INT: How did you know how to shoot, I mean your background led you there, but was it a very natural thing for you? Did you plan shot lists? How did you approach the day?
BL: No, I don’t do shot lists except in very rare situations. If you’re doing something like DINER you’re dealing with behavioral things. So in a sense you have to allow the behavior to dictate a lot rather than to impose it on the behavior because what you’re looking for is those kinds of surprising things between characters and so you don’t want to say, “Lock yourself in.” You’ve got to be open enough to see what takes place. But here’s where the learning process comes in because there is always this learning process for a director and I still use certain basic things for me. I come to Baltimore and I go with the Production Designer and he takes me to a house he says, “OK, this is Eddie’s bedroom. Look at this thing here.” And I’m looking at it and suddenly I’m like going, “Oh my God, where do I put the camera? I don’t know where to put the camera. Where would they be going? What’s the choreography?” I couldn’t figure it out. I was completely mystified. I didn’t know where to put the camera, I don’t know where they move, nothing. So we go to another location now and he says, “Now here is the so and so thing that takes place in the kitchen thing.” And I’m looking, I’m going, “How do they walk around. Where do they stand? Where would I put the camera?” And I’m like, now going to a third location and I’m literally going, “Holy God, I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to shoot this thing. I don’t know where anything goes. Nothing seems right. I’m lost, I’m completely lost.” And we go to this third location and I look at something and all of a sudden I can just picture the characters moving around and I can see where the camera is and it was like [snaps] boom, there. And then I went, “Oh, so I’m going to use this.” To take me to a place when I see the scene, that’s the place. When I don’t see the scene that’s not the place and I said to him, “Those other places like that? Forget it. I’m not using that, that’s, no, not that.” And so that was the thing that I basically kept in mind. When I can see a thing and it all comes to life to me and I can make things move around then it’s OK and when I can’t then not. [INT: Has this stuck with you?] Yes. Even on this last thing, this BAY [THE BAY], we were supposed to do this one scene that takes place in a house and I‘m saying, “Well, I need all these mirrors because I only have one camera angle so I need these mirrors so that I can pick up the reflections and whatever and we’re looking at houses and we’re looking at houses and it’s going on for like two weeks we’re looking at houses and I don’t know how to shoot this scene. I got one camera angle and I can’t figure out how to get all these mirrors to work and then I said to, one day I said, “You know something? This is way too long for me not to be able to figure out how to do this. Something is fundamentally wrong.” And we started walking down Main Street and I saw an antique shop and I walked in there and the second I walked in there I went “Oh, look. Mirrors. You can move them any which way you want. You’re not bound by the confines of the living room, the dining room. Here’s a big bureau. Turn it this way. You got a thing move it that way. It’s an antique store, do whatever you want.” And then [claps] boom that was it. Then I understood it and so I’ve used that thing for me. If I can’t see it at a certain point in time then something is fundamentally not right.
INT: Talk a little about your process with actors in DINER in terms of rehearsing, blocking, stuff like that. Takes, do you do a lot of takes?
BL: No. I don’t like to do a lot of takes unless it requires a lot of takes. In other words, it’s not like if you do eighteen takes that’s what you’re going to need. I mean sometimes it’s there sometimes it’s not there. You do as many as you need to do to accomplish what you have to accomplish. What I like to do is rehearse not anything in terms of the specifics or even in terms of its blocking. I only want, in a sense, for everybody to be comfortable with the character that they’re playing and then that’s it. And in certain scenes you’re going to come in and you’ll say, “Look, it’s pretty clear that we want to be here and we want to get over here because that would be terrific.” And then in it, I’ll let the blocking just easily evolve rather than force. I’ve never felt the idea of, you’ve got to come here and then you stand right here and then you need to be there and then you do that. I don’t like to work that way. For me, I like it to evolve that it seems very natural and at the same time I’m still able to take advantage of some of the things that brought us to a specific location because the way the window is because the way the architecture of the place is, so you want to take advantage of those things, but at the same time, I don’t want to impose these restrictions. So I like it to kind of evolve so that we don’t think we’ve got to meet all of these various requirements in the scene. I want to get to that, but I don’t want it to feel as if I’ve imposed it. So I always consider it like an invisible control. These are the things we need to do, how do we get to it so we don’t think like “Oh God. Now I’ve got to step forward and now I got to watch and I’ve got to worry about…” you know what I mean? How do you get to it so