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Authors: Illeana Douglas

I Blame Dennis Hopper (24 page)

BOOK: I Blame Dennis Hopper
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We were in Toronto shooting the ending of the movie, in which I skate over Suzanne's body. I had grown up ice-skating, but for the movie I had trained for six weeks to be able to perform like a professional ice-skater. Back in New York City, Gus had sat in the living room of my apartment while he and the costumer Beatrix Aruna Pasztor and producer Laura Ziskin chose outfits for me to wear in the movie. For the final scene I would be head to toe in a tight, form-fitting black-and-gold ice-skating outfit. It was stunning and very close to what I had seen the real ice-skaters wear when I was training. The day before the shoot, Gus decided to change my beautiful outfit to this absolutely nutty pink fuzzy sweater, with a scarf and poodle skirt. I looked like a little girl in the 1950s—not the beautiful and evil black widow. I was trying it on for him in my trailer, and I was looking at him as if to say, Gus, this is nuts, I look like cotton candy. At least can we lose the pom-pom on my woolen hat? Gus was his usual sort of quiet and understated smiling self. He said, “Oh, really; I kind of like it.” That's all he said. And Gus was very collaborative. I could have probably got away with wearing my black outfit, but I trusted Gus, and I wanted to be a vision of what he wanted me to look like, even if I didn't understand it. After all, he was the director.

It was snowing when we shot the scene. I passed by David Cronenberg, who had just finished shooting his scene as the hit man the Marettos hire to kill Suzanne. Buck Henry, the screenwriter, stood to the side and took pictures. I was in this crazy outfit. The wind was whipping across Lake Simcoe and it was hard to just stay upright on my skates. The camera was attached to a LUNA crane, and as it rose above me, it was shaking so much that I thought it was going to come crashing down. Again and again we shot it, with Gus standing behind me on the ice in his parka. I was a skater in the zone, if not in a trance, as I glided out to my position trying not to blow away. Then the sun came out, and we finally got the shot. Of course when I saw it in the movie, it all made sense. I was in one of Gus's visions, surrounded by crystals of ice; I was frosty white and pink. The goddess of death. Smiling innocently. Just stunning. It is one of my favorite images of any film I've ever been in. Quietly powerful, like much of Gus's work.

That night I was at the bar with Gus and Buck Henry. Buck was telling stories about
Catch-22
and
The Graduate
. I made fun of Gus because he drank whiskey sours—straight up. It reminded me of Connecticut. How could someone as hip as Gus drink whiskey sours? I thought, Why would I be anywhere else but here? Making a movie during the day, hanging out hearing stories at night. I was always seeking out Buck Henry for stories. One day I saw him at lunch, and I had my tray about to sit down, and he said, “Illeana, you can sit here, but you can't ask me any more questions about my movies.”

I had never really socialized with a director on set besides Marty, and Gus blurred those lines by hanging out with the actors, letting them see dailies—which was verboten with many directors. All that artistic stimulation I had missed from being just “the actress” came flooding in. Gus created an environment of collaboration, and he was never threatened by opinions. I remember shooting one of my first scenes with Nicole Kidman. Let's stop for a minute and remember how friggin' great she is in
To Die For
, shall we? She had a black hat and veil on. She asked me rather directly, “What about you, Illeana. What do you think?” I saw the costumer, Beatrix, nervously looking over her shoulder, but I did not want to lie, so I said, “I think it looks like you just killed your husband. It's too much.”

She said, “That's what I thought” and took it off, adding, “Thank you” as she smiled at me.

