PREMIERE October 1991
Marines at Their Best
by Randi Sue Coburn
A young female director takes on a Vietnam movie called "Dogfight." With River Phoenix as a Marine, you know this is not your run-of-the-mill war flick.
IT'S EASY TO SEE WHY BOB COMFORT'S SCRIPT FOR Dogfight knocked around the studios for five years before it was produced. Well-written as it is, Comfort's semiautobiographical tale of a Marine on leave in 1963 would leave hook-hungry production executives at a loss for the bait. It's the story of a night in the life of Eddy Birdlace and his date with an overweight would-be folksinger. The titular dogfight is a wild party for which Marines kick in money. The one who brings the ugliest girl to the bash wins the pot.
What would the poster say? " A touching love story based on the premise that Marines are assholes and fat girls are fun"? If the script weren't rejected out of hand, the girl would undoubtedly turn into Joan Baez, the Marine would develop a heart of gold overnight, and still no one would want to make this movie. Such, at any rate, was the bulk of Comfort's experience.
Apart from a reasonably low $8 million budget, what Dogfight needed to come to life here in Seattle was a big-name actor and a director with a proven feel for the subtleties of a character-driven plot. Which brings us to River Phoenix, who is sitting in his trailer between setups at 2 A.M., meditatively rolling around a pair of oversize ball bearings in the palm of his hand.
"It's a dichotomy in that we've got a woman director," says the 21-year-old actor. "The norm would be to think, 'What's a woman doing directing a film about Marines?' "
He's talking about Nancy Savoca, who made an impressive debut last year with the low-budget independent feature True Love. But considering the foul mouths of Savoca's working- class characters in True Love, which prompted her crew to form a pool to guess how many times the word "fuck" was used in the movie, it's less of a surprise to find the Bronx-bred director dealing with Marines than it is to find Phoenix playing one.
After all, Phoenix is known largely for his on-screen portrayals of sensitive boys and his off-screen passion for vegetarian food. He hasn't changed his diet. While we talk, he picks at a plate of the trail mix that, as a Marine, he has learned to call "twigs and bark and foo-foo shit." And with some effort, his manners on the set are beginning to lean toward those of his character.
Phoenix's hair is cut in what the Marines call a high-and-tight, a style so generically unflattering that Warner Bros., which has so far given Savoca a remarkably free hand, requested that blond highlights be added to it to lend compensatory allure. (She agreed-though there's so little hair, they're hardly visible.) Between takes, Phoenix sometimes marshals maximum insensitivity to oink at costar Lili Taylor, who, with the help of a high-calorie diet and additional padding, plays the over-weight Rose. Phoenix tends to stand around somewhat stiffly, arms folded or angled out in parade-rest position, because even when wearing civilian clothes, a Marine never puts his hands in his pockets. He smokes, too-real cigarettes, not those lettuce-leaf things provided by the prop department.
"There are things in the film that Birdlace does that if that were me, I'd be so embarrassed," says Phoenix. "But it's not me. It completely belongs to him. " Still, no matter what he does, Phoenix is hard to disguise. Folksinger Holly Near, who plays Rose's mother, observes: "If you had more young men like River than like Eddie Birdlace, you wouldn't have a Marine Corps. "
Along with the other actors cast as his Marine buddies in the film, Phoenix attended an abbreviated boot camp before production began: two former drill instructors put them through their paces for five grueling days. What's funny about this is not the relatively short duration of their torment, which was certainly long enough for the film's purposes, but that it occurred on nearby Vashon Island, a rural haven for liberals, latter-day hippies, and others who thrive on twigs and bark and foo-foo shit.
Even though there's not a single scene in Dogfight that shows Marines on the battlefield, Savoca felt the training was important. "It was a way for me to get these young guys who would probably never want to be in the military at all to understand the pride that Marines take in their survival of boot camp, " she says. "They came out of there an incredible unit. I mean, it was scary, the way they bonded. And it was exactly what was needed. I wanted to get those details right."
The bulk of the story takes place at a time when Vietnam is so dimly understood that even though Birdlace is going there, he describes it to Rose as "a little country over by India. ...We'll just be advisers more than anything. You know, teach 'em how to take care of the Commies." Unlike the recent slew of Vietnam films, Dogfight is about the war mainly by implication. Comfort means to draw a parallel between the cruelty of a dogfight and the way Marines are conditioned to care only for one another's survival. "We were trained to be aliens, " he explains. "That's how you get to slit throats so easily."
Savoca went on a viewing spree of Vietnam movies after accepting the job. But oddly, the films she mentions as most influential are personal and subjective and have nothing to do with Vietnam: The Last Detail and Marty. She wants the gritty realism of the former and the simplicity of the latter.