it seems as simple and as effortless as possible. [INT: Do you think your experience as a performer, was it helpful in DINER specifically working with people, the fact that you had done this?] Yeah. I think it’s invaluable. If you’ve worked as, if you’ve studied, certainly studied, acting and you spent a few years, and it wasn’t like just twice a week. I was there basically every day for almost two years, all the time. So it was either scene study, improvisational, doing some of those one-act plays. I was there all the time for like a two-year period and so that was very valuable. So when you come upon a scene with an actor and something’s wrong, you now have a basis for the discussion. What is it? Because they’ll say it might be the smallest thing that throws them off. And you say, “Well what about if that?” “Oh, OK.” “How about if you did this instead?” or “Let’s try this.” Or what are the things so that you’re able to kind of get past things because actors again get hung up on something? Something gets in the way that’s affecting them in some fashion. So if you’ve got a background in it, it can be helpful to spot it and also helpful to kind of get past the problem. It’ll prop up in different movies about things. I said to Dustin [Dustin Hoffman] one time on RAIN MAN early on and if you watch the movie, you’ll ultimately hear what it is. We’re doing the take. It’s very beginning, very first day or two and we were in this, doing the scene and I said to him after the take, “You know Dustin [Dustin Hoffman], the character, Raymond, he’s seems too depressed. From all our information, autistic, they’re busy, they’re very busy. They’re not just depressed. If they’re looking up, they’re engaged in it. How many tiles, how many things? What are the dots? And so forth. They’re busy, they’re very involved.” And he went, “Yeah. That’s right.” Now we go to do a take and Tom [Tom Cruise] is talking to him and Dustin’s [Dustin Hoffman] heads up, it’s very good, and Tom is saying something and there’s nothing from Dustin [Dustin Hoffman]. Dustin [Dustin Hoffman] doesn’t say anything. I said, “Cut. Dustin [Dustin Hoffman], he’s talking to you.” He said, “You know, I got so involved that I didn’t hear him.” I said, “Well, he can. We can’t do this.” And somehow and I can’t remember I said, “We have to have sort of like a tether to him in some fashion.” And that’s where “Yeah,” came from. So he’ll be like staring, “Raymond, you want to go to so and so?” “Yeah.” “You want to do the so forth?” “Yeah” And then when he finally realizes what it is, then he’s not going to, he may not do it when he realizes what it really is about. The “Yeah” is only, I know you’re there but so what happens is it keeps him busy and still connected. He knows there’s this voice and the “Yeah” became very helpful for the piece. It sounds crazy or whatever, but it really elevates the relationship and the character.
INT: As I remember it, Dustin Hoffman who’s had periods in his career where he was very famous for asking a lot of questions. Did he ask more questions than other people you’ve worked with? How was your experience with him in terms of his curiosity?
BL: I had a great time with him on all the movies that we did. I mean a great time because he’s immensely talented and he is curious, and he can bring up valid things and certain issues. And then what you need to do is to figure out something that is worthwhile to discuss. So for instance, he said to me one day, “I don’t know how to do this thing.” This is before we actually got to the scene. He said, “You know because it says in the character when he gets anxious that he goes into a pitching motion. And a pitching motion takes too long to do.” So we were just sitting together and he said, “Say like he’s nervous now and now I’ve got to…” and he’s showing me, “I’ve got this pitching motion and the thing and I mean it takes way too long.” I said, “No, I can understand that but let me think about it.” So I ended up calling, “So I have an idea when you get anxious do Who’s On First.” And he said, “What do you mean, the Abbot and Costello thing?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Well, who does the other guy?” I said, “You do both.” He said, “What do you mean I do both?” I said, “You do the both. Who’s on first? The first baseman. Yeah. That’s what I’m saying. Who? The first baseman. Who? And you do it fast like a mantra and you don’t do it like a comedy because an autistic wouldn’t understand the humor of it, it becomes a mantra, it becomes a rhythmic thing. So when you get anxious it’s the first baseman, that’s what I’m saying, who’s the first baseman.” And that very quickly for an audience to go OK I know he’s into this particular state at that point and then he went, “Oh.” And that’s how that came about. So it came about because he perceived a problem with a piece of physical work and then we’re able to correct it because of how he approaches something rather than OK I’m just going to go do it and I don’t know how it works but what the heck. He saw a problem, it was a genuine problem, and you find a solution for it.
INT: Well, actors are so vulnerable because they come to these things and they really understand if it’s honest or not or real and often the Director that they’re working with can’t give them an answer. Or says, “No. Just do anyway or you come up with it,” but I think your background being both a writer and a director and an improviser must be very helpful?
