Interview: Griffin Dunne
by Carlo Cavagna
LEFT: Griffin Dunne (left) with Chris Evans on the set of Fierce People.
Dunne made his feature film debut as an actor in The Other Side of the Mountain (1975) and added producing to his resume in 1979 with the drama/romance Chilly Scenes of Winter (a.k.a. Head Over Heels). Often collaborating with his Double Play Productions partner Amy Robinson, Dunne's producer credits include John Sayle's Baby It's You (1982), After Hours, Sidney Lumet's Running on Empty (1988), and Luis Mandoki's White Palace (1990). Meanwhile Dunne continued his career as an actor, starring in After Hours, John Landis's An American Werewolf in London (1981), Luc Besson's The Big Blue (1988), and the infamous Madonna bomb Who's That Girl (1987).
Dunne's acting career waned in the Nineties, though he did earn an Emmy nomination in 1996 for a guest appearance on NBC's Frazier. Instead, Dunne turned to directing, making his debut with a short, Duke of Groove, which was nominated for an Oscar, also in 1996. Dunne then directed two big-studio comedies, Addicted to Love (1997), starring Meg Ryan and Matthew Broderick, and Practical Magic (1998), starring Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock. In 2000, Dunne directed the independent Lisa Picard Is Famous (shortened to Famous for its video release).
Now Dunne returns as director with Fierce People. Based on a script by Dirk Wittenborn (adapted from his own novel), the movie concerns a teenaged boy, Finn (Delivering Milo's Anton Yelchin), and his mother (Unfaithful 's Diane Lane), who leave New York City to live in a rich New Jersey community at the invitation of its patriarch Ogden Osborne (Pride & Prejudice's Donald Sutherland). Finn is welcomed by Osborne's children (Panic Room's Kristen Stewart and The Fantastic Four's Chris Evans) but soon learns that the rich aren't as accepting of outsiders as they seem. Through it all, Dunne intersperses scenes of Finn imagining the community as a primitive tribe, reflecting his absent anthropologist father's work in the Amazon.
Note: This interview contains major spoilers for Fierce People.
Question: Does Fierce People represent a getting away from the studio pictures you've done, trying to do something smaller?
Dunne: It wasn't intentional. I would have been grateful wherever the money came from. If a studio wanted to do it and gave me more money, I would have been thrilled. It was a very tight budget. It was under eight [million] and a thirty day shoot, which isn't really the best combination, to do a film about the very wealthy and have no money. So it wasn't conscious like that. I think because of the subject matter and the dark tone the movie takes, it certainly wasn't a studio's immediate choice to do, although many seriously considered it. I think the tone—when it got very dark, a lot of the studios weren't sure it was for them, in a major way.
Question: I can't imagine any studio letting the rape go.
Dunne: No. In fact, there was one place where we talked about it and they said, “If Diane [Lane] got raped, we might be able to do this.” I thought, “Oh, so that's cool?” And of course that was never a possibility.
Question: They were probably thinking awards.
Dunne: Yeah, I guess [for them] it was the ultimate woman in peril. But the fact that it's a kid is of course very difficult.
AboutFilm: What was your first contact with this script?
Dunne: The novel, actually. The writer—Dirk Wittenborn is someone I've known in New York—not particularly close socially, but he said he was writing a book and asked me if I'd like to read it. He hadn't finished it, and he said he was having a tough time with the ending, and he was curious what I thought. It's usually awkward if somebody you know not terribly well hands you a shoebox filled with their unfinished book. It's a little bit of a burden. But I was kind of excited about it; I just had a good feeling about it. I was completely riveted to the story, and I said, “I can't wait to see how it ends.” And he said, “How do you think it should end?” I said, “I don't know but I can't wait to see.” I couldn't have been less helpful. But I did say, “I'd really like to make this into a movie.” He kept us in touch, and I optioned it from him before he got a publisher. He quickly got a publisher, quickly got a lot of movie response from other producers, but I had already exploited our friendship, and I had the rights. It was something I was very taken to—the mother/son story. I've always been taken with dysfunctional families. The kid was a very New York smart-ass, sweet kid. I related to him, so I had a personal reaction to it.
