Peter Bart and Mike Fleming Jr. worked together for two decades at Daily Variety. In this weekly column, two old friends get together and grind their axes, mostly on the movie business.
BART: This is the moment in the calendar, Mike, when every denizen of the above-the-line world comes out of hiding. Suddenly the stars or star directors realize they have a tent pole hitting the plexes or a vanity project at Cannes so they’d better listen to their press agents and get their butts out there in dreaded media country. I’m always amazed by how many stars seem bewildered or unprepared on the interview circuit. Some, like Joaquin Phoenix flash that where-am-I look or, like Harrison Ford, the I-don’t-want-to-be-here glaze. Some actors admit they’re bored talking endlessly about their films. On my TV show a couple of years ago Jonah Hill and Seth Rogen insisted that we only talk about their favorite cult movie, Harold & Maude (released in 1971). Shirley MacLaine refused to respond to any questions until she personally re-arranged the studio lighting (“you don’t understand how to light for seniors,” she admonished).
FLEMING: You championed Harold & Maude and it might not have gotten made without you so it’s nice you had something to offer them, which is rare. I have been observing these recent interviews with interest. On the one hand, I just read an interview of Natalie Portman by Stephen Galloway at THR that was combustible good stuff, full of personal revelation from a tightly wound artist I’ve always rooted for (she was born in Israel, but raised on Long Island, don’t forget). On the other end of the spectrum, while you were in Cuba, Robert Downey Jr. did with this junket interview with a Channel 4 London interviewer named Krishnan Guru-Murthy. Expecting to contribute a few use-able soundbites about Avengers: Age Of Ultron, Downey balked at being led clumsily down a path to revisit a portion of his life he has long since put in his rear view mirror. Unwilling to provide the desired “gotcha” soundbite, Downey walked out. No one would have known, except this interviewer’s station tweeted out the entire interview. I was embarrassed for that interviewer that his station thought so little of him and so much of salvaging the spotlight that they bared his ineptitude to the world. Downey moved right on to the next junket sitting and did about 30 that day without incident; that establishes Guru-Murthy as being a spectacularly bad celebrity interviewer whom studios and stars will likely avoid like Ebola on future junkets, all thanks to his station. Having done many interviews with stars and directors but mercifully few junkets that seem as superficial as speed dating encounters, it made me so uncomfortable watching it that I didn’t run it on Deadline. It brought back my own most painful interview encounters, where maybe you say the wrong thing, or you don’t develop the right rapport, or maybe they had a fight with their spouse before they sat down with you. The result is as enjoyable as a prostate checkup.
BART: Of all the people I’ve interviewed (press or TV) I’d rate Billy Wilder as the most engaging, even though he was so grumpy he knew he was tabbed “bilious Billy.” Wilder openly disdained the hot-shot young filmmakers emerging in his later years. “If they shoot an operation, the doctor has to take the appendix out through an ear,” he snapped. He was even garrulous about his flops. After Kiss Me Stupid tanked he remarked, “at least there are fewer demands on my time. No one wants me to be a pallbearer. In Hollywood they only want people with hit pictures carrying their coffins.”
FLEMING: I think you can get a good interview out of anybody, as long as you are determined to have a real conversation. That takes rigorous preparation, but for me it goes beyond that. I know I’m ready only after I have turned myself inside out, with sleepless nights, self-loathing and a fear of failing. I’ve had my own failures, mostly early in my career. Once I had lunch with Tommy Lee Jones and when he didn’t like something innocuous I said in the banter, he turned to granite before my eyes. The worst: I was given a shot to interview Brian DePalma for The Untouchables when I worked for New York Newsday. I was a fan, I liked the movie. I was 27 and looked much younger and when I sat down in his office, he looked up and greeted me with a dismissive, “Oh, I see they are sending interns to do these interviews now.” Now, I’d had trying experiences at that paper, like when I interviewed Oliver Stone for Born on the Fourth of July, and was terrified to realize the recorder had stopped working. And then Stone smiled and said, ‘Well Mike, make sure it’s working and we’ll start over.’ DePalma, on the other hand, had landed a knockout punch before the opening bell and I was too young to recover from it. Worst interview experience of my career. My affection for Stone endures to this day and I haven’t cared about DePalma or his movies since. I would never allow someone to intimidate or throw me off my game like that now because they are pompous and arrogant, but these are lessons you have to learn because interview encounters are personal, and never easy.