BL: Well, I think it is. Look, you want to come to the table as a Director with as many tools as you can. The more that you can understand about this the better off you are, so if you have to fix a moment; if you have to do something you’ve got a background in it. And the insecurities that come up, that actors face are always coming up. They’re putting themselves on the screen. They don’t want to seem foolish. They don’t want to seem like this doesn’t make any sense. So how do we correct these things? How do we do this? I mean one of the great examples, I don’t know if it’s true or not, but it’s a great example of a director, actor working together is the ON THE WATERFRONT scene in the back of the taxicab. [INT: With Rod Steiger?] The Charley, I don’t know if it’s really true or not but if it’s not it’s a great lesson in directing with an actor because they’re getting ready to do the scene, and who knows what’s myth or whatever, but it’s applicable, and Brando [Marlon Brando] says to Kazan [Elia Kazan] before they’re ready to shoot the scene, “Well, this scene doesn’t make any sense.” And he says, “What do you mean?” He said, “He’s my brother, I mean, what’s he going to do? He’s going to shoot me? I don’t believe that.” And Kazan said, “Good. Play it that way.” And so this scene ends, he’s saying something and pulls out a gun and he goes, “Charley, Charley, Charley. Charley, I mean, you’re my brother right?” It’s a dismissive, it’s dismissive. Now, I don’t know if it’s real or not, the story, but as an acting lesson it’s great because you pull the gun out and he goes, “Charley you’re my brother.” That could be the interpretation right? Not dismissive. So therefore that’s part of the thing as a Director. You may say to an actor in this case Kazan [Elia Kazan] said, “Right, OK then play it that way.” And it becomes a revelation in a sense right? And so when you think and apply that to all the things going on in a movie as I’ve sometimes have said, getting angry in and of itself is not interesting. How do you get angry could be interesting. How do we want to show anger is not just simply yelling it? What are all the different ways? What are all the colorings of it? That’s what we want to look at. That’s part of the Actor-Director relationship. How do we tune this? How do we play with this? How do we do something here that makes us simply as an audience suddenly watching and going “Woah this is really interesting?” And so that’s the fun of directing because directing is not just simply where you put your camera. It’s the relationship with the actors and orchestrating all of these emotional beats to play out that keep us engaged in some way. That’s the kind of circus act it is in a way. How do we do all this so that we’re somehow spellbound and fascinated by a moment? A quiet moment suddenly becomes humorous or whatever or something that’s said quietly or something that’s suddenly hardly heard that you’re trying to hear, what is he saying? What is she saying? And those things that engage us that all becomes part of the fun of the craft that is so mystifying because there isn’t like you can go to page six in the directing book: When having a scene…It is pure instinct. How is best to show this moment? How do we do this? It comes with all this intuitive elements that build up through the course of a movie.
INT: Now after DINER was finished, you went through a bit of a schizophrenic bunch of things happened after the movie. Do you want to tell a little bit about how it was received and then how it ended up?
BL: What’s interesting is I always thought DINER in a sense sort of like sums up a career in one movie. One movie I was able to experience all of the things because I made the movie, the studio truly hated it, didn’t like it, came out in just a very few cities, three or four cities. First review in Variety: DINER a dark and depressing drama. So it’s like, “OK. It’s over.” It played one week, it was pulled out, it was on the shelf, it’s a total failure. I’ll never work again as a Director. It’s over in that regard. It was totally dismissed and then by circumstance, it all of a sudden, it comes back. Opens up in New York with these rave reviews: An American classic, a this and that. Same movie, like within two months, it went from literally this terrible thing that’s on a shelf never to be seen to somehow like a celebration, all in one movie. And then you say, “OK. Well look, that’s the business we’re in. That is it. That’s the way it goes for your career. You’re going to be celebrated. You’re going to be attacked. You’re going to be dismissed.” All of these things are going to happen because we are in a sense, this is the business, this is what it is. [INT: Do you read reviews?] Infrequently but I do sometimes. [INT: You must have known what Pauline Kael said about you though?] Yeah I did. Yeah. I mean that was at that point where because she in a sense sort of like resurrected this movie from the ashes and in a sense interpreted it in a way that it hadn’t even been interpreted because it was sort of, I don’t know how it was reviewed, I mean I don’t know how Variety thought it was a dark and depressing drama but they did. But they could have seen it at ten o’clock in the morning, and they don’t know anything about it, and they go in there, and it’s not obvious jokes, and things and it’s not like hey, yeah. It doesn’t play on that level of that kind of really super light kind of thing. It doesn’t play that way. So maybe that’s the way you know the person saw it. It was a great experience because in some ways it was very freeing because you realize the work that you do can be interpreted this way and that way. And you’re either going to be good, or terrible, or it’s wonderful, it’s disgustingly bad, it is everything and that is just, that’ll be all the elements that are part of a career. And so you can’t be fearful of what’s going to happen or how am I going to be perceived if I do this or whatever. I got it all in one movie. [INT: And it didn’t change right? You didn’t do anything?] It’s the same movie. It wasn’t like then I did another movie and then, it was all in one movie it happened. So, look, that is what we do. And that you sort of say, look, you have to put that aside. You’ve got to try and do the work you want to do. You’re going to try to play it in this area and you do it because you love it, because it excites you, because it challenges you, and they’re stories that you want to tell, and want people to see what it’s about.
INT: What was your experience like cutting your first film? Was it difficult?