AboutFilm: Is the ending in the book the same as the movie?
Dunne: No. The ending in the book, Dirk wrote [it] to come off a little tongue-in-cheek, a little cynical, and it didn't play in the script. I actually shot a version of it, but I knew I wasn't happy with it. It ended where Osborne gives [Finn] the money. They go back to New York, and an attorney is there, and he inherits the entire estate. It just had one of those you-can-see-it-coming endings. It wasn't very satisfying. A confusing ending, [too]—like, “Good, this will make it all better.”
AboutFilm: You preferred to leave it a little more ambiguous.
Dunne: Yeah, I wanted it to be, “Remember out of bad comes good. You are going to be fierce but not savage, and an important member of society.”
Question: In the film it seems like there are some mixed feelings regarding the rich. What did Dirk's anthropological take on it do for you, as far as your experience goes?
Dunne: I thought it was an ingenious way of getting in. I thought it funny, and knowing, and charming. Dirk's older sister married into a very wealthy enclave, the Johnson & Johnson family. So as a teenager of thirteen or fourteen, I think he spent the summer with his sister, or something. And they live in a town in New Jersey that is so wealthy and elite I don't even think they have the name of it. It's got a name, but no one's ever heard of it. It's not like The Hamptons. When you're really rich, you live in a place that doesn't have a little sign, “You're entering Happyville,” or whatever it is. And it was very similar to this [movie]. It was an enclave of very wealthy people with their own rules, and their own sheriff. So he got that idea. He was also very interested in anthropology, so he combined the two. He was very taken with the idea of them being a tribe unto itself.
Question: Have you personally ever had any contact with that kind of extreme wealth, on that absurd level?
Dunne: I've been to a home here and there, where it is like that. It's an old-moneyed wealth that's very different, because it's generational, and like marrying within, it waters down the gene pool. You've got the estate, and all the things the original family member bought, but it's a little worn around the edges, as new money is not really brought in. I've seen that quite a bit, people with enormous estates they can't keep up, which always interests me.
AboutFilm: The differences between the world of the rich and everybody else is a subject the writer has dealt with before as a producer of HBO's documentary Rich Kids.
Dunne: Yeah, exactly. He's completely fascinated by that. As a kid, being an outsider looking [in] at it gave him a perspective of both wanting and loathing. His face is smashed against the glass, and a part of him very much wants to be on the other side of the glass, and a part of him hates about himself that he wants to be. So he tries to keep a journalistic eye on it.
Question: How did you decide how far to go with the tribal references?
Dunne: Every opportunity I could get, I took, and then I cut back. Quite honestly, in my first several cuts, I took something that was really fun and enjoyable and drove it right into the ground. People begged not to see one more reference to the tribe. I went way, way, way overboard. But I was glad to have that.
Question: What is it about Donald Sutherland that makes him the perfect chieftain?
Dunne: There is something genuinely regal about him. He's of a generation of acting and accomplishment that he is becoming, he is achieving a kind of [statesman] or something. He is a national treasure in Canada—he is Canadian—he is, genuinely. It is no different than for the English seeing Laurence Olivier walking into a room. He is really so revered. He settles into that role very, very well. He commands a lot of respect. And he's also a completely funny, silly guy, which is very unexpected. He has a very goofy sense of humor. But when he wants to sit up straight and look at your through that long white hair, it's a daunting presence.
Question: And he pursued this role?
Dunne: Yes, he did. I was at the very beginning [when] you make your list. I was thinking of an English—there were some English actors on the list. Before I went to anyone, he—and I had not met Donald—he sent me an email through his agent about appreciating his life and being at a point where he reflects on his accomplishments and his failures. He struck a tone of Osborne that was uncanny. And I said, “Oh well, that's it. I don't want to go anywhere else. That's the guy.”
Question: Diane Lane came in early, so she was attached, right?
