Seduced and Abandoned‘s James Toback on Movies, Mortality, Shooting in Cannes, and Literally Shooting his Enemies
James Toback has to be one of the most candid individuals in the movie business. Sitting down for a chat about his new genre-defying documentary Seduced and Abandoned, which borrows its title from 1964’s Pietro Germi satire, and premieres on HBO on Monday, Oct. 28, the 68-year-old filmmaker practically blows my mind with his willingness to talk about anything and everything, from late mogul David Begelman’s psychosis and Alec Baldwin’s divorce troubles to mega-producer delusions and his own personal hit list, whose names he has every intention of crossing off before he croaks. Yes, you heard right. Utterly filterless, Toback is easily the most off-script talent I’ve ever interviewed. And yet, he’s in no way just some machine of sensationalism. Despite his radical responses, he’s superbly articulate, and a fascinating encyclopedia of behind-the-scenes Hollywood info.
In many ways, our Q&A reflects the themes that are ever-present in Seduced and Abandoned, whose title also alludes to how we continue to return to the allure of film again and again, even after we’ve been burned. The conceit of the movie involves Toback and Baldwin setting out for the Cannes Film Festival to try and clinch funding for Last Tango in Tikrit, a psychosexual nod to Last Tango in Paris that would star Baldwin as the lead. Naturally, it doesn’t sound like an easy film to get financed, yet the duo’s journey proves just how disheartening, arduous, and preposterous the whole business of moviemaking is. And still, Seduced and Abandoned plays like a love song to cinema nonetheless, before transforming into a kind of requiem for us all. For film buffs, it’s a thrilling, intoxicating experience, and, for me, so was chatting with its maker.
Filmmaker: So, how are you doing?
Toback: I think okay. That reminds me of David Begelman, who was a major crook and ran three Hollywood studios at one time. He was a total psychotic who ended up blowing his brains out. But I ran into him one time on the Fox lot and I said, “So how are you doing?” And he said, “That’s an interesting question. My psychiatrist says I’m doing okay.” [Laughs] That’s the ultimate: When you’re not really sure, and you have to ask your psychiatrist if you’re doing okay. And he said it without any sense of irony. It’s interesting, many people have forgotten about David Begelman. There’s this book called Indecent Exposure, about his check forgery when he was head of Columbia Pictures. He’d been the biggest industry agent for 15 years, then he ran Columbia Pictures and became the most successful studio executive in Hollywood. Turns out he was forging all these checks. Finally they got rid of him, then they brought him back, then they fired him again. And then he became the head of MGM/UA, at which time I got Exposed financed in 1981, by MGM, for $18 million, which would be like $80 million today. And I was thinking a lot about [Begelman] when I was making Seduced and Abandoned because I thought this, today, is as new a world relative to the Begelman world as the Begelman world was to the Adolph Zukor/Louis B. Mayer world. That was like a whole leap into another universe, and now you have this world that’s like the Wild West, where there is no nucleus of figures running things, it’s all just chaos.
Filmmaker: And in the film, you navigate some of this chaos with Alec Baldwin, with whom you share this kind of bromantic bond. I wanted to ask about your friendship with him and why he was suited for this, particularly because I don’t think there are enough people who know that few can talk as passionately and articulately about cinema as he can.
Toback: Absolutely. And about almost any subject he talks about. One of the things that make him as enjoyable a person to be around as he is is that beyond his wit, and humor, and quickness, he does not talk about things he does not know about. And he doesn’t pretend to talk about things he doesn’t know about. When he speaks about anything, it’s because he really does know what he’s talking about. Politics and movies are fundamental, but there are even areas of human behavior, like divorce, which he basically wrote a book about, and divorce lawyers. I mean, he knows divorce law probably better than any layman in the country. So, you get him on a subject he is actually knowledgeable on, and he will dazzle you. You get him on a subject that he’s not really sharp on, and he’ll look to find out things. He won’t pretend to know what he doesn’t know. And it’s a great pleasure to be around someone like that.
Filmmaker: And how did it first come to be that you would be the two people putting this project together?
Toback: Well, we always knew we had an affiliation. We had a real feel for each other, and when we started talking in earnest about doing a movie together, I think it was really so clear that we appreciated each other’s time and company. It was just a question of, “What’s the movie going to be?” And I think the one prerequisite, in both of our minds, was that it be a movie that doesn’t resemble any movie that’s ever been made before. It would be an embarrassment to go through the kind of very provocative, original talks we were having, and then do a movie that fit into some genre that already had been tested and tried. The idea was to come up with something that we would be discovering as we were doing it.
