One of the nicest surprises of the always-excellent Sarasota Film Festival this year was Will Slocombe’s Pasadena, starring Peter Bogdanovich and Cheryl Hines. It’s a pressure cooker of a family drama with a very personal connection to its writer/director. Anchored by Bogdanovich and Hines, plus standouts like Sonya Walger, Wilson Bethel, and especially a bravura performance by Alicia Witt, the film wasn’t always pleasant to watch, but it was never less than fascinating. Paste sat down with Slocombe, Bogdanovich, and Hines to discuss family connections, awkward silences, and how John Cassavetes saved Bogdanovich’s premiere once upon a time.
PASTE: So, let’s just break the ice with the typical question-where the story came from, how did you decide to make the film-this is your third feature?
Will Slocombe: Third feature as a director but the first one I’ve written. This is the first thing I directed that I actually wrote. Feature length. And it’s about my family, basically. It’s very autobiographical. It’s about a long lost sister who hasn’t been home for fifteen years and we don’t really know why or how for what reason or who. She finally comes home for this Thanksgiving dinner to her stepmother’s house. But not like evil step mother, but just stepmother
Cheryl Hines: Pleasant stepmother.
Slocombe: (Laughing) Pleasant stepmother, yes! And everything goes to shit of course. There’s family secrets and everyone wants money from the patriarch of the family and everything goes to hell.
PASTE: Did you find it difficult writing about something that’s so personal to you, to be objective, or did you feel like it was important not to be objective about it?
Slocombe: Well, you know, the first draft was like complete “dear diary.” It was viciously hard and very emotional and all that. And then what I found was the further and further we got away from it-like it was originally set on the East Coast. I’m from Washington DC, so it was originally set on the east coast. But we actually decided to shoot in LA because we could hire people like Cheryl and Peter and they could sleep in their own beds at night and it just made more sense. We could spend money in smarter ways. And even just setting it in Pasadena opened me up a little bit. And yeah, you’re better with telling jokes or having things happen that the story-you feel more creative and less like you’re going through things.
PASTE: Are the family members that are the basis for the characters still alive?
Slocombe: Oh yeah, they’re alive.
PASTE: And they’ve seen the film?
Slocombe: Well, it’s sort of funny because we’re having this big premiere down here and I’m seeing actors for the first time in months. But the really, really terrifying thing to me right now is that all of my family currently has a screener that I sent them two days ago.
PASTE: Have you heard anything back yet?
Slocombe: I had an interesting conversation with one of my sisters the other day.
PASTE: You can retroactively make anything off the record, in this interview.
Slocombe: No, it’s fine. It’s fine. I’m curious to see how they react.
PASTE: And how about when the two of you [Bogdanovich and Hines] decided to ccome on to the project-did you feel a sort of added pressure or added responsibility-to know that you’re dealing with someone’s family’s memories and not just denovoout of the blue. I mean, what is it like approaching that material.
Peter Bogdanovich: I thought it really made it more interesting. The script had a kind of authenticity, so I said, is this based on anybody that you know? And he said yes and I said I thought so. It’s interesting to see that much reality underneath it. It’s clearly something that the author observed. That made it easier.
PASTE: Was it the strength of the script-was that what initially got you interested in the project?
Bogdanovich: It was the money. (laughs) No, I liked the script.
PASTE: And Cheryl, how about you?
Hines: I also liked that the script came from a personal place, but I also liked that I did not know any of these people personally. So I didn’t feel an obligation to represent anybody, which is good. It’s different if you feel like you’re supposed to be playing somebody, then that’s a different story. So I liked that Will was invested for lots of different reasons. But yeah, it made it more-I guess there’s a responsibility that goes with it. But mostly just to listen to Will. Because we’re telling his story.
PASTE: Were there any weird moments during filming where you’re thinking, ‘Holy crap, I’m watching this happen all over again,’ and/or were there any weird moments where it deviated too far from reality and there was a weird cognitive disconnect there?
Slocombe: That’s interesting. There’s two specific-there’s two answers to that question. Part one, yes there’s this first-when the crazy daughter finally comes back, there’s this one dinner scene where everyone’s sitting around the table and they’re all talking to each other, and it really could have been out of any family dinner. The daughter who’s checked out for years, in fact, suddenly snatches back in when the daughter, who’s actually the smartest one, who he connects with-she says something that peaks his intellectual interest so now he’s back in, but by the time he’s back in everyone’s doing their own thing. So that felt real. But the other dinner scene-basically my mother gets stabbed. That never happened. Thank god. The characters are very real but the situation is made up. My character is three hundred thousand dollars in debt, and thankfully that’s not real. He went to law school, you know, that’s not real. So I try to keep it emotionally honest but narratively I try to do whatever I want.