That camaraderie of looking out for each other was a reflection of the environment Gus created. At times,
To Die For
felt like a home movie. One day I was kidding around with Matt, and he accidentally broke my thumb. Gus, rather than hiding it, wanted to incorporate it into the movie. “We have to take advantage of it,” he said excitedly. “It's real. She's a skater, and she fell and broke her thumb.” It worked for the documentary feel of the film. When you look at a movie like
To Die For
, you can tell how Gus was breaking the rules as a director, because it's really an independent film mixed with a studio film. Juxtaposing the documentary style improv within a Buck Henry script. Brilliantly casting people such as Joaquin Phoenix, Casey Affleck, myself, opposite the china doll beauty of Nicole Kidman. I always thought
To Die For
was wrongly identified as a black comedy. To me, it was more of a film with a social commentary. Part Mankiewicz in its storytelling (for example, the flashback technique used in
A Letter to Three Wives
), part Wilder in its cynicism (like his very dark film about fame,
Ace in the Hole
). A fascinating look at American values told through the eyes of its victims and its victorious murderess, Suzanne Stone. True, the film's “You aren't anybody unless you're on television” no longer plays as satire. In that way,
To Die For
predicted the future and the culture of celebrity.

I always kept mixtapes that I would listen to in my trailer to get me in the mood for various scenes. Gus would come in sometimes just to hear what I was playing, which for that film was usually a '60s mix of the Beatles, Neil Young, and Donovan. That sort of thing. Gus was in my trailer when he heard Donovan's “Season of the Witch.” I was thrilled when it turned up in the movie's last scene as the background music while I'm skating.

Another time we were shooting Matt Dillon's funeral scene and Gus came to my trailer and said, “Do you have any sad music?” In the scene, Nicole plays a song for everyone at the graveyard. Well, the song I picked out was “Imagine” by John Lennon. We did the scene, and it evoked strong emotions. Gus said it worked so well that they would have to get the rights to use it. It turns out that “Imagine” cost too much, and that's a shame, because boy, did that song work for that scene. In the end, they used Eric Carmen's “All by Myself,” which, if you notice, is slightly incongruous with everyone's performance, but I was thrilled to be able to contribute some musical ambience, like an emotional DJ.

I learned so many things from Gus Van Sant as a director, but one of the most important was trust. And lenses. We were shooting one of the scenes in the ice rink. Gus was playing the off-camera interviewer of the fictional documentary about the murder. It was the first time I'd done a movie in which I was essentially acting along with the actual director. In the scene Gus is the insensitive nosy reporter asking questions about the death of my brother, but he was also directing me.

Normally you tell a director what you are going to do, but because he was the antagonist in the scene, interviewing me, I stayed in character never letting him know how I would answer the questions. He also threw a lot of questions at me that were not in the script, and I was answering them in character as Janice,
not
Illeana. What I thought might be an emotional moment was coming up in which I say, “And that's the last time I saw my brother.” I had noticed that whenever reporters were interviewing victims of crimes the cameraman seemed to sense when the person was about to become emotional—and zoom in for a close-up. The victims would be asked about their childhood, and they would be laughing, in the middle of this happy memory, and all of a sudden they would form a mental picture of the person, and be overcome with grief, realizing that the person was dead and never coming back. And then they would apologize for crying. Why do people apologize for crying? I wanted to do something like that, but I didn't want to tell Gus I was doing it. I wanted him to be caught off guard and see how he'd handle it.

We are doing the scene; Gus said, “Tell me about your brother.” I started to share these wonderful stories using an emotional preparation of my own to form my own mental picture, and I started crying and said, “I'm sorry; can we stop?” Just as I had suspected, the astute director of photography, Eric Alan Edwards, and Gus did not stop—they even zoomed in on my crying face and just let the camera go, waiting patiently for me to continue. And I was truly emotional. It happened very organically. Finally I said, “That's the last time I saw my brother.”

Gus had not expected me to start crying, but he had reacted like a documentary director photographing his subject, catching me in this seemingly private moment of grief. A sense of relief washed over me, because I knew I had nailed it. There was some discussion with the director of photography and then Gus pulled me over to the side. He was, again, his quiet and understated polite self. He said, “Man that was … that was really good.” He was smiling, and I was happy.

“But we had the wrong lens on. Do you think you could do that again?”

Wrong lens? What did that mean? It was the first time I had ever heard that from a director. I remember my takes on
Alive
were ruined because they were out of focus. Now it's the wrong lens? To this day, whenever I'm doing an emotional scene I ask two questions: “What lens is that?” and “Are we in focus?” Then it's “OK, good to go.”