BL: Well, it wasn’t difficult, but it took a lot of time. I remember watching Stu Linder who I worked with from DINER until he passed away a few years ago, six, seven years ago. And I remember looking at the really like the assembly of the film and I literally fell asleep. It would seem so long and so boring to me I literally fell asleep and so I’d said to him after, “I never want to see this movie from beginning to end until we do everything that we have to do as we go along.” So then we spent months just constantly doing all the scenes, and scenes, and scenes. Then I finally watched it because I didn’t want to ever go through that experience of watching a movie put together and you go, “God this is forever, this is interminable.” And so the difficulty when you’re playing in that kind of arena of it seemingly almost like an off the cuff piece of work is in how delicate it is because everything is so delicate if you don’t cut a certain way it literally just either feels forced or belabored on the other side. It’s very, very delicate. I mean editing in general is quite a process. That’s why when you go back to the silent's, they try to, you got to make it all happen in the frame, just keep it in the frame, it’s funny in the frame, it’s funny. [INT: Well, comedy is very hard cutting.] It is, it is. I’ll never forget, the example, one time it was on Mel’s [Mel Brooks] film SILENT MOVIE and there’s this one moment, and we thought it was such a funny moment, and we would show it to an audience and it never got a laugh. And they would cut and show it and wouldn’t get a laugh. And then one day, I don’t know how or who said what, “Why don’t we do this thing here where there’s literally like maybe almost making a jump cut or whatever.” It went from no laugh to like a huge laugh and applause. And it’s the same thing; it’s the timing of it. The timing, it’s so delicate and that’s part of the magic of this whole thing, about how these little tiny subtleties all build up in the course of a movie.
INT: Did you start; did you stay with a lot of the key crewmembers from that movie? Did they become part of your team after that?
BL: I worked with Stu Linder all the way up to MAN OF THE YEAR. And I used some of the, I used Peter Sova four or five times over that. Certain people but not all because a lot of people you know the difficulties is that people are on to other things and then they’re not available when you want to have them. It’s always the frustration of it. I guess, once upon a time, in the studio system you could stay with the same group from picture to picture. With a freelance world it’s always hard to somehow mesh your schedules and sometimes because I jumped around so much that I’m doing this kind of movie then I’m doing something radically different over here so I feel like I got to go to a different kind of production designer, or costume designer, some of those things. Ellen Chenoweth in terms of casting I’ve used since DINER. And every movie she hasn’t been available but through the years we’ve, in fact she just did the Kevorkian thing [YOU DON’T KNOW JACK], which is the last film. [INT: I love that movie.] And THE BAY she did. [INT: And I so appreciated resuscitating Brenda Vaccaro’s career because she was so good in that movie and she hadn’t been in anything in a long time.] I hadn’t seen her in years and years. [INT: She’s fantastic.] And, you know, she literally came in on her own. She was in Los Angeles and just put herself on tape at HBO in LA and I was here in New York. She’s a terrific actress. [INT: Yeah, I loved her.]
INT: After DINER what was next?
BL: THE NATURAL. Which was a big departure. [INT: Did you consciously, you started a pattern it seemed to me, which I obviously want to talk about THE NATURAL, but you seemed to have started a pattern at some point where you, and I always wondered if it was conscious, where you would space out certain very autobiographical movies in between other movies that didn’t seem, though obviously, most related to internal themes but nothing on the surface that I could tell were autobiographical. Was that on purpose?] No. I don’t think it was on purpose but I wanted to always come back to certain kinds of stories. It wasn’t like I’m going to wait one year or two years and I’m going to do this but I did want to come back and I didn’t want to be associated or looked at as a director of one type of work. It didn’t interest me. I know it somehow it’s beneficial that you are sort of connected to and thought of in terms of one particular type of work but it didn’t interest me because I like all different kinds of things. It’s not like I say, “Yeah I like these kinds of movies. I only like this type.” I like so many different types of things that I like to do that. I may not be able to write those but as a director I can. If I’m going to write I’m going to write in this particular area primarily but as a director I didn’t want to be associated in one particular area. So when THE NATURAL came about which was somewhat of a fluke because Redford [Robert Redford] saw the film and really liked it and invited me to come up to Sundance when they used to have those labs in the summertime and we spent a little time talking and then it so happened that I was going back to LA and he was flying back so we were on the plane and he was saying, “You know if you ever come up with some kind of idea you ought to give me a call and maybe we can get together and blah, blah, blah. I’d love to work with you again.” And you’re going, Redford, and thinking that how likely is that going to be? Right? And so I ended up with this idea so I called him and he said, “Well come down and let’s meet.” He was in LA and I went down there and we talked about it. He said, “I don’t know it doesn’t quite hit me.” Or whatever. And so we got off of that. Then we just sat around and had some lunch and we were talking about baseball because he loves baseball and I love baseball. And we went on and on and on. He said, “You ever read, I got this script THE NATURAL.” I said, “Really?” And so he pulled it out he said, “Take a look. See what you think of this thing.” And so I read it and I called him up and said, “Gee, I think this is great.” And literally that became the next movie. [INT: Wow. Did you re-write it yourself?] No. Roger Towne wrote it. It was basically what it was then. We did a little kind of work on it but it’s basically his piece. [INT: Had he done CHINATOWN before that?] No, this is Roger. [INT: Oh, thank you. Never mind. Scratch that please.] Roger not John [Robert Towne] and so that’s how it came about. Which was completely different from DINER. It’s about a hundred and eighty degrees away and it’s mythological. Visually it’s different. It’s much grander and everything else about it. So I love the idea that it’s so different in every possible way and, look, I love baseball and I love the mythology of it all and what THE NATURAL was. So that’s where that came from. [INT: And so visually different. ]
INT: Did you study at all? Did you look at other movies for THE NATURAL? What course did you set yourself on in terms of physically making it?
