Writer/Director Martin Donovan on Collaborator
Martin Donovan is destined to be forever remembered for his remarkable actor-director partnership with Hal Hartley during indie film’s halcyon days of the early to mid 1990s. In era-defining movies such as Trust, Simple Men and Amateur, Donovan was Hartley’s on-screen simulacrum, a smart, softly spoken man who was simultaneously familiar and enigmatic. While Hartley’s work is sadly not nearly as popular or present as it once was, it’s fitting that Donovan has made his debut feature as a writer and director with Collaborator, a knowing and witty cinematic chamber piece that feels nostalgic for the more culturally sophisticated times of the 1990s.
Donovan, in the kind of role that made him famous, is Robert Longfellow, a playwright whose latest opus is a pale shadow of his previous work and who has left his wife (Melissa Auf der Maur) and child back in New York to take a screenwriting gig in L.A. While there, he stays with his mother (Eileen Ryan) and drops in on her volatile, no-good neighbor Gus (an excellent David Morse), a childhood friend of Robert’s who never shook being a rebellious malcontent. What is initially meant to be a quiet drink turns into something much more dangerous, as Robert, Gus and Robert’s movie star ex-lover Emma Stiles (Olivia Williams) become players in a very public drama.
Filmmaker spoke with Donovan about becoming a writer/director, overcoming first day nerves, and making a film that doesn’t easily conform to genre conventions.
Filmmaker: Before I started recording this interview, you were talking about the indie world’s collapse, and watching the film, it felt like it was something of a commentary on then vs. now. You play a playwright, but it seems like it could just as well have been a filmmaker.
Donovan: I didn’t really have that in mind consciously. It was much more of a personal journey for this guy. What I was interested in was the contrast of sensibilities between Robert and Gus; one is intellectual and the other is sort of anti-intellectual and hasn’t spent a lot of time asking questions. The rest of it — I’m obsessed with the political vs. the personal and how we align ourselves with power, whether it’s the state or family relationships, like fathers, and how we process propaganda and indoctrination. It’s only since the last year or so where I’ve reflected on the thought… I was a late boomer, so I was a little kid in the sixties but I had older siblings and just to have all those people then that were so raw. And I guess I was just a sensitive child, it just affected me. There was a kid two doors down who was killed in Vietnam and his funeral, to this day I remember looking at his reconstructed face through glass. So I look back on it now and I realize I was trying to write my whole life and this was a sort of natural culmination of my creative life. But I was trying to distill everything I know about the postwar American experience from a “late boomer” point of view.
Filmmaker: Was there a moment that prompted you to say, “I’m going to sit down and write something”?
Donovan: Well, I think it had always been just underneath the surface, the desire. I don’t want to characterize the film as having anything to do with what I’m about to say because it’s important to be clear about this, but it was the buildup to the invasion or Iraq in 2002 or 2003 where I saw another Vietnam, feeling such a deep despair and sadness and rage overall; that really it was “Here we go again.” And it sort of represented that “Let’s attack Iraq” and the vapid, dead lies that were trotted out to support it. And the widespread support of it just hit me over the head with this idea of propaganda and our alignment with power and the fact that good people, people I knew, thought that going to war and thought this was a legitimate position.
Filmmaker: The film seems so unlikely – you hadn’t written or directed any shorts, and then you made a decision to write, act, and direct in a feature — which to me would be absolutely terrifying.
Donovan: I’ve been terrified my whole life. I’m a very deeply anxious person, very insecure. And this making a film — directing, writing, and being in it — was a moment in my evolution, if you will. The creative impulses of life and the arts are an externalization of your own development. So, that’s what it is: it’s where I am at right now. I don’t mean to simplify, I had to think about all these things. I had to think about the marketplace: “Will anybody go?” And the terror of directing, because everyone is like “This is great, but are you sure you want to direct too?” I had some of that, but on the other hand I had Ted Hope and he’s a nice guy to have in your back pocket. And he supported me; the movie never would’ve happened without Ted Hope. Or it would’ve happened in some terribly bastardized form.
Filmmaker: Did you write Robert for yourself?
Donovan: Yes. Ted told a funny story last night at the Q&A which was totally different than what I remember. What I remember was going to him at one point and saying, “I know Viggo Mortensen; David Morse, he’s worked with David Morse, I’ve worked with Viggo. I know he knows me, he’d probably read the script, we could get it to him…” And Ted’s response was, “Yeah, but if you don’t like what he does in the role then you’ll never forgive yourself.” And how often do you find a producer who is more concerned with the artist and them realizing what they’re trying to do rather than finances?
Filmmaker: Was there ever a discussion of you playing Gus?
Donovan: No, I don’t think so, because it would’ve been a cheap imitation.
Filmmaker: It’s a wonderfully written role and I feel like a greedy director might’ve taken it. Can you talk about what it was like working with David Morse and the dynamic you developed, which is obviously so central to the film?
Donovan: We sent him the script and I was, you know, waiting by the phone. They said he was interested, and it was like [excited/nervous giggling] “Oh, Jesus Christ.” So he called me and we had a conversation and what it really boiled down to was he didn’t want to play another creepy murderer asshole. He didn’t want to do it. He really just wanted to hear me say that Gus isn’t a creepy, murdering asshole. I said, “I love Gus. I think he’s a good guy.” I think that’s all he needed to hear and he was on board. I just had an intuition about Gus that he has a good heart. He looks one way but he has a generous heart, is a good man, and respects people, you know? David was so supportive. We had a rehearsal period and had access to the interior of the house and walked through all the scenes. And it was an immediate click. We talked about Gus in the beginning but he very quickly took over and it was about creating that environment on the set.