PASTE: Did you find working with a cast in this film that have a lot more recognizable names than in your other two films-did you find that you had a little trepidation going into that? That can be a mixed blessing for a director.
Slocombe: Well, sure. You know, it’s funny, I would drive to set every day in my crappy Honda and I would park two blocks so no one could see and I would walk in to the drive way and there would be like.. Mercedes.. BMW, Audi, another Mercedes and I would be like, alright, well that’s what we’re dealing with here. But, you know, what kind of cut through all that is that I would have really long dinners with each of the actors or lunches or phone calls and we would just talk about our families. The movie is about families, and everyone has got a family. And you could immediately relate with everyone on a very human level. You know, I wrote the script, so I knew what I wanted.
PASTE: As a director, where you fall on the spectrum of ‘alright, I know what we’re going for but I’m going to give you a lot of latitude on how to get there’ or ‘I know how this is going to go and let’s all get in line here?’
Slocombe: I think it’s different for me personally working with actors as opposed to working with crew. I find that with actors, I really really really want them to create things. I think that’s how you get the best performance. I don’t do it because I’m trying to be nice or I love acting, I do it because it makes the movie better. So with actors I really empower them.
Not that I don’t empower the crew, but I just think it’s a different job. As the the leader of the crew and maybe Peter can speak to this, I think it’s really important that everyone thinks that you’ve done your homework and you can say, I want the camera there, I want that light to be blue, I want that to be shut off. I think that’s really important and I just think it’s two different skill sets.
PASTE: Do you have any input on that Peter?
Bogdanovich: You work differently with the crew than you do with the actors. I usually know where I want the camera to be and the mood of the scene, lighting wise. And you discuss it with the camera man. With the actors, it varies. I don’t have any set rules on how to work with actors. It depends on the actors. With an inexperienced actor, I would probably show them what I have in mind. With a very experienced actor, I would also probably show them what I have in mind. Or I might not, it just depends on the actor. On The Last Picture Show Tim Bottoms couldn’t stand it if I showed him what I wanted. Jeff Bridges didn’t mind. He seemed really happy when I showed him. That’s what I did. It varied from person to person. [the music in the room swells] With opera in the background.
Slocombe: It’s very dramatic.
Hines: It did become very dramatic, didn’t it?
Slocombe: It doesn’t mean that I don’t like to empower people-the DP and the production designer, It’s just that I think that actors are so vulnerable that they have to be-they have to feel safe and they have to feel confident, so whatever you can do to make that happen.
PASTE: Cheryl,what do you like to see from a director when it comes to that? Do you like more of a strong hand? Do you like to be let loose? Both? Neither?
Hines: I like to-I like to be clear with the director about what story she or he is telling. Because I feel like as an actor, that’s my job. To tell the story. So, I bring whatever I feel that my character is feeling-I like to bring that to the scene and if the director feels like, let’s try that a different way or a different direction, then I’m very happy to hear that. I like to-I like for it to be a collaborative experience.
PASTE: It’s so interesting because when you’re talking about a director and a cast, you’re talking about a group of people who are all coming together and all bringing-not to be cheesy and over dramatic about this, but bringing their souls. And none of them are going to get exactly what their vision is for it. It’s this-that’s the soul of collaboration, right? It’s a sacrifice and not being precious about your own point of view. And conceding to other points of view. It’s one of the reasons I think working in film or working in theatre is actually more soul building, if that’s a word, than painting or writing.
Slocombe: Well, it’s way more fun. I mean writing is horrible.
Hines: You’re sitting in a dark room by yourself.
Slocombe: It’s the worst. You have no one to blame but your own trauma. Whereas yeah! Its really fun to hang out with people and make believe. It’s great.
PASTE: Tell me about other differences-and I have not seen your first two movies-but tell me about any-stylistically is it different?
Slocombe: So the primary difference for me personally is that I wrote this one. I was listening to a panel and it was like James L Brooks or Robert Zemeckis and maybe Peter can speak to this- they were saying what’s the difference between directing something-maybe it was Peter-between directing something that you’d written and something that you hadn’t and he was saying that when you’re directing something that you haven’t written, you have these moments sometimes where you show up and you’re with the actors and they want to hear what’s going on and you’re like, I don’t know why we’re doing this. I don’t know what it means, I don’t know why it’s here. I just-give me like an hour to figure out what’s going on. You never want to admit it of course, that you have that fear. And you never have that when you’ve written it. You may have a hint of it once but you know exactly where everything’s supposed to fall.
