“I Was Getting Hate Mail Before I Even Started Shooting”: Keith Gordon on The Singing Detective
Writer-director Keith Gordon had one of the best film schools imaginable in the late ’70s and early ’80s, when he broke into the business as an actor and appeared in several now classic movies including All That Jazz, Dressed to Kill, and Christine. He must have learned quite a bit watching the likes of Fosse, De Palma, and Carpenter direct, because his own filmography is one of the most consistent in all of contemporary American cinema. Gordon has directed five features to date, every single one of which is an uncompromised treasure – and each one is different from the one that came before it (though certain thematic and stylistic preoccupations do become evident across his body of work on repeat viewings). Gordon’s directorial debut, The Chocolate War (1988), was an uncommonly thoughtful teen film that established many of the filmmaker’s concerns and interests: power and the ways in which it can be wielded for both good and evil; the lies we tell each other and ourselves to survive; and the role of institutions and the question of how they are best used – and of whether or not it is possible to avoid being used by them. Gordon further explored these ideas and developed an increasingly sophisticated visual language to express them in his next three films, A Midnight Clear (1992), Mother Night (1996), and Waking the Dead (2000). All four movies are adaptations of acclaimed novels, and like the directors of the classical studio era Gordon seems most at home interpreting pre-existing material, merging his own sensibility with the text to create a new work that is part him, part the author who originated it, and part something completely new to come out of that collision. (This is probably why in recent years he has found great success as one of our finest television directors.)
This is especially true of Gordon’s fifth feature, an American adaptation of Dennis Potter’s highly acclaimed and popular BBC miniseries The Singing Detective. A combination of film noir, pop musical, and scabrous character study, Gordon’s 2003 film follows novelist Dan Dark (Gordon’s old Back to School costar Robert Downey, Jr.), a psoriasis-afflicted misogynist forced to come to terms with his traumatic past and toxic relationships. Mel Gibson (nearly unrecognizable in a bald cap and glasses) plays the psychiatrist who draws Dark out of his shell; the fine supporting cast includes Robin Wright, Adrien Brody, Carla Gugino, Jon Polito, Jeremy Northam, and Alfre Woodard. When the movie came out twelve years ago I found its singular tone and disparate styles extremely impressive and inspiring – and I found it amazing that Gordon got the movie financed and released. Revisiting the