with our student it's, because you, you know, I think we could add teacher, maybe to your your business card. One of these days will be a lot of fun. I could be a great deal if I actually do teach at the sundance film lab almost every summer, and we kind of a variation of that they make the film what we stand around and help. So it's, I love doing that and that's why we couldn't so he couldn't make me do that one time, you know, I don't believe in luck, so I'll just say all the best to you men as you keep navigating with your eloquence and your sensitivity where it will be watching. Well, thank you. Thanks for having me. I always helpful and and good luck with this with this I hope it's you know, people have their find it useful thanks can't take her you two a couple of quick thoughts about that. What? What jumped out at you? I think we covered a lot, which was really I'm not just saying that we well, I love that. What would you all think? I think very insightful and the about the direct being quite flexible dependence on the actor in front of them and thought that was very good. Yeah, yeah, I think the notes he hit about trust were really interesting. The natural I love the fact that the isolated story about, you know, michael bennett who was sort of, you know, took no prisoners chorus line, you know, meet me and we'll talk that's rehearsal. You know, it was all about how rehearsal has this chameleon like form that's rehearsal you know, other thoughts that you guys there resonate, I think you could really see the value of him having experience intimately as an actor but also as a director. Yeah, yeah, and I think that allowed him to also understand how to work with actors and how like there might be bad aspects were difficult to work with aspects of an actor he's an optimist man and you have to be, you know, the joke about cynics is that they're they're cynics, will there heard optimists, you know, in film, because this uneven bergman and care sala, late in their careers, said, you know, the physical berkman said. The human body is not meant to make a film. You're not meant to do the same thing for twelve to sixteen hours, every day for months and months and months. So to seeing keith and seeing him model the curiosity and the pakistan is like a student, you know, I thought was lovely level, and I love you, right, the way all the perspectives and to have that kind of eloquence is rare. Fortunately, we have two more really eloquent speakers later in the course, I'm so excited.