Filmmaker: So you decided to make this movie about trying to make a movie about Alec in Iraq. Who do you bring with you to Cannes? Just one cameraman? Two? A boom guy?
Toback: I was originally going to have Larry McConkey, whom I’ve used as a Steadicam operator/cameraman on three films. He’s the number one Steadicam guy in the world. And then, Larry couldn’t do it because Quentin kept him over on Django Unchained, and I was very upset. And Larry went to the guy who invented the Steadicam, and said, “Who is the next best guy beside me?”; although, he didn’t word it that way, of course. And the guy told him that there’s this Dutch guy [Ruben Sluijter], who’s a magician. So I got in touch with him, we had a great talk, and he shot most of the movie. He shot in Cannes with us the whole time. He was not only a terrific Steadicam operator, but he could shoot for an hour to an hour and a half without stopping. And, you know, Steadicam requires a tremendous strength to keep…steady. This guy was fucking sensational. Great attitude. And we had a couple of B cameras going. We used the Canon 300 primarily. And what was interesting was that because there’s so much shooting going on all the time, with endless paparazzi and tourists shooting whatever we can shoot, most of the time, if it weren’t for Alec Baldwin being in the shot, no one would have realized that this was anything other than another bit of filming going on.
Filmmaker: And what did your interviewees think?
Toback: Well, one of the things that worked so well for us is that I think that all of the people, including Ryan Gosling, and Martin Scorsese, and Francis Ford Coppola, literally forgot that the camera was on. So you got this sense all the way through that these are people who are being themselves, where there’s no line between what they’re presenting to you and who they really are. In fact, the only one who, at the beginning, was a little bit hesitant, was Gosling. Because he came on very late, and I think he didn’t quite get what we were up to. So I don’t show that part, but we do have the moment where it changed, and he says, “So I see.” And then Gosling gave us three hours. I could have done a two hour movie just on him. He’s a great talker and a great storyteller.
Filmmaker: Well that’s another thing I wanted to ask about — how you were securing all of these people. Clearly a lot them, specifically the filmmakers, are your friends, but what about the others, like Gosling, for instance?
Toback: Alec got Gosling. Jessica Chastain I’ve known for years, and I approached her pretty early. She’s one of those stars who has a “team,” but we navigated our way around that, and it worked out. Diane Kruger we just ran into in the lobby and said, “Do you want to do this thing?” and she said okay. Bérénice Bejo, same thing. The directors are all friends of mine, all four of them [Scorsese, Coppola, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Roman Polanski], and we go way back. And Avi Lerner and those sales guys we all. And then the Moroccans, and the Tunisians, and the Jordanians [all potential financiers], we just met right on camera, five seconds before we started talking. I love those scenes. Those guys are a very integral part of Cannes and most people don’t even know they’re there. They’re absolutely available and open, because that’s what they’re there for—to talk people into shooting in their country.
Filmmaker: So, the prospective film within the film, Last Tango in Tikrit — is this a reality? An actual concept? Are we supposed to know if it is or not?
Toback: It will be a reality if we get the money.
Filmmaker: And when you’re talking to all these people, from Scorsese to Coppola, do they all know that this is a real concept?
Toback: Yes. The ones who weren’t sure asked, and we absolutely said, “If we get the funding, we’re going to do it.” And we felt that if we didn’t agree between ourselves that we were 100 percent serious, then the movie [Seduced and Abandoned] wouldn’t feel right. As soon as it was this kind of excuse, or a hustle that we’re pulling on people to do something else, it becomes a movie that’s not only different from what we want, but the opposite of what we want. We’re trying to get people to be straight with us, and we’re not going to achieve it by playing a game with them, or even by playing a game on the audience. No. And I think you can feel the disappointment when we find out that our initial financial goals are way the fuck off of what’s actually going to happen.
Filmmaker: Well, one of the reasons why it becomes hard to tell if the concept is real or not is that in this movie, the world of film financing starts to look like such a farce, that it starts to feel like it’s satirical. And you keep showing the image of that carousel — it feels like we’re on a carousel.