Dunne: Absolutely. When Diane Lane agreed, there was a go movie. The rest was just casting. The most challenging was certainly finding the boy, because if we did not get the boy, you didn't have a movie. I very much wanted to make this movie, [but] knew deep down that I shouldn't if I didn't have the right kid. It would have been harmful for the movie, and harmful for whatever I wanted to do next. So it was a long search, and with those kind of things, it's almost like an accident. We were just a few weeks out of shooting, and we had no idea who we were going to cast. This was for the lead, in every scene of the movie. I was just beside myself. And Anton came it, and his mother told him it was a Seventies movie, [so she told him to] straighten out [his] hair and do a comb-over.” So he looked not like a Seventies kid; he looked like a Seventies newscaster, with this hideous haircut, and a suit and a tie. On top of that, the kiss of death was, he was not even legal. I had to get someone who was eighteen so I wouldn't be subject to child labor laws. So he had everything going against him.
I have to give [producer] Nick [Wechsler] credit. When [Anton] read, I was so obsessed with the haircut and the age, thinking you only have eight hours to work with a child. I could tell he was good, but all I could see was a kid I could only work with eight hours [a day] and a bad haircut. He walked out and Nick said, “What are you doing? Get him in here.” And then I calmed down, and then I felt he was the right guy, but still didn't understand how I would make the movie, working those hours. And David Duchovny [who directed Anton Yelchin in House of D] called me, who I did not know. [He said], “I know what you're feeling, I had the exact same problem. He will nail it within the eight hours. He will be the last person you'll be waiting for.” So it worked out pretty good.
Question: You also brought in Kristen Stewart, who is also very young. It must have been tricky shooting the love scenes.
Dunne: It was. I don't know where it came from, but I [thought] that Kristen was a year or two older than Anton. I knew that I was still working within the child labor laws, so I knew she was under eighteen. But, a week before shooting, she said her birthday was coming up, and I said, “Oh, when's your birthday?” My daughter, by the way, wants to be an actress, and she then was fourteen and she said, “Can I read for the part?” And I said, “There's just no way I'm going to direct you in those scenes. That's just never going to happen.” And she said, “Okay, I know, I know.” So I say to Kristin, “Oh, when's your birthday?” She goes, “It's April 7th.” And I said, “Oh, my daughter's April 8th. How old are you going to be?” She goes, “Fourteen.” A day younger than my daughter! I don't know why I didn't realize she was that young.
[But] it turned out to be a great thing. I was always going to be really careful with the age and how I was going to shoot it. I storyboarded it long before shooting. Both Anton and Kristen's parents were comfortable. But working with them being clothed, and also because of the [morning] light coming up, every day was difficult to shoot. I only had forty-five minutes to do the whole thing—with [the body painting]. It just was the right thing. It was better. I know if I had kids who were eighteen playing younger, I would have had them partially clothed. It would have been much more revealing. The restraints really helped me, I think.
Question: Was Diane any help? She herself did love scenes at a very young age.
Dunne: Yes she did. I don't remember talking to her about that. What drew her to this role, and the presence she was on this set with Anton and Kristen, and all the kids, was that she was very much an aware and protective mother. It was very maternal, and the kids took advantage. She started acting before they had, in her life. I think there was a real simpatico they had toward each other.
AboutFilm: How did you approach Chris Evans' character—why he is the way he is, his motivations?
Dunne: It was very important to cast someone I immediately liked personally [in whom] I would find the darkness very unsuspecting. Not that it was terribly important that this be a huge whodunit mystery. I don't think this was a huge reveal. He was a likely suspect. From Chris and from the book, when you cast you make certain adjustments, and he brought something to it that I hadn't thought, which was this thing I was talking about earlier, about the generations of money being passed down, about the gene pool getting softer, and then dimmer. This was a kid who only got into colleges because his grandfather rammed it through. He was never accomplished deep down, in himself, and did not have the talent or edge or courage to carry on this legacy, and he lacked the love and approval of his grandfather. We talked about creating a real smoldering rage and resentment, and an intense jealousy and hatred for Anton's character, who is an outsider being taken into the tribe so warmly and readily in a way that Chris's character never was. It was the idea of neglect breeding hostility and animosity and a certain danger.