Accordingly, she resisted pressure to turn the ugly duckling Rose into a full-fledged swan when she and Birdlace are reunited in 1966. For producer Peter Newman, who shepherded Dogfight through two different studio deals before Warner's came on the scene, it was an old story. He recalls one film executive saying, "Can't she just think she's fat?" Taylor, who auditioned for three different directors during three different incarnations of the film, admits that it was weird to play a character who is so unattractive. But, she says, "I get to have a catharsis. Those other women who are asked to the dogfight don't get one. I get to slap him and punch him and regain my dignity. But in one of the old scripts, Rose became a beautiful talk-show host. It was so stupid-that Hollywood saccharine bullshit."
Much like Rose, the 30-year-old Savoca, with her generous smile and wild nimbus of curly red hair, is attractive in a completely unpretentious way. "There was some feeling that audiences would accept Rose better if she changed more at the end," Savoca says, "but I consider myself the audience, and I get pissed off when I see stuff like that. What are you saying then? That you can't have a relationship unless you physically transform yourself?"
In the course of tonight's shooting, Taylor is transformed as much as Savoca will allow.
First she appears on an ersatz Mission District street before the dogfight, delightedly ignorant of the true nature of the evening. With her hair teased into the shape of a lopsided dinner bell, she wears a hideous yellow prom dress that bulges at the sides, baggy stockings, and ghoulish pink lipstick. "You look great," Phoenix chirps at her from behind the camera. "I do?" she replies with some surprise.
The next outdoor scene, shot out of sequence, takes place at 2 A.M. the same night. Rose has changed into what Taylor calls her "perky-girl outfit": a plaid skirt with matching sweater and headband. The rats are out of her hair, which is a definite improvement, and except for three strategically applied pimples, she seems to be wearing no makeup. Still, Rose has a long way to go to embody the folksinger she longs to be. In this scene, she and Birdlace are talking in front of Rose's Cafe, where Rose works with her mother, before tiptoeing upstairs to Rose's bedroom.
According to the script, she's already gotten drunk, thrown up, slugged Birdlace, forgiven him, and eaten a fancy dinner, his treat. For the actors, there's such a dramatic shift in time and tone between this scene and the one they've just finished shooting that they decide to sit for a moment in the meticulously detailed cafe, replete with a newspaper headlining Kennedy's trip to Dallas the next day, to reconstruct their evening.
"Okay," Taylor tells Phoenix. "It's 2 A.M. and we've had two hours of frolicking and talking."
"Yeah. We felt good, and we kissed."
"And now what? What about you?"
"Well...." Phoenix begins exhibiting signs of the uneasiness that his character might feel at being cut off from his buddies, left alone with a woman who demands the truth. "I guess I'm curious to see how far it'll go."
WHEN COMFORT WROTE DOGFIGHT, HE had someone older than Phoenix in mind for Birdlace. "The way he is now, he kind of stumbles across Rose," he explains. "I had him more the gimlet-eyed weasel looking at a nice fat chicken."
Phoenix came to the picture before Savoca, which limited the age range of the actress who would play opposite him. But Savoca felt it was important that both Birdlace and Rose still be in their teens. "Otherwise, what's this pacifist aspiring folksinger doing with a Marine? If she were older, she'd say, 'No fuckin' way.' "
Perhaps the toughest scene for the director was the dogfight-not technically so much as, well, spiritually. It's a touchy business, informing other women that they've been chosen to be contestants in a dogfight, especially when, unlike Lili Taylor, they have no cathartic scenes. They're just supposed to be funny-looking. Savoca says, "There's a great line in the script describing one of the girls at the party: 'You'll laugh when you see her and feel bad for laughing.' That's exactly what I want to have happen in this scene. " When Savoca talked to these extras, she told them something a male director couldn't: "Listen, I could be in this scene, too."
"Nancy's point," says script supervisor Mary Cybulski, "was that we all have dog potential." To show solidarity with the dogfight contestants on the night that the party was shot, some of the women working behind the camera decked themselves out in ways designed to earn them black slashes in a fashion magazine Dos and Don'ts spread.
Such behavior is very much in keeping with a crew that comes largely out of independent filmmaking, where $8 million constitutes a big-time budget. Like Savoca and her husband, Richard Guay, who cowrote True Love with her and is coproducing Dogfight, a number of those hired got their start working for John Sayles on The Brother From Another Planet. Savoca and Guay are something of aliens themselves in Hollywood, retaining their outsider status as they navigate the system.
Throughout their initial negotiations with Warner Bros., they were so skeptical that, as Savoca says, "I had one foot out the back door the whole time we were talking to them." Even now, several weeks into production, Newman finds that he sometimes has to act as an interpreter with studio executives who aren't accustomed to their straightforward style.
Savoca is the sort of director who would be hard for a stranger on the set to identify. In her pink Converse All Stars, baggy sweater, and jeans, she could easily be mistaken for just another member of the crew. Her talks with the actors are generally quiet little huddles, and she's turned dailies into a community affair.
She is hot to mark the halfway point in the production with a talent show, the only requirement being a marked lack of ability at whatever is performed. Savoca dresses up in a miniskirt and fishnet stockings to sing a Shangrilas song with Taylor, Cybulski, and cinematographer Bobby Bukowski, ostensibly chosen for his inability to be a girl.
ACCORDING TO NEWMAN, WARNER BROS. plans to plug Dogfight into the same release pattern the studio used for Driving Miss Daisy, another "special small movie."
Nobody says so, but it seems reasonable that the studio might also expect millions of gawky adolescent girls to be drawn by the prospect of River Phoenix's falling for someone who's less than perfect. That he already has quite a following among them is obvious to anyone on the set. Straining for a glimpse of the young star, one heart-struck fan-with perfect hair and makeup-inches as close as she possibly can to the action.
She's in luck. Phoenix ambles by only a few feet away with the unmistakably awkward air of a military man in civilian clothes. Plus he's wearing the glasses he doesn't generally wear in his films. Perhaps if he snatched them off in emulation of the corny old scene Savoca is determined to avoid in Dogfight, this girl would have all the excitement of recognition that she came here for. As it is, in a neat little twist on one of the movie's major themes, she looks right through him.
Walking on the Wild Side
by Ralph Rugoff
Why is a nice kid like Gus Van Sant, from Darien, Connecticut, yet, making movies about street hustlers, male prostitutes, and drug addicts on Vaseline Alley?
IN EARLY 1987, GUS VAN SANT TELEPHONED HIS agent and nonchalantly mentioned that Mala Noche, a black-and-white 16mm feature he'd shot for $20, 000, had just won the Los Angeles Film Critics prize for Best Independent/Experimental Film, "Think it'll be any help?" he asked. " Are you kidding?" exclaimed the agent. " All we have to do is take off the word 'Experimental' and you've just won the prize for Best Independent Film."
Despite the fact that Mala Noche -a lyrically grungy film about a grocery clerk's infatuation with a Mexican migrant worker-was hardly Hollywood fare, Van Sant soon found himself in a conference room at Universal Pictures. After taking in the array of executive noses hot on the scent of potential blockbusters, he pitched his three projects: Satan's Sandbox, a prison story in which everyone dies; Drugstore Cowboy, a dark comedy about thieving junkies; and My Own Private Idaho, a tale of two teenage male prostitutes, with a plot lifted from Shakespeare's Henry IV. The development lizards listened quietly and filed out of the room after making polite noises. "Gee, Gus, they sound really literary," commented one. "But we can't do films like that."
Drugstore Cowboy, of course, eventually received backing from Avenue Pictures and, in the era of "Just say no," went on to win the 1989 National Society of Film Critics awards for Best Film, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. Van Sant had clearly displayed a talent for going against the grain.
My Own Private Idaho, his latest film, may be even riskier. Starring River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves as a pair of Portland street hustlers, one a narcoleptic in search of his lost family and the other a modern-day Prince Hal, the film sympathetically charts a marginal terrain many viewers will find troubling. With its fractured narrative, off-kilter melange of Shakespearean English and contemporary street jive, a cast that mixes professional actors with ex-street hustlers, and a title borrowed from a B-52's song, Idaho should establish its director as America's most independent-minded filmmaker.
"I'm sure this film will make some men in the audience uneasy," Van Sant observes. "That's part of its experimental character, and if people in malls have a problem, it might be because it's breaking new ground. The only way for an audience to grow is to break down the barriers, and it usually hurts the first time."
Van Sant is sitting in a family pancake restaurant in Portland-a bastion of lily-white middle-class northwesterners, any of whom could appear in a Kellogg's commercial. Dressed in ratty high-top sneakers, scruffy jeans, and a beat-up jean jacket, he appears to be from another tribe. Like the characters in his films, his glazed, soft-focus eyes seem to observe life from a distance. His craggy and unshaven face unexpectedly exudes an unassuming innocence. As the waitress brings him an order of sugary crepes, he discusses the problem of the "pickle shot"-the Hollywood term for a shot that shows a male sex organ.
"I know people at New Line were worried; [senior vice president] Rolfe Mittweg would say, 'If he's going to show erect dicks, I don't know what we're going to do,' " Van Sant relates. "Of course, it's only a problem because men get embarrassed when they see dicks on the screen, and as the boss of the household, they don't want to be embarrassed."
Idaho includes no pickle shots, though one stylized montage depicts Reeves and Phoenix in a three-way sex scene, and elsewhere in the film, Phoenix is shown crucified in a G-string, posing for the cover of a skin magazine. But as a filmmaker, Van Sant has little use for sensationalistic imagery. It is his talent to portray subjects that border on hard-core and suffuse them with tenderness and humor. In Idaho, he describes the poignance and absurdity of his characters' lives without ever condescending to or romanticizing them.
He brings a similarly nonjudgmental attitude to the task of filmmaking. Repeatedly described by colleagues as "open" and "intuitive," Van Sant is also remarkably self-assured-a trait that he contributes to his willingness to take input from cast and crew alike.
"Gus is very open to collaboration, " says Phoenix. "He doesn't direct in a show-and-tell style but instead asks questions and brings it out of you like a good psychiatrist might. He allows you to be responsible for your role. And like some psychiatrists, Van Sant doesn't use words any more than he needs to. On the set, crew members are often left guessing what their director has in mind. "Gus is not prone to articulate what he wants in an intellectual way-it's probably one of his least-developed directorial capacities," says producer Laurie Parker. Adds cinematographer Eric Allen Edwards: "You have to get a lot through osmosis. "
Yet Van Sant is capable of slyly transforming limitations into advantages. "Part of the way I direct films is that I put things into a state of confusion, " he says. "I like it when there's chaos on the set and you say 'Roll it' and no one knows what's supposed to happen. I've always worked like that. I suppose it's sort of cruel. People will be having panic attacks, and I'll just pretend that nothing's wrong. I'll say, 'That's really good, ' but they won't necessarily know what I mean, because you can only say 'It's good' so many times before it becomes totally meaningless.
"Working this way, people learn to think for themselves, because no one else is going to do it for them. In order to survive during the take, they have to come up with something, and that allows an element of reality to enter into it. "
In part, Van Sant's experimental outlook derives from his background as a painter, an interest that he developed at an early age. He approaches film like a canvas-singularly, from a solitary orientation. "Rather than director, I think of Gus more as an artist-someone dealing directly with the unconscious, " says William Richert, a director in his own right (Winter Kills), who plays a Falstaff-like chicken hawk in Idaho. "His willingness to take risks permeated the production. It was truly liberating. "
Also liberating to some was the collective style of production. Thoroughly unpretentious, Van Sant is not a director who relishes Hollywood-style hierarchies. Having recently bought a large Victorian house, he invited several of the street kids in the cast to use it as a crash pad. Phoenix and Reeves moved in shortly afterward, and the place soon took on the aspect of a rock 'n' roll dormitory, with futons spread on the floor and guitar jam sessions lasting through the night. Van Sant, in need of time alone, ended up retreating to a downtown loft.
FOR ALL HIS INTEREST IN OUTLAW SUBCULtures, Gus Van Sant grew up in a relatively conventional nuclear household, though in his early childhood the family kept relocating, following his father, a clothing manufacturer, from Colorado to Illinois to California before finally settling in the affluent suburb of Darien, Connecticut. After seeing Citizen Kane at age fourteen, he made an animated short titled Fun With a Bloodroot.
As a film major at the Rhode Island School of Design, he was inspired by the films of John Waters-a frightening thought. "The Talking Heads [all but one fellow RISD students] used to play Velvet Underground songs, and it seemed like such a cliche to me. I thought you should make fun of that whole Warhol scene." A former classmate disagrees, however. "The whole way Gus sees everything that's going on but acts innocent, like he doesn't, is straight from Warhol."
In his refusal to parade his nonconformity, Van Sant may be closer to another seminal influence: author William S. Burroughs. Two years after graduating from art school, Van Sant used a Burroughs story, "The Discipline of D.E.," as the basis for a comically deadpan parody of an instructional film, extolling a Zen-like attitude of attentiveness and minimal effort that embodied Van Sant's own working method.
Despite a premiere at the New York Film Festival, The Discipline of D.E. failed to attract much attention, and its young director spent the next six years scrounging around on the fringes of the industry. On his own, he made and starred in a series of short films based on autobiographical vignettes that were often chillingly ironic (the title of one is Five Ways to Kill Yourself). "I like things that are frightening and funny at the same time," he explains.
Living in Hollywood, Van Sant grew curious about the local street hustlers and wrote what would be the first of several scripts leading up to Idaho. "I was fascinated by this scene," he says. "It was a secret world I knew nothing about."
Following an aborted attempt at a first feature, Van Sant moved to New York and passed two years in cinematic purgatory, producing commercials for an ad agency. Then, in 1985, a friend sent him a copy of Mala Noche, a novel by Portland poet Walt Curtis. After buying the rights for $500, Van Sant moved to Portland and spent four weeks shooting on location, traveling in a VW van with a crew of three and a box of half-broken lighting equipment. To feed his cast, he traded his paintings to a local Mexican restaurant.
Today, Van Sant wonders whether-as critic Pauline Kael perversely maintained- the result was superior to Drugstore Cowboy. "In a certain way, it was a better film," he says. "It was stylistically freer, because we didn't have the constraints of a major commercial production. "
POSTPRODUCTION FOR IDAHO IS CONDUCTed in Van Sant's rambling home. The film's young editor, Curtiss Clayton, has just returned from showing a rough edit to New Line executives in L.A., but Van Sant is far less interested in hearing about their reaction than in catching up with his peach-cheeked young assistant, Scott. Hanging out in the TV room with Clayton and Scott, Van Sant happily drifts in and out of the conversation. Has he been riding his motorcycle? asks Scott. Van Sant shakes his head no and relates a story about a near-fatal accident with the bike while shooting Idaho. "It would've been such a good story," he says with relish. " 'DIRECTOR KILLED ON FILM SET. ' "
In the basement editing room, Van Sant walks around in his socks while Clayton threads footage from one of the film's most documentary-like moments: in an abandoned hotel, a hand-held camera pans in circles around a gang of young hustlers as they plan a heist. One cutaway features Mike, a former street kid who acts in the film and also provided one of the models for the character played by Phoenix.
Van Sant says he met him in downtown Portland while doing research for Idaho, yet Mike also shows up in one of his earlier diary films as a self-described "head-banger" whom the filmmaker picks up in a public park. Clearly, there's a history to Van Sant's interest in runaway "outlaw" teens, which at times suggests the curiosity of an anthropologist for a lost tribe. Yet in talking to people who know him, intimations inevitably arise about his own walks on the wild side. "I know some great stories about Gus, but I could never tell them to a journalist, " says Clayton, "If you can't find him, just look on Vaseline Alley," quips another acquaintance.
Though openly gay (one of his first diary films announces the "frightening" fact that he's fallen in love with his best male friend), Van Sant avoids conventional gay politics in his films. Idaho is a story about male street prostitutes, but he maintains there are no gay characters in the film. "It's a film about an area of society-prostitution-that's not defined in terms of gay or straight. River's character may be gay, but you're not really sure- he's not really sure. And the hustlers and johns definitely don't think of themselves as gay. In real life, the clients for these street hustlers tend to be middle-class businessmen or construction workers with families."
In a downtown hotel room, Van Sant shows up for a late-night interview with Scott in tow. It's an odd situation, because Van Sant has a habit of not just basing characters in his films on real people but naming the characters after them and then putting the real people in the films in other roles. Scott was a street kid Van Sant hired as a sort of consultant for Reeves, who plays "Scott," a slumming rich kid. As the real Scott chain-smokes Marlboros and glances at the TV with vacant eyes, Van Sant answers questions about the fictional Scott. Occasionally he asks the real Scott his opinion. After mentioning that teenagers can make good money hustling, he turns to him and pointedly asks, "Do you have anything to say about that?"
"I kept trying to figure out who this character was," Van Sant relates. "One day I told Keanu, 'I finally found out-it's me, man.' Like Scott, I'm hanging out on the streets, trying to get to know this clandestine scene, but I'm really just a Waspy white kid who has no business there, who would just as soon turn his back and walk away from it all. I'm definitely a voyeur in a lot of stuff I do, even in everyday life. I'll cop to it."
An essential aspect of Van Sant's voyeurism is the element of secrecy, particularly the thrill of observing a world hidden from straight society. It's one version of a "private Idaho." While the film's title refers in part to the imaginative realm of its narcoleptic hero, it's a theme echoed in a different way in Van Sant's paintings, many of which feature houses in the air, either flying or crashing against a background of rural landscapes. Suggesting memories of a rootless childhood, the images also evoke the filmmaker's enduring subjects-the instability of home and of human relationships, the lure of the road.
In any case, Van Sant is not entrenched in making films about outlaws or street life. "I'm happy doing a low-budget film like Idaho, but I'm also going to make $20 million films," he says.
"Personally, I don't see myself as an outsider," he adds as if bristling at the idea. "I see myself as an A-list director."
The text on this page © PREMIERE October 1991