BL: No, because I didn’t know anything that applied to THE NATURAL, I didn’t even know what to think of in terms of THE NATURAL, I didn’t even know what, there wasn’t, I didn’t have a reference. And I’m also not a good student. In that some friends of mine, they’ll say, “Well, you know so and so who did a thing or whatever and there’s a scene in the…” They’ll rattle that stuff off like that. I’m not great at that. I only can kind of like see what I see when I read as opposed to reference something specifically. [INT: So you won’t study a cutting pattern? You won’t, “Oh, this is how we can do this.”] No because I’m not that, I don’t think I’m very good at being the student of it. It just things occur to you in the way you think it should be. Some people can say, “I can reference so and so and BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN and the thing and the whatever.” I can’t quite work that. I can admire those things, but I don’t hold on to them to apply it to what I might do. So if I were to think of THE NATURAL, I didn’t know how to relate it to anything. I don’t know what, I remember talking to Caleb [Caleb Deschanel] and saying that it is this idealized version of America through baseball. There’s this elegance of it all. Of sunny afternoons and ballparks and all of that. It’s mythological in some kind of credible way rather than fake-fake. In a sense that THE NATURAL to me was I’d said it’s like the telling of a story many times over so it just keeps getting expanded upon. And I said it’s like somebody talking about a great play and then if they tell it seven times first of all they’ll say it was a long ball, he went way back to the fence. Then they’ll tell it again the thing was like he went way back. He literally climbed halfway up the fence to catch the ball. He was racing and it gets bigger and bigger and to me that’s where THE NATURAL is. It’s kind of pushed to this way that we sort of enjoy that. That’s the fun of it. You’re not making fun of it but that’s the fun of the tall tale, stretched out in that way. [INT: But it stays grounded all the time?] Yeah. So that was sort of what you try to work towards. So, yes, it’s beautiful looking that afternoon and all of those things and she happened to come to the stadium, and she’s wearing this hat, and the sun is going down, it’s going to catch it. It’s like she’s almost glowing or whatever. Yes. That’s the fun of it. Not for us to just laugh in the audience and scream but just be amused by those things like it’s sort of, it has an emotional enjoyment to it. That kind of playing with those kind of textures would be fun to do. [INT: Well, it’s so radically different.]
INT: Where was RAIN MAN, after THE NATURAL? What’s the order of…?
BL: The order is I did YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES then I went back to TIN MEN, Baltimore, then I went to GOOD MORNING, VIETNAM. [INT: Did you have any idea what you had tapped into with Robin [Robin Williams]? When did you figure out, at what point did you know that Robin [Robin Williams] was going to explode?] That’s a good question. You know what I think? Before we went to shoot the movie, we shot like a teaser trailer, oddly enough, and we did like a radio broadcast that would be used as a teaser. I don’t know if they ever even aired it. And so he was in the booth and I kind of was shooting through the glass, and the camera was panning, and the thing, and whatever, and we did something, and he was playing in there and whatever and we talked about a few things. And I thought he can be fantastic, and I thought he could be great in it. But here’s the interesting thing is you never know about a movie because a number of people around me said this is really a dangerous thing. I mean it seems odd now. I mean you’re going to do a movie, and you’ve got humor in Vietnam, and there’s nothing funny about Vietnam. And I said, “No there’s nothing funny about it. It’s a guy on the radio. He’s humorous. It’s not a hijinks army film. It’s a guy who has humor.” But there were a number of people said not sure that’s a great thing to do. But what intrigued me, besides the fact of Robin [Robin Williams] and everything else, I was thinking one day, “You know? Everything about Vietnam is in a jungle and everybody’s like shooting at one another and that’s what we see and everything. And there’s nothing about Vietnamese in a town of Saigon. What were they like?” And this script they’re going to school, they go to movies, they have a life, they eat. And so that’s what fascinated me is I have a chance to show a little bit of the Vietnamese people as people, laughing, enjoying life, and this catastrophe that’s closing in that’s going to happen. That would be really interesting, that’s what kind of grabbed me. And then, of course, you got Robin [Robin Williams] and he’s going to be on the radio and we’re going to see how that’s going to work and we’re going to tell this story. That was the one element that I was fascinated by. Actually, it’s one of the only things every, not only in a lot of reviews, it never came up in one review about the idea of the Vietnamese people in Saigon, the people, just people, not everybody’s out in the jungle, people trying to live their lives. And I had never actually read anything about it oddly enough in anything I ever read about the movie. So the fun of it and this is where things have to happen, and this is where you know the stuff you’ve taken with you from improvisational background, a writing background, taking it to here and now you’re going into this place on the other side of the world and now you’ve got scenes that take places in these classrooms where he’s teaching English. And it became very clear that these Vietnamese people in this classroom cannot do any of this dialogue. They just can’t really do it, I mean, they can sort of do it. It doesn’t really work. And so the best thing to do was to basically improv it so they’ll say what they say. It will be sort of what the script will be because we do have certain little plot things that are mixed in there, but they don’t have to really say it that way. They can play around with it. And so the way it was all shot, and with Robin [Robin Williams], is we would not slate any of it. And at a certain, given, time all I would do is go like that and we would start rolling cameras and he would start talking to the students and he would be talking and they were doing that and that’s how the scenes got built. So somehow he might say something, which sort of slid into the dialogue that they were supposed to say, it was kind of like it, or whatever, then it might ramble off into something else and that and then they were laughing about thing and enjoying stuff. So all of that was built out of their own personalities and out of that I could put the scenes together so that they became more real and closer to their behavior and how they would think about stuff so that I could try to, at least as best as I could, try to get passed just simply the words on the page and get closer to how they really thought about things.