BART: Some of the stars of Wilder’s era were famously bad interviews. William Holden once told me “Why should I tell anyone what I think about anything? I don’t give a damn about my image.” Sean Connery, by contrast, liked to give interviews provided he was allowed to boast that he was much too gifted an actor to keep playing James Bond. “The merchandising, the promotion – it’s become a Frankenstein monster,” he protested. In that era some stars were so eager to change their image that they insisted on specific settings for meetings. Tony Curtis would only be interviewed in his book-lined study, Natalie Wood in her personal art gallery. You were supposed to see Woody Allen this week, Mike – did he demand a specific setting?
FLEMING: I was happy to drive to his NYC headquarters. I have so admired his films that Allen was one I prepared really hard for, tearing myself apart. He could not have been more gracious and forthcoming in describing what continues to drive him creatively at age 79. Can’t wait to publish it as we start our Cannes coverage. You mentioned a couple stars as being bad interviews, and you mentioned Harrison Ford. I think if you prepare and your subject knows you respect them and the challenge of their creative process, and that you aren’t passive aggressive, it’s hard to do a bad interview. If it happens, it’s most likely the fault of the interviewer. I’ve gone back and re-interviewed several actors to make it memorable. I didn’t need to do that after I went to Ford’s home in lower Manhattan for a Playboy Interview a few years ago. He’d just returned from practicing takeoffs and landings of his plane so maybe he was relaxed. He cooked me breakfast, showed me the meticulous architectural drawings he’d drawn himself for a renovation of his apartment, and we had a great chat about his maturation as an actor and a man. I have gotten to interview Downey many times, and I can tell you he is an interviewer’s dream. He is ferociously intelligent, is willing to share his electric wit, and his thoughts play exceptionally well on the page. But he has to be convinced that you respect him and are not trying to do something at his expense. That magnifies how bad a job that junket journalist did. So now, we skipped two weeks while you took a trip to Cuba. What did you find?
BART: You’re going to remind me that Cuba is a Communist country, Mike, but here’s the bottom line: Havana is hot! There’s supposed to be no place to hang, but lavish new bars and restaurants seem to open every moment. I had dinner last night at a terrific sushi restaurant and one of Fidel Castro’s sons was at the next table so I knew the food was good and the security stalwart. And while vintage ‘50s cars prowl the streets and many buildings are crumbling, there are lots of people around with money to spend.
FLEMING: My only association is the Wim Wenders docu Buena Vista Social Club, where it looked like a country locked in time. What kind of strides are they making toward joining the modern world when, as you said, communism remains even as the influence of Fidel fades?
BART: Billboards on the bumpy highways remind you “Socialism or Death”, but some people seem to have a sense of humor about the state of Communism. Esteria Segura, a prominent artist, displays a big installation of sketches depicting the history of Cuba — the sketches show Fidel Castro making love to his beloved Cuba in various erotic positions. No one is shutting him down. Filmmakers are making some challenging movies and, while distribution is dicey, the films slip into the mainstream. Most young film goers, however, get their weekly injection of American pop culture through secret “packages” – pirated films and TV shows coming in via Miami. Since Cuba is officially a non-country because of the embargo, pirated films are a way of life. Next summer’s tent poles already are being seen and talked about in Havana. At one bar I heard a lively debate among viewers who had already seen the entire Game of Thrones. When it comes to pop culture, exile from the world, it seems, translates into instant gratification.
FLEMING: Well, where are my cigars?