Anthony Hopkins on His Strange "Slipstream"
(from brinkzine.com 10/24/07)
- Anthony Hopkins
It catches your attention when the writer-director of an independent film on the festival circuit is a seventy-year-old Welshman, not a fresh-faced kid who quit film school one semester before graduation. It's particularly true when it's the great film and stage actor Anthony Hopkins, whose only other movie directorial credit in a fifty-year-career was 1996's little-scene, "August," an updating of "Uncle Vanya." His second attempt, "Slipstream," couldn't be any more different. Hopkins' latest is an enigmatic, film-within-a-film, life-is-a-dream, reality-blurs-with-illusion lark, in which the self-described movie buff references Don Siegel's original "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" and the Coen Brothers "Barton Fink," and wanders into David Lynch and Quentin Tarentino territory. But at other times, Hopkins ventures into a cinematic/cerebral world no one has gone before, taking such fine actors as Christian Slater (very creepy in one scene), Jeffrey Tambor, John Turturro, S. Epatha Merkerson, Fionnula Flanagan, Camryn Manheim, Lisa Pepper, and his wife Stella Arroyave along for the ride. Hopkins himself plays the lead character, a writer-actor named Felix Bonhoeffer, who, as the production notes say, "while working on a murder-mystery screenplay, becomes baffled as his characters start appearing in his life; and his life starts slipping into his characters. You'll likely get baffled, too, as you try to put puzzle pieces together but that wouldn't bother Hopkins one bit. He made the bizarre yet personal film that he wanted; and when I met him while taking part in the following roundtable interview, I liked how tenderly he feels toward it and everyone who helped him get it made. I know he'd be touched if this curio finds an audience.
Q: This a rather offbeat project, wouldn't you say?
Anthony Hopkins: Yeah, it is that.
Q: When you were writing the script and directing, what kind of reaction were you expecting to it?
AH: I had no expectations at all. Maybe irritation, at best. (laughing). I didn't write it for any major purpose like making a statement or trying to prove I can write a great script, because I'm not a writer. It came at a time, four years ago, when my mother had just died. She was eighty-nine. And when something like that happens you think about life a little. I was sixty-six myself. I wasn't in the mood then to work much as an actor, so my wife, Stella Arroyave said, "Why don't you write a screenplay?" I said, "Why would I want to write a screenplay?" She said, "Go on, do it just for the fun of it." That's why I did it. I wrote it as an experiment, without anything to win or lose. Would they arrest me if I didn't write a good script?
Q: When you were writing, did you have the movie planned from beginning to end?
AH: It's very strange to say the script wrote itself, but it did really. I wasn't obsessed with the writing at all. I'd work on it for a couple of days and then take a few days off and then I'd go back to it. It took me about three or four months to finish it. I started on scene one, then found myself writing scene two, then scene three. And I'm wondering, "Where is this going?" There was no design to it other than I wanted to go off on tangents and make it without construction. Years before I'd had ideas about film; and I thought how I'd like to insert odd little flash cuts in the middle of scenes with no explanation to anyone. Everybody wants explanations today for everything. Students will ask, "How did you make that choice? Can you explain this?" Why does everyone have to explain everything? I thought I'd do things without explanation, because it's all illogical anyway.
Q: Did you always plan on killing off the continuity girl played by Camryn Manheim so that there would be an explanation for why your movie jumps around so much?
AH: No. I remember when I sat down to type the parking lot scene, and my wife Stella said, "Dinner's ready." I said, "Okay… " and typed in the conversation we were having about dinner being ready and we were going to eat organic salad. And the next scene wrote itself and that is the scene the director and continuity woman talk. When I wrote that piece for Camyrn in which her script pages blow away I was thinking in a philosophical way about how we have no control of our lives and how she's trying to control a film—a metaphor for life in the movie--the way we try to control our lives. But we have no control, we can't control anything, not even for the next three seconds. I don't know if I have a religious philosophy, but I think I have a spiritual philosophy. I'm sure we all ponder what is the nature of it all. The baffling mystery to me regards Time. What is Time? God is Time. In one nanosecond something is gone forever and we can't do anything about it. So when she says "it's so unfair" that there is no continuity, I flashback to people laughing at her stupidity for saying that. Life is not fair. And it is not just. If there was any justice millions of people who did nothing wrong at all would be here. That's why I have photos of Hitler and Stalin; the whole history of mankind, and leaders meeting. There is always talk talk talk, blah blah blah, and slaughter. I wasn't trying to deliver a message, but I put that stuff in there because it's my own personal philosophy.