INT: But the sensitivity to know that non-actors get very scared with the noise of the sticks and action, have you used that again in terms of disguising?
BL: I’ve done that since, yeah, I’ve done that even on this last thing, THE BAY, I’ve done that where you just don’t slate anything until the end of it, but in the movie, if you ever watch the movie, there are scenes in there that are one hundred percent real in this regard. At the baseball game, the softball game, at the end of the film, when they’re playing softball, and I said to the, we had two MP’s, I said, “I’m not going to teach them how to play this game. It might be more fun that they don’t know what they’re doing, so if they’re running to the wrong base or something , just guide them to do it as the MP’s like you’re explaining it. Just like you’re trying to explain to them whatever you’ve got to explain.” And so there’s this character comes up, I can’t remember his name anymore it’s so many years ago, and he comes up to me with this kind of melons that we were using or whatever and he said, “You know, I’ve seen this, a real softball with my own eyes, and this isn’t like a softball.” And I said, “You know, I’m not in charge of the equipment.” And he said, “Well, who shall I speak to about this?” I said, “Well, Robin [Robin Williams] is in charge of all of the equipment.” By now everybody knew hand signals, if I did something like that. I say, “You better go talk to Robin [Robin Williams].” And so I looked over at Robin [Robin Williams] and I like gave him a little thing like that, and I did a little thing and they turned on the camera and he walks over and basically said the same thing, “You know, I’ve seen a real so and so.” And Robin [Robin Williams] saying, “Well how about if we take that…” That whole discussion was literally; he was having a problem with the balls, the equipment, and whatever. That was a real discussion. That’s basically in the movie, so it was the way to get their behavior, so it just seems so effortless and I think it’s the fun of it. And it’s the humor but it also seems to have, not just a credibility, but almost has a certain humanity to it by just letting them talk and function and laugh and really enjoy one another. That wanders through the movie. [INT: I think it’s the same impulse that had you come up with overlapping dialogue by the way. I think it’s born of the same issue.] Yeah and that’s the fun of it. You don’t know what’s going to happen with these people who don’t know how to play baseball out in a courtyard and trying to play the game and explain it and figure out what’s going on and the mistakes that happen and everything else became part of the fun of the experience.
INT: Did you have any resistance from the studio when it got improvised? Did it scare them at all?
BL: No. You know it’s funny, I don’t think so. First of all, we’re on the other side of the world so when they saw dailies, it would take days and days to get back, so they didn’t really know what was going on. But out of it, you have to take advantage of the elements that you have and how to utilize certain things to try to enhance moments. It’s part of what you do. It isn’t just mechanical. Certain things you begin to see. Certain relationships. How do these Vietnamese people impact the character of Robin’s [Robin Williams], Adrian Cronauer? How does this work? What do we do? What else can we throw in there? What can we try within the structure? What else can we push against this to see what else will open itself up? So like one of the moments in the movie that became I think a very kind of humorous but more poignant thing was I said one day, “What are we going to do?” I said to Robin [Robin Williams], “You only know that you’re supposedly funny to the service men because you’ve heard about it because you’re on radio. When you tell jokes on the radio you don’t hear anybody laughing. So if we’re going to understand how important you are to the morale of the soldiers, we need a scene where they really laugh at you so that we understand, you understand, how important you are in this dark time. That you can actually make people laugh. So we have to figure that out.” He said, “What are you going to do?” I said, “I don’t know. There has to be some way, some way.” And then in the movie, if you see in the movie, came up with well what happens when you’re stuck in a little traffic jam and the soldiers are going by and the trucks get stalled and whatever, we’ll figure that out, and they see it’s you, you say something, then they realize you are Adrian Cronauer, and you start telling jokes to the guys on the trucks? And the trucks are all starting to, everybody’s there, and they’re laughing, and enjoying you, and the trucks are pulling out, they’re heading out into, seemingly going off to battle or whatever. So you understand and so it became a nice segment but that was like saying I think we need to take this character and put him in some situation. Cause and effect. It can be humorous but more importantly it has an emotional weight to the movie. And so you know there’s always the issue of cost or whatever because it’s so thrown together and we only had I think four trucks and the trucks kept going around them all the time. We tried to create this sense of this long convoy, a little trickery, but that’s where you blend a little bit of improvisational, what about, can we do this? Can we push this a little bit? Can we do that? Can it add to the film? Can we film it in this particular way that it seems very alive and extremely spontaneous? [INT: It was.]