Filmmaker: How was your first day as a director? Were you nervous?
Donovan: Oh yeah, I was nervous. We had the simplest stuff to shoot and of course the most time wasted was on the first day. Everyone was very nice and was like, “I think we got it Martin.” I actually think the producers scheduled that day for that reason, so that I could feel comfortable with everybody. And I wanted it to be just me and the camera the first day also. It was easier and I was all excited like, “I shot a scene!” But yeah, the fears that I had were about answering the great filmmakers that do this, you know? We’re all connected and we’re trying to create something. We have history on our shoulders, judging us. But you can’t function like that. That’s what kills you, it’s what kills a lot of people. They can’t get past the first line of their great American novel because they’ve got F. Scott Fitzgerald wagging his finger. You can’t function. But of course the things that got me through it was, for instance, my consciously simplified camera and trying to get at the core of a honest statement. A film that I wanted to be compelling; I just wanted to keep people in the seats. I could not have made a camera-oriented film. So I had to simplify all that and I said, therefore, it’s not an honestly depicted work if it’s not based on the characters.
Filmmaker: How long before you felt truly comfortable turning up every day?
Donovan: Well, in the period that we shot the David stuff, I think I gained a lot of confidence. I felt really good in a few days. And then transitioning to Olivia’s stuff, I had to start over because she works differently than David, has a different approach. As a director I’m receptive to my actors turning on me. I would guess some are authoritarian and don’t give a shit, but I’m not. It was part of my fear, that I would lose their trust. That they would smell disaster. And it worked out, but I don’t know what Olivia was thinking because she was isolated, she was just sort of shooting all this stuff by herself. Again, I just took it so simply. I feel it works so well.
Filmmaker: How did you shoot the scenes where Olivia and David talk on the phone?
Donovan: I read David’s lines. I made the choice and it was kind of done that way, but the script supervisor was there. And my script supervisor did a really good job, it just clicked.
Filmmaker: So you do play Gus. [laughs]
Donovan: I do play Gus. I’m almost embarrassed to say but I sort of affected David Morse in the performance. Generally speaking, when I’m an actor on the set, I don’t want any performance from the script supervisor. I just want the lines and the dialogue; when the script supervisor starts to act, it screws me up. In this case, I brought a little of David.
Filmmaker: Talking about acting and directing, I recall interviewing Terry Zwigoff and he said that his preparation for being a director was five years of acting classes. Having such a wealth of experience on the other side of the camera, how much did that play into how you eased into directing?
Donovan: It’s hard for me to articulate but I think all of the experience just puts me in a place where I can just consent to what a lot of the actors are doing. If I need to say something I will; if I don’t, I won’t. I think the key is to stay out of the way of their internal process, unless they’re struggling. I actually stepped in a bit with Olivia — she talked about this at the Q&A, how she’s used to performance on stage with no limits on the extremes of how you present yourself. And what I was asking her to do was to go in the infinite direction the other way. And that was terrifying for her, and I know it was terrifying for her. So I worked with her a lot. I talked to her, I whispered in her ear. I tried to get her to lose some inhibitions. But the interesting thing working with actors is they all bring different things and it’s just paying attention. I mean Hal [Hartley] has a lovely way of saying it, and he talked about it last night. There are common tasks that have to be given, like blocking, but you can’t do any of those tasks without developing a rapport and that’s a conversation. You have to come to some agreement about what you’re trying to say and with each actor it’s a different conversation. But it’s an exchange. For me, I have to know the director gives a shit. I have to know the director takes this role seriously. That they understand that I cut my chest up and I’m holding out my guts and for fuck’s sake, take care of me. Don’t let me make an ass of myself.
Filmmaker: As an actor, do you prefer to do 10 of your own takes and then have notes or do like to be given a sense of where the director wants you to go?
Donovan: It really depends on the situation, what I’m doing. If the script is confusing or whatever, I’ll ask for information. If I have an idea I usually like to try it. And we have to distinguish between doing episodic television vs. film. I mean, episodic television is a whole other animal in many ways. Each episode, and each director, is different and it would even depend in the part of the show. If the show is established and the director is established then there’s not a lot to say. But if it’s a film, particularly on the more auteur side of filmmaking, then it’s a whole other question. Very early on, I realized about working with Hal, and why I feel very special to have been working with him for so long besides his obvious talent, is that I knew he was paying attention. His concentration was so incredibly powerful. You knew you were in his hands and there was a net there.
Filmmaker: Do you want to direct again?
Donovan: Absolutely. Very much. It just feels like it’s as impossible as the first one. [laughs]. But I’m developing a script and I’ll give it to Ted. But we’re both scratching our heads and wondering, “Well, how the hell are we going to get this made?” [laughs]
Filmmaker: Well I think everyone is saying that these days.
Donovan: Right, but I think I make it even harder because I don’t write…You know, this film is impossible to categorize and that’s a terrible thing to a marketer. It doesn’t fit in any genre. I still don’t know how to encapsulate it. We call it a “hostage tragic-comedy”. We came up with that; or an “ironic hostage dramedy” or whatever. [laughs] It’s just a solid, clean and concise story that we get it. So, this next script is kind of along the same lines; it’s character-driven. I just can’t put this one down because I love the characters so much. But it has a little more scope because of some exteriors and stuff.
Filmmaker: I like films that don’t easily fit into one box.
Donovan: So…will you help us raise how many millions? Just a couple million. [laughs]
Filmmaker: Let me check my back pocket. [laughs]