In terms of production, of course, I love all the movies and the actors and they’re talented, of course. But I wasn’t walking past Audi’s and Mercedes Benzes. Nor telling the guy that directed Paper Moon that that wasn’t happening. One thing I am pretty proud of, is, even given our limitations on this one, my director of photography was able to jerry rig a dolly and in some of these dinner table scenes, I really really thought it helped the tension and the mood and the play-it’s almost like a Quentin Tarantino thing to slowly creep around the table like I don’t know what’s gonna happen! And the music is polite and trying to be polite but underneath it’s like hell, you know? So to be able to make it move a bit was important.
Hines: I really like the music in this.
Slocombe: Oh cool! Good. Will C. White did the music in this movie. He’s very talented.
PASTE: So you’ve all seen the finished product then? This won’t be your first time?
Bogdanovich: Of course. Only on the TV though. I haven’t seen it on the big screen.
PASTE: Peter,something I always say about you is that in American cinema, take the French out of it, but in American cinema, I don’t know if there’s anyone who has done as many different things as well for as long as you have. Between the curating and the writing and the interviewing and the acting and the directing, it’s crazy what a high level in so many different fields you’ve performed at.So I’m curious, when you sit down to see a film that you acted in, if you-are you able to approach it purely as a film, or are you seeing it as an actor, as a director, as a writer, as a critic, what?
Bogdanovich: Well, pretty much everything. I don’t turn off certain parts of my head or my brain to watch a movie. It happens to me and certain things fall in to certain categories. I try to be objective about it but it’s difficult when you’re in it, to be objective. You sort of like yourself or you don’t like the way you look, so, I’m curious to see it with an audience. That’s usually a better test for me. To see it.
PASTE: Yeah, that’s-we can talk about that all day too.
Bogdanovich: I look at the writing, I look at the directing, I look at the acting and different compartments in my head.
PASTE: Because that’s another aspect to the collaboration too, even after the film is quote unquote finished, the life of the film is just getting started and then it becomes a collaboration with the audience.
Bogdanovich: You have to let it go and then that’s it. Otto Preminger used to say to me, ‘Don’t hold on to the picture, let it go, start with the next one.’ Which was not always so easy. Preminger used to forget about everything about his pictures. I can hardly forget anything.
Slocombe: I think the difference is in a collaboration on a movie set, if the audience doesn’t laugh at a joke that you want them to laugh at, you can’t suddenly go up and change the movie.
Bogdanovich: That’s sudden death, if they don’t laugh.
Hines: But what’s funny is if you watch it with different audiences-
Bogdanovich:You get different reactions-
Hines: You get different laughs. And you think, “But that’s not even funny!” You sit there and think, why did three hundred people laugh at something that’s not even funny. Ok.
Slocombe: And a really hard thing is, this is a quote from Girls, actually, but just because someone’s laughing doesn’t mean they’re not feeling. You know-like this movie is pretty dramatic and just because you’re getting a laugh doesn’t mean somethings not going over. But sometimes I’m just terrified of no one saying anything-
Bogdanovich: Silence is the worst.
Slocombe: It’s awful! Yeah.
PASTE: Because you project your own insecurities on it?
Slocombe: Yeah, it’s the worst. You think that everyone’s just as miserable as you are.
Bogdanovich: Also, if it’s a sad movie, you don’t hear people crying. Although I must say we had a preview at Mask before it was chopped up, and the woman behind me went ‘I can’t stand it anymore,’ and I thought, ‘Oh good. We got her.’
PASTE: We’ll shoot for that reaction tonight. I’ll see if I can plant someone.
Bogdanovich: To be that tragic. It’s funny because after I made The Last Picture Show, people expected another film just like that. Instead I made What’s Up Doc which is the diametrically opposed opposite. It just happened that way. And the first screening in New York, it was a bunch of very sophisticated people who thought they were gonna see another movie like Picture Show, and there were some names in the audience. And there was a cold reaction for the first ten minutes. Luckily John Cassavetes was there who wasn’t a close friend of mine at the time. But he became a close friend of mine. But he was there. And ten minutes in to the picture, he goes, out loud, like this: ‘I can’t believe he’s doing this!’ Only then, people started laughing.