INT: Did you test the movie? Do you remember being at a first screening?
BL: Yeah, yeah it was tested I’m sure. [INT: Did you have any idea how much people would enjoy the movie and Robin’s [Robin Williams] performance? Were you surprised at the enormous reaction it got or not?] Well after, you know what happens all the time is that in the world of testing it always sort of, it always makes everybody nervous in some fashion because I remember being at DISNEY [WALT DISNEY PICTURES] and we were going to open at Christmas at one point and then they got nervous about Christmas. That this movie it wouldn’t work at Christmas time and so they pulled it out of Christmas and so they were like nervous about it. And so there’s that think like gee I don’t know it seems to kind of work. Well, it’s kind of nervous. And then I had one of those kind of moments as I remember it. They took it out of Christmas, but it was still at the CINERAMA DOME because they had a commitment so it played there and we happened to be riding by and it was on a Friday night going someplace and my wife Diana said, “Let’s just see how the movie’s doing.” It was like the eight o’clock show or something like that, it’s going to start right? And we pull over and I can see like fourteen people in line. I went [groan]. She says, “Let’s go check it out.” I said, “No, I don’t want to go check it out.” And so she goes in and comes out and she said, “The eight o’clock show is sold out.” I said, “Oh, that’s great.” She says, “The ten o’clock show is sold out.” I said, “Well, who were these people in line?” She says, “They’re lining up for the midnight show.” And then it was that moment you went “Oh!” [INT: You knew.] Yeah, you went “OHHH!” So that was the fun of that. [INT: That’s great.]
INT: TOYS was a movie you always planned to make at some point, when you made it you’d been thinking about it a long time. How did it come that you finally were able to do it?
BL: You know FOX [20th CENTURY FOX] finally said yes because what happens is if you do a certain amount of movies, then they figure alright we’re going to try that. And it was a movie that I was always fascinated by and it was, it’s probably, I don’t know, maybe there’s others, it may be one of the very few sort of studio surrealistic films. You know what I mean? [INT: There aren’t that many.] No, not many that have ever been done and I thought I’d just like to try something that really kind of pushed the boundaries visually in its humor, and normally we always associate satire as sort of like dark satire. And black comedy, we always say like black comedy, and it was always done like if you can kind of do this but they, everything seems to be sort of sweet and nice and it’s really dark. So you don’t have these sinister characters, everybody’s kind of nice. It’s kind of like nice, make believe, fake world where in it there are these kind of like dark underpinnings to what can happen in terms of the future, which obviously has now sort of come about the idea of computers and hand eye coordination of remote aircraft, etcetera. Like the drones now and you can fly things into places and kids can basically do it because they have better hand eye coordination than adults, the evolution of where warfare can go, the cost of what the military will be in the future. As he said they cost too much, we need little planes, little planes with little people and all that. And what he’s talking about is that you’re using the toy industry in a sense to become the metaphor for the military industry and in many ways I guess it was pretty extremist stuff because the very few things I read about it seemed to have almost nothing to do with the movie. I think it was thought of as being this much sweeter kind of movie than in fact it was. I always remember the one thing I read, because I don’t read too much, but I happened to look at I think it was the New York Times said, “So and so complete with a decapitation sequence.” If you were reading it you go, “Decapitation sequence?” Where the character actually was a, basically like, a robot so her head popped off. She’s got springs I mean I wouldn’t call it exactly a decapitation sequence, but that was one of those movies where you really get caught in the crossfires of getting attacked because you’ve taken that one step too far. But look, I thought it was sort of fascinating and I was interested and again, you have to kind of see where, what you can play with, and how far you can go with things, and what’s in your head, and what can you put on the screen, and how will it work. [INT: But you’re very glad you made it?] Absolutely, absolutely. I think it was worthwhile to try that and then you sometimes you get caught in the studio changing administrations. Some of the people who were behind it aren’t there and then you’re suddenly you’re left without the person that sanctioned it, which happens on and off in the business. But look, you do things in the course of your career is that certain things are unexpectedly do well and other things don’t live up to what you thought that they can do. There isn’t some formula that you put in ten percent of this and fifteen percent of that. [INT: Well, it’s so amazing every time something actually turns out and is successful because in some cases it’s simply if you had released it seven years earlier or twelve years later that could have been the difference between being massively successful and not I suspect.] Yeah. I love that thing; I think it’s in the current issue of the DGA [Director’s Guild of America], John Ford talking about STAGECOACH? And the comment he makes it and he shows it to some people and someone said, “You should have shot it in color. And start all over again and shoot it in color.” I mean, so you imagine you look at that movie and somebody says, “This is fantastic.” Ah, I think it should be in color. Do it again.
INT: When did you start making your documentary about your childhood or your friends from Baltimore? When did that start? Are you still doing it?
