John Malkovich pays no attention to what anyone says about him. Or so he claims, lounging in a huge suite at the Four Seasons Georgetown a few hours before his feature-film directorial debut, The Dancer Upstairs, opens Filmfest DC. With his trademark deliveryairy, imperious, self-amusedhe insists that for the past decade he hasn’t read any articles about himself or his work.
“I never check things written about anything I do or ever did, or said or ever said, or any of that,” says the unshaven, slightly scruffy 49-year-old actor, whose off-white linen suit nearly matches the color of the Marlboro Lights pack that waits nearby. “So it’s not as if I can, quote, set the record straight. Or even care to.
“I don’t care if people say I’m a Brazilian transvestite,” he purrs. “It just doesn’t matter to me. It’s probably true.”
Yet when asked about the making of his film, a fictionalized account of a Peruvian detective’s quest to capture Shining Path leader Abimael Guzman, Malkovich is quick to dispute details from previous interviewsand even from the film’s own press kit. Having denied them, however, he usually backpedals to admit that they contain a kernel of fact.
The press kit, for example, claims that Malkovich made The Dancer Upstairs “after 17 years of declining offers to direct feature films.” He’s rejected “one or two,” he acknowledges in an offhand, whispery tone that is sometimes barely audible. “But the reason I haven’t directed before is not because of that. It’s because the things I wanted to do just fell apart. I was supposed to do12, 13 years agoa film called The Talented Mr. Ripley. Which eventually got made, but not by me. I was supposed to do another film that was about a week or so away from shooting when the actress quit. It was essentially a two-character piece, and we couldn’t find a suitable replacement. I was supposed to do a film called The Libertine, which my production company will do, but I won’t be directing.”
In fact, Malkovich and his partnerswho named their company Mr. Mudd, after the actor’s chauffeur on his first feature, The Killing Fieldshave been developing scripts for a decade and have produced such movies as Ghost World and How to Draw a Bunny. Malkovich began working on The Dancer Upstairs eight years ago, and it was nearly made in the late ’90s, before the financing disappeared.
At one point, it’s been suggested, the movie included a role for Malkovich. “I wish they’d get that out of the press release,” he responds. “It’s not true. It’s an urban myth.”
Actors making the transition to directors often cast themselves, he notes, “but not always. First of all, to be in a film you directthat doesn’t appeal to me. And second, that assumes that you would get some financial benefit, or backing, for being in the film. Which wouldn’t be the case with me.”
A few minutes later, however, he volunteers that both the film’s original backer and Andrés Vicente Gómez, whose LolaFilms ultimately financed the production, wanted him to play a part. “But that was not in the cards, never. I was never even vaguely interested.”
He also denies and then quickly confirms reports that he did film a cameo, but with his back to the camera. “No,” he says, looking pleased. “Well, I was an extra in a scene. But that didn’t make it past the first viewing.”
Some early accounts identified Argentina as the likely location for the film’s principal photography, which Malkovich delightedly calls “also untrue. I’m sure that was one of the places that was discussed. But it’s very expensive.”
In fact, much of the film was shot in Madrid, which was convenient for star Javier Bardem, a Spaniard, as well as for the Illinois-born director, who lives in the south of France with his wife and their two children. The rest of the shooting was done in Portugal
Gómez, it’s been stated, required that this heavily Latin production be in English. “That’s actually true,” concedes Malkovich. “At that time, he had entered into a deal to produce films that had a Spanish theme or a Spanish connection, or were shot in Spain, for the English-language market. Because it’s a huge market. I don’t know that Andrés is going to continue on with thatI don’t think sobut that was one of the conditions that needed to be met for him to green-light a portion of his films.”
Malkovich insisted on casting actors who speak English as a second language”second or third or fourth,” he says. “or could learn it phonetically. Sometimes it really bothers me to hear certain accentswhen we’re supposed to be in Austria, and you hear this accent from a specific video arcade in Shaker Heights. So I just really liked the sound of the accents. And I knew I could do the film much less expensively with actors at least the equal of [Americans], who would cost 20 times more. Otherwise, it becomes a 10-, 12-, 15-million-dollar film, and this can’t afford to be that.”
Although he’s never made a feature before, in recent years Malkovich has played the part of a cinema director in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Beyond the Clouds, E. Elias Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire, and Manoel de Oliveira’s I’m Going Home. It’s a role he’s studied carefully.
“I always spent all my time in the cinema with technicians,” he says. “Since the very first film I did. I’ve often set up shots in the various films I’ve done, with absolutely no input from the director. I have often worked as much or more with the camera operator than the director did.
“It’s not because I don’t like actors,” he continues. “But because that’s the cinema. It’s all about what’s in the frame. It’s not your intentions, not your work that isn’t in the frame, not your work that’s on the cutting-room floorit’s just what’s in the frame. As I say in Shadow of the Vampire.”
But why would a director ask an actor, even one who’s an experienced stage director, to set up shots? “Ohhh,” he sighs. “Sometimes people didn’t know what they were doing. Sometimes people ask me to. Sometimes what they proposed was so horrifically, mind-numbingly ugly that I had to say, ‘Could we come over here and do this?’ With some people who don’t have the slightest interest in what you think, you don’t proffer any opinions. That’s the shot they want, that’s the shot they get. That’s fine. I mean, less work for me.”
Having seen the process from both sides, Malkovich believes “that you have to adapt to the director. Someone like Jane Campion or Robert Benton, they may have 10, 20, 40 actors to direct. It’s much better that the actors adjust to them. Because otherwise, I think their lives are really chaos. Whatever they want me to work on, I’ll try and work on it.”
Malkovich says he didn’t become a director so that actors would conform to his whims. Still, he doesn’t seem to be completely on the side of performers. “I’ve made 65 films or so and directed 50 plays. I’ve seen a lot of actors waste a lot of time. And there isn’t a lot of time to waste on a film of this size. If they have something pertinentand sageto say, I’m delighted to listen. But I got all the script questions out of the way before we ever started shooting: ‘Are you comfortable with this? Do you understand why it’s here? Do you believe it? Is there something you would change? Is there something that’s simply difficult for you to say in English?’ I did all that.
“That’s the way I work,” he announces. “All directors don’t work that way. I’ve worked with directors who can’t talk. Literally, lost his power of speech. So I had to look at his face and look at his gestures. And I don’t think that’s any more difficult or bizarre than someone who screams at you all day long, or who tortures you into doing it his way all day long and calls you when you get home at night after a 14-hour day and starts to torture you for the next day. Directors have a terribly pressure-filled job, and if they need to release their anger, I don’t mind.”
The filmmaker who couldn’t speak must have been Antonioni, who made Beyond the Clouds after suffering a stroke. Still, the man’s identity is checked with Malkovichafter all, one wouldn’t want to add to the supply of misinformation about the actor-director’s career.
Malkovich practically leers at that idea. “Please do,” he coos. “Be my guest.” Mark Jenkins