Q: But does your movie have any specific themes?
AH: The only deliberate, conscious theme that suits my philosophy is that everything is an illusion. It's a total dream. The whole script is a dream, with the only reality coming right at the end. I've had that feeling for years and years and years in regard to my own life. I can't explain why I'm here or any of us are here.
Q: Your contention that life is an illusion or dream might be a belief shared by all movie actors and filmmakers. But do you believe it more strongly?
AH: Perhaps. I have noticed that my life has been a series of odd occurrences that brought me to this point. Odd things, like being born in the same town as Richard Burton, Margam, Wales. I was a schoolboy and asked him for his autograph one day when he returned to the town with his wife Sybil. More than twenty years later I came to New York and Richard Burton took over for me in "Equus." I'm sitting in the dressing room with him thinking that it was so peculiar. Life is so strange. That's been the story of my life. I was a big fan of Bogart and Bacall having seen "To Have and Have Not" in 1944. My first night playing "Equus" in New York, and who comes to my dressing room? Lauren Bacall and Sybil Burton.
My life has unfolded itself, in the most illogical way. There's nothing linear about any part of my life, from my childhood to my sitting here right now. Nothing makes any sense to me at all. At school I'd sit in the back of the classroom with my mouth open and a confused expression. I grew into adulthood and had no idea what anyone was talking about or what the world was like. I really felt like an outsider all my life. I'm not saying that was a negative. It was a great, wonderful gift actually because it made me angry and discontented enough to become an actor.
Q: You play an actor-writer in "Slipstream." Are you playing yourself?
AH: It is me. It's life crossing over in a real sense into my own life. I don't know why I named him Felix Bonhoeffer--it was just arbitrary. All the names of my characters just came off the top of my head.
Q: When you were writing your script did you have other actors in mind for parts or didn't you think your film would ever happen?
AH: I showed bits and pieces of it to a friend, Gavin Grazer, who plays the director. I said, "I'm writing this part for you." His brother is Brian Grazer, the very successful producer, and they have a big brother-little brother relationship. I'll call Gavin up and ask what he's doing and he'll say, "I'm polishing Brian's car." He's like the poor brother. So I put that kind of stuff into the film. And one day, Gavin's running across the parking lot at a restaurant with a baby wrapped around his neck. I said, "That goes in the script, too." When I got to page twenty-five or thirty I thought, "Well, this is interesting." As I was writing all this stuff, it was just a fantasy that I'd make the film. Then I started thinking, "I wonder if it's possible to film this." Then I showed it to Emilio Estevez and he said, "Yeah, but it's going to cost a lot with all the special effects." I said, "What special effects?"
Q: What about the rest of the cast and bringing back Kevin McCarthy for scenes that recall "Invasion of the Body Snatchers?"
AH: I wondered if he was still around. I sent him the script and he said, "Oh, I'd love to do it." So we put that together. I filmed Kevin a few months earlier than the others, when it was cooler in the desert. I put up some money to get that scene because he was ninety-two. He was terrific. Michael Clark Duncan read the script and said, "Tony, I'll do it but I have no idea what this is about." I said, "Well, don't worry about it." Christian Slater got the hang of it very quickly. How on earth I got these great actors together I don't know. But I sent them the script, they seemed to want to do it and have some fun with it. We were in the desert for two or three weeks and it was very hot. On our first day in the desert, I just said to the crew, "Watch out for rattlesnakes and scorpions, don't rush around and get careless. It's just a movie." Nobody was getting much money, so I said, "Let's have a good time." That's how it got started.
Q: Talk about directing Stella. I think you two have chemistry and her performance is a great revelation.