Toback: That’s right. And that world is farcical. That’s precisely the point. And by the way, the one who really gives it away is Avi Lerner, who uses that great phrase, “If you could get me what’s her name…Natalie Portman.” That just shows you the utter absurdity of this name game. He already knows in advance that she’s, “This year, yes; next year, who gives a fuck?” So it’s not really worth even learning the name, because next year it’s going to be, “What’s his name…somebody else,” or, “What’s her name…somebody else.” That’s what enables the whole thing to move forward: “Let’s all agree, all of our distributors and sales people, that this year, Natalie Portman and so-in-so are going to be worth $60 million.” It’s like a Ponzi scheme, really, because it’s all based on saying, “If I get this, then you’ll give me that,” and “If I get this, I can get that from him.” Somewhere along the line, someone’s going to say, “What? I’m not giving you that. Are you out of your fucking mind?” And the whole thing starts to collapse.
Filmmaker: I wanted to speak a little about Cannes. First of all, I liked that it was Alec’s first time there, because we get to see it partly through fresh eyes. But when he asks you what makes the festival unique, you cite the history and the market. Don’t a lot of festivals have that?
Toback: Not to that degree.
Filmmaker: But isn’t the appeal largely more about the prestige and the glamor?
Toback: Yes, it is, and nothing else matches it in that regard. But, for instance, Venice doesn’t have a market that’s even remotely as developed. At Toronto, you sell a lot of movies, at Sundance you sell a lot of movies, but they’re not set up as physically as markets the way Cannes is. At Cannes you have 12 countries present, hustling you to shoot in their country. You have 15 foreign sales companies with actual office space that they’ve taken. It’s a much more formal presence.
Filmmaker: How do you feel about Cannes?
Toback: I feel that it’s a microcosm of the international film world, in the most physically dazzling place it could be. I mean, to me, they just lucked out. As much as I love Venice, Cannes is simply more beautiful and interesting to be in, and the other thing I like about it is that it feels integrated geographically in a way that other festivals don’t. It’s just big enough that it’s fresh, and there are lots of things going on in different places, but it’s not so sprawling that you ever feel it’s lost its coherence. And you do feel that in Venice, and Sundance, and Toronto even more so. In Toronto, it feels as though the festival takes over half the city. And in Cannes, you do sort of feel the ghosts of history — the ghosts of all those stars that I grew up with.
Filmmaker: The film seems as though it might be meandering a bit, but then you just kind of let it evolve, until the sale aspect is merely the entry point into a celebration of film, which morphs into film as the ultimate expression of life and death — as far as film can go. What do you really want to make before you die?
Toback: Well, it’s interesting, because I feel greedy at this point. I feel that I’ve had a great life. I’m 68. I feel that I’ve achieved most of what I’ve set out to do. I feel that if I died today, it would be churlish to have one syllable of complaint. I got a great deal out of my life. On the other hand, I’m happy to go on for another 10 or 15 years. What I don’t want to do is be in an even slightly dependent state. It’s just not for me. But, I definitely have three movies that I’m ready to make, excluding Last Tango in Tikrit, which I want to do. One after another after another another. And then I’ll probably come up with at least one more that I haven’t thought of. So that’s five movies. My son’s 13; I’d like to see him become 18 or 19. So, five or six years I’d settle for right now. And then I have a master plan, which is basically, “Don’t just decay, but go out in a dramatic way worthy of the way I’ve lived.” And that would mean doing myself in, but certainly not letting the eight or nine people who are on my death list live, and I’m not here. They go first. And it’s a freebie. I mean, what am I going to worry about? Getting arrested if I’m killing myself the next afternoon?
Filmmaker: So you have an actual hit list?
Toback: Absolutely. Absolutely. They go first.
Filmmaker: Are any of them financiers?
Toback: No, but a couple of them have a lot of money. Maybe I should incorporate grabbing some of the money and giving it to my son. [Laughs] But I feel that having some kind of dramatic end is very much in the realm of how I’ve lived my life, and I don’t understand people who want to live just for the sake of adding another year, or two years, or five years. Most people that I’ve watched, including in m own family, the people closest to me, have lived longer than I want to live by quite a bit. It’s not as if you’re hoping down the road that you’re going to get young again and feel great, you’re just going to have more of the same. So what the fuck are you doing for? That’s why I think the most important thing about Seduced and Abandoned, for me, is the way it deals with mortality. And you see how few people are vaguely ready to deal with it [a montage sees Toback ask multiple subjects if they’re ready to die]. Half of them sound like they didn’t realize they were going to die until I asked them! Bérénice Bejo was just like, “No.” Like, “Wait a minute, I’m included in this list of people who are going to die?” Jimmy Caan was like, “No! I’d go off and do crack!” The only two who seem remotely ready are Polanski and Coppola, and Coppola’s answer I love. He says, “Death is just going to come and interrupt whatever I’m doing.” And that’s true of everybody. Death is going to come and interrupt what you were just doing.