AboutFilm: It's so contained, though. You never see it. Which I guess is something you learn in that world, to hide your emotions.
Dunne: Absolutely. Façade and presentation are extremely important, and I think that is a tremendous burden in itself for people. You constantly see in the paper high-profile people or their children contradicting themselves in this public way, in this criminal or embarrassing way that brings on great shame to family and friends, which is exactly what they don't want to do.
AboutFilm: So how do you grow up not screwed up, if you're a kid in this rich, privileged world?
Dunne: I think it's the same as for any class. It's how the parents pay attention and raise their kids. How much love you get. I think you can still come out screwed up no matter how much money or how little you have. I think you try to play the odds and just inundate your kid with love, and respect, and hope it just sort of works out. They'll probably be screwed up for a bit, and [you] hope they grow out of it.
Question: Can you talk about the music in the movie?
Dunne: Well, Dead Kennedys and Talking Heads I got before I started shooting, because I needed those on the track. I listened to all sorts of music. I had a very extensive temp track for the movie. Like any director, you kind of fall in love with your own temp track and it's incredibly hard to listen to the score when it comes in. Nick [Laird-Clowes], who did our score, he's from a popular Eighties band. I'm flaking on the name—“Life in a Northern Town”—
AboutFilm: The Dream Academy.
Dunne: Dream Academy, thank you very much. I loved the sound of that when it came out. He'd done one other film before [The Invisible Circus]. He's been working with a lot of studio stuff and a lot of his own stuff. He's very close to a lot of English rockers—David Gilmour [from Pink Floyd] was playing the guitar [in Fierce People]. He came into Nick's place, and he picked up different instruments and slowly layered it in. He understood very much the mood I was getting based on my temp track.
The hardest [song on the temp track] to part with was during the sex scene—the [body] painting scene. I used “Cortez the Killer,” the Neil Young song, which is my favorite of his, which was just perfect. It was also, like, hundreds of thousands of dollars. He actually doesn't want his songs to be in films. It's a very rare exception that he allows it these days, and if he does, it's astronomical. No amount of begging could change his mind. So Nick just kind of captured that loopy, sensual guitar thing to evoke that mood.
AboutFilm: A lot of the actors have said that they enjoyed working with you because you're an actor as well. What do you do differently from directors who haven't been actors?
Dunne: I'm not quite sure. The thing about directors is that when you think about other directors, you're completely fascinated by how they do it. Sidney Lumet has a line—directing is like sex. Everybody does it, but you're not quite sure you're doing it right, and you're always curious about how other people are doing it. My approach is very relaxed. I try to have it be completely fun. I like to rehearse on the set, and I guess being an actor, I also find it fun. I have an attitude I think works well with them, where even the most intense scene, there's always that aspect of—you don't need to cut off your arm to play an amputee. There's always a joy and passion underneath, in what you're doing. I feel like that, and I think that comes across, so people do a good job.
Question: Do you have any plans to do more acting than you are right now?
Dunne: I'm always hoping for it. I would love to do something I really love. The things I tend to get baffle me. I can't bring what I like to do. I often get, “Will you play the jerk father or the jerk boss?” You know, the silly buffoon who's firing Ashton Kutchner or something. I don't know if that's from getting old or something. And they go, “Oh, but you make jerks so likeable.” I saw The Squid and the Whale recently, and that got my acting jones up big time. Jeff [Daniels] and I are the same age, and I thought, “Now, that's the part. I'm that age now.” Something like that, with that kind of intelligence, no matter the size of the thing, that would be extremely exciting to do.
Question: Do you have any projects lined up?
Dunne: Yeah, I do. I'm working on several different things. One is a script called The Man Who Ate the 747, [which] I'm working on financing. It's a very unusual love story, and it is indeed about a guy who actually eats a 747. It's based on a book. I'm just starting the earliest processes of making that happen. In the meantime I'm also writing, and producing, and developing a series for HBO based on a book called The Position, by Meg Wolitzer. It's about siblings who in the Seventies, when they were between the ages of 8 and 15, discovered that their parents wrote and appear in the graphic illustrations of The Joy of Sex. And it's their adult life now.