My heart sank. We were standing on the ice rink and I kicked my skate into the ice. I said, “No, I can't do that one again. That was perfect, but let me see what I
can
do.”

I told Gus, “I need to emotionally prepare again. It will have to be something different. I'm going to listen to some music. Can I have a minute?” It was one of those moments on set in which you're trying to pull a rabbit out of a hat and the producers start pointing to watches and talking about overtime, and the director has to make a decision if it's worth it.

Gus said, “Take all the time you need.”

Emotional preparation is not my strong suit, but I grabbed my Walkman and found one of my mix tapes with the theme song to the movie
Alive
. I hoped this soundtrack, which evoked so many nostalgic memories for me, would conjure the emotions I needed to re-create what had happened so organically.

I skated, and I listened. I was circling the rink and could see that Gus was as calm as could be. The producers had their heads in their hands. I must have skated that rink for ten minutes until I had it. I nodded to Gus, and we filmed it, and that's what's in the movie. It wasn't inspired, only the first take had that, but the second take was as close as possible to the original version.

What's important is that this was my first technical collaboration with a film director. Before that, I just showed up and was emotional; I didn't worry about technical things. Gus taught me about how having the right lens was important. How you could calibrate your performance to the size of the lenses, meaning how big your face was going to be on-screen and how much emotion you would see. It's pointless to cry in a wide shot, for instance. You'll never see it. Another thing he did that was very helpful was to explain what the shot was going to be “by the numbers”—the numbers that sync up to where the camera moves—and how the positioning of the camera could help me with my performance.

I was acting for the camera, and the camera became my friend. Gus picked up on my interest and began to explain the shots to me, and the decisions that were behind them. One day when we were shooting a scene and he wasn't sure where to put the camera, he said, “Illeana, if you were shooting this what would you do?” I loved his use of overhead shots, which he used a lot in
Drugstore Cowboy
. That final overhead of Matt Dillon, as I said, is a killer. I said, “Gus, I think we should go with an overhead,” and he laughed, but that's what we did. It was the first time a director took my suggestion, and it made me more invested in the scene.

I had another scene that was very technically complicated with lots of camera tracking, extras passing me, etc. It ends with a close-up of my taking a phone call in which I learn that my brother is dead. I have to go from laughing to crying in an instant, with the camera landing inches from my face. I knew there was only one way I could get to the scene emotionally. I asked Gus if
he
could be off camera and tell me something very specific about my own brother, and then hand me the phone. My reaction, which is in the movie, came from Gus's telling me that. It was this combination of acting with and for the director that I think made my character, Janice, so memorable. You think of a documentary like
Grey Gardens
and part of what makes it work is the off-camera relationship Edie Bouvier is having with the Maysles brothers, Albert and David, who are filming her. Some days I felt that I was in a documentary about the death of my brother with Gus as my interviewer/director; other days I was in a movie playing scenes with my brother, Matt Dillon, or with Nicole Kidman as his killer. But to the audience I was the character they related to—because I was always outside commenting to them on how I really felt about everyone they were watching.
To Die For
crystallized an on-screen performance with which I would forever become identified. I was someone who, like Mike Nichols had said to me when I had asked for his autograph, was both
inside
and
outside
the movie at the same time.

When the film was over, I gave Gus an antique toy gun. Through Marty, I'd got to know Sam Fuller. He directed such classics as
Steel Helmet
and
Pickup on South Street
, plus my beloved
The Big Red One
. On set, Sam had always fired a gun for action and for cut. The toy gun I gave Gus was a symbol of what one great director did—my gift to another great director. Gus's gift to me was a picture he painted of three houses falling from the sky. On the back he wrote, “Be your own flying saucer. Rescue yourself.” It became my motto, especially as I began my own writing and directing career working with the most difficult actress I have ever come across: me.

BOOK: I Blame Dennis Hopper
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