BL: I haven’t done it in the last few years, but I started when I went to Baltimore to do AVALON, which was probably in 1990 or ’91. I was thinking about the guys that I grew up with and what they had become, so I started to film them over the various years at sort of like summer retreats when they would go off, for like camp for a weekend, and they did this, and then they went for a golf weekend, and then someone got remarried, and there was a roast when one of the guys had died, and a couple other things. So I just began to record them over the various years, and I don’t know if it’s done or, I showed it a couple times actually where I just pulled it out in sort of a rough cut and showed it. And it was quite interesting the response to it because some would say, “Well, if you grew up in Baltimore you’d understand it.” But the reality is that the people responded exactly the same because it would just be like their friends or whatever. So it’s an interesting piece, but I don’t know what I’m going to do with it. I haven’t done anything with it except I’ve shown it, as I say, a couple times. [INT: Did it help your friendships? Did it make stay more in contact with these guys?] Well, I had been in contact with them, which is why it came about, so it wasn’t like I was finding them. I’d stayed close to a lot of the guys all through the years. And of course once DINER happened then that sort of stirred up a whole thing from that. So that was one of the reasons I finally did that. [INT: Well, I hope you do more of it. I actually would love to see it.] Yeah, I keep thinking I should come back to it. You know one of my closest friends, Chip Silverman, died and, you know, I was talking about other stuff, and since that time I’ve been unsure if I want to add to it or I leave it where it is and maybe what it was is enough and that’s it. I don't know. It’s something one day I guess I have to go back and reevaluate that.
INT: I loved AVALON, and it always made me think about how did the people in your real life feel about being in a movie? I mean in that case was it pretty identifiable? Were people disguised or did they know who they were?
BL: They would know sort of who they were pretty much so, yeah. [INT: Is it OK with them?] Yeah. It actually sort of brought some family people back together that hadn’t been dealing with one another for a bunch of years. The moment that sort of always made me laugh is at the funeral scene that takes place in the movie when they’re going to bury Eva Krichinsky, Eva Krichinsky who was my grandmother. And so they’re there and the assistant that I had thought, “Well, why don’t I get a bunch of the family people, the family members, to come for this scene?” So I had my uncle Herbie and all these things and there’s a bunch of them there. So now we’re getting ready to do this scene, cold day in the fall, and I’m saying, “Now this scene...,” I’m just trying to set it up a little bit right? And I’m sort of slightly uncomfortable because I got family members, there’s extras, and whatever. “So this scene is so and so, so and so.” All of a sudden, and Eva [Eva Krichinsky] has just died, and then one of the family members says, “We know, we know, this is second time we’re coming to her funeral.” So it’s like when you sort of bang right into the reality of your life and the world that you were actually inventing. And I’ll tell you one thing else and it’s the fun of somehow doing these Baltimore movies. When we were doing TIN MEN, jumping back. The Production Designer was having problems trying to find this wood framed house for the aluminum siding because it has to a wood framed house. And so he comes to me, he says, “We can’t find a so and so.” I said, “Look, go to 4211 Springdale Avenue. That’s the perfect kind of house.” So now I’m filming and he comes later in the day and says, “I just saw it. It’s a terrific house. It will work fine for us.” I said, “What will?” He says, “4211 Springdale Avenue.” I said, “No, that’s the house I grew up in. I’m just giving you an example.” He says, “No, but the house is perfect.” I said, “Yeah, I know, but it’s my own house. It’s where I lived. It’s where I grew up.” He said, “Well, let’s go and look at it.” So we go to the house and we go up there and the door opens up and they go, “Hi Mr. Levinson [Barry Levinson]. How are you?” Now what I don’t know is this person bought the house from my parents. And what I didn’t know is my parents sold the house with all the furniture so when I walk in it looks exactly the way the house, he said, “Would you like to see your room?” Now my room is on the third floor. I go up to the third floor. It’s exactly the way my room was when I left except they didn’t have the pennants on the wall for the football teams. But here’s the interesting thing about it as a writer and a director. We’re now going to shoot the scene. We’ve now put the cars on the street. We’ve got the extras on the street. Everything looks that. I’m sitting on the porch of my house, the house I grew up in, and all the period cars, everything is there, and I’m looking out and it looks just like 1963, the summer time, and I’m looking and I suddenly went, “Oh my God. This is exactly the way it looked when I left this house to go off to American University,” which is the last time that I was basically was there and I’ve now recreated that moment. And I was like, you get shocked. And it’s one of the interesting things when you are doing these sort of semi-autobiographical films. When you go back into your past and you’re sort of telling a story, not exactly the way your life is, but in essence at least what it’s about. And so it’s odd that you’re sort of, you kind of, you’re life is sort of swinging backwards momentarily to almost something that feels completely real. [INT: I don’t imagine that too many Directors have the experience though of going back and actually shooting their life in their house with their furniture? That can’t really have happened too many times?] No. It was the most bizarre, it literally bizarre. And in TIN MEN, there’s a scene that takes place, they’re in the den and it is exactly the way that den looked. It is the most peculiar thing in the world.