Question: So they're a little messed up?
Dunne: They're a little messed up. In a funny way. Six Inches Under, we call it.
AboutFilm: I have to ask you about After Hours. It was twenty years ago now. How do you think the film has aged? What stands up for you today?
Dunne: I think the film has aged great. It has a complete, easy cross-over from generation to generation. Of all the things I've acted in, it is hands-down my daughter and her friends' favorite thing. I think about it a lot because I live downtown in Soho, and my office is in Tribeca. It's just breathtaking to think how much has changed. Tribeca was just a desolate place. You would practically see tumbleweeds going down the street. Now it's like—there are Gap and Roots [chain stores], and all this kind of stuff. It's so franchised. It makes me kind of miss New York, somehow. Of course New York is always a work in progress. While I don't really recognize the setting anymore, the anxiety is timeless.
Question: For Scorsese, by his own admission, it was a very difficult time in his career. Was that evident on set?
Dunne: Not at all. I think he was so refreshed by the youthfulness of the crew, [on] which he didn't know anyone. He had to rely on us completely. We introduced him to [director of photography] Michael Ballhaus. Everybody [on the crew] he's kept on, and taken with him. So, he was very beholden and trusting of producer Amy [Robinson] and I to surround him with good people, I think he found it completely liberating. He had not made a film in that range since Mean Streets. The last picture he had done, he was four weeks out of production, maybe eight—it was The Last Temptation of Christ, when it was cancelled, in Morocco. That was a huge reference for him, to have something go wrong like that, to have a comedy of errors be happening, to be in Morocco looking at crosses, checking out loincloth wardrobes, right down to the wire, and have the production pulled. It was really an After Hours type of experience.
AboutFilm: What are some of your other personal favorites that you've done?
Dunne: Amy Robinson and I are very proud of all of our movies that we've produced, and the directors and the material that we worked with. Our first picture was an Ann Beattie novel called Chilly Scenes of Winter [aka Heads over Heels (1979)] that we made with [director] Joan Micklin Silver. It was Gloria Grahame's last movie, and it had emerging actors in it. It was very original. Then we did Baby It's You with John Sayles, and Sidney Lumet's Running on Empty, and Once Around [with] Lasse Hallström. These are all scripts that we didn't option. We developed them from the first word with the writer. Once Around was a script [actually], but we developed that for a long time. Each movie took us at least a year to get off the ground. So all those pictures were difficult to make then; I can't imagine what it would be like now. Each one had it's own life-and-death problems, so I'm particularly proud of those.
Question: Now those are usually movies that are made for HBO.
Dunne: Yeah, it's true. Each one of those it was like, “How the hell did we pull that off?” When we did Chilly Scenes of Winter, I was twenty-three. My intention was just to be an actor, and I could not get an acting job. But I could talk United Artists into giving me two million dollars to make a movie. It was a strange career.
AboutFilm: What are your hindsight impressions of Lisa Picard Is Famous?
Dunne: That movie was just a fun lark, an opportunity to play as opposed to a movie you really prepare before you start shooting. This was more fun not to be prepared, and have the actors not know what was going to happen. Chris Guest is the master of that, but I've see the themes of that movie in so many HBO shows. People are even more actor/celebrity obsessed than ever before. It was fun movie to do.
AboutFilm: Today, apart from the jerk boss, what things do you feel, “Okay, I've done that.” How would you challenge yourself?
Dunne: I'd like to work with other directors that I admire. I'd like to put myself in other directors' hands, to see how I fare, and be challenged as an actor by a director I really admire.
AboutFilm: Anyone in particular?
Dunne: Oh, there are a lot of directors. PT Anderson is someone that's awesome. I can't wait to see whatever he does next. I like the way he thinks.
Question: Would you consider finding a vehicle to direct your daughter?
Dunne: [emphatically, kidding] Not at all.
[Read the AboutFilm review of Fierce People]
Article and interviews © June 2006 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
FIERCE PEOPLE images © 2006 Lions Gate Films. All Rights Reserved.
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