AH: I can't wait to tell her you said that. She had a store with antique Asian art when we met, and had never acted before except for a small part in "Dallas" because she knew Larry Hagman and her boyfriend had been one of the directors. I said to her, "Do you want to act?" She said, "NO!" But then she read the script and got curious. I asked her who she wanted to play and she mentioned Gina. My wife's Colombian and Gina sounds Spanish. I said, "If you want to play her, you can…" And she said, "Well, I would like to have a go at it." She said she might be scared, but I said, "There's nothing to be scared of, I'll be directing you." She did get scared when we were doing a reading. But I told her we all get nervous and frightened. She was nervous doing her first scene, the morgue scene, and I told her to relax and not try to act. I told her she didn't have to cry, but she did. And she questioned me, "Why do I have to do it this way?" And I'd have to explain that she had to repeat scenes so I could shoot from different angles and be able to edit. I was really thrilled with her performance. She's one of those people who doesn't accept compliments. I'd say, "That was terrific," and she'd start to contradict me. I'd say, "Stop it! You were terrific."
Q: Talk about your collaboration with cinematographer Dante Spinotti.
AH: My wife, who is one of the producers for the movie, suggested I send the script to Dante. I had worked with him on "Red Dragon." I told her, "Well, he's a great cinematographer, so he might not want to do this little film." And she said, "He can only say yes or no." So I sent him the script and he called back and said, "I want to do it. It's fantastic!" I said, "Is it really?" He said, "I love this kind of film. I want to do something new!" So he came up to the desert to film Kevin McCarthy. Then we had a three-month hiatus so I could raise some money and hopefully keep the same crew. He said he wanted to do it in high-definition and I thought that was a wonderful idea. I think this was the first feature made with a Genesis camera. The great advantage to using it is with lighting and speed. The definition is so clear and the color-correction editing was quite easy.
Q: "Slipstream" can be seen as a negative portrayal of the movie business. Have you drawn from your own negative experiences?
AH: I don't think it's negative overall, but I know what you're saying. And I have had mostly good experiences working in movies and had a wonderful life in the movie business. I've had one or two directors who didn't have a clue and did too much shooting. I don't know where they are now. When it gets out of hand and people take it too seriously and start shouting and screaming at each other, that's when it becomes negative for me. When people bully and hurl abuse at actors or crewmembers who can't fight back, then it's intolerable. I've seen actresses cry and have encouraged them to rebel and walk out, particularly in the theater.
The movie is not really a joke against actors but I do think many actors take themselves too seriously. When I talk to acting students at the class I teach at UCLA, I tell the ones who get all tangled up, "If you or I never acted again, the world would not stop." That's how important acting is. So my joke in the movie is that Christian Slater dies from overacting. I'm a big fan of John Wayne and John Ford and "The Searchers." When John Wayne goes through the door at the end, there will be someone who says Cut and It's a Wrap, Ford probably, and everyone will pack up the equipment and shut down. It's comforting. It's like Mel Blanc's final line, "That's all, folks!" Movies seem important but they're not. I think we go into the entertainment business to ward off the inevitable.
Q: The word is that you have little ego, as does the character you play in this film who represents you. For someone who doesn't have a big ego, you've played a lot of characters
from Hannibal Lector to Captain Bligh to Hitler who can be defined by ego. How do you connect to them?
AH: They're fascinating. The ego if fascinating, and we all have one. I remember when I was playing Hitler the producer told me, "You're giving a great performance but can you make him a little less human so he doesn't get any sympathy." I said, "But he was human, that's the problem." Richard Nixon was interesting to play because he was a brilliant, extraordinary man but his obsession for power undid him. The ego is an interesting thing. I do have an ego but I try to push it aside. I believe it's ego that stops us. As Nelson Mandela says, we're not afraid of the dark, we're afraid of the light in ourselves. The ego will always be there—it's the burr in the saddle that keeps you moving. But if it dominates you, it can destroy you. So I've painted, conducted orchestras, written this script. We can do what we want if we push away the ego and have no fear or anxiety. That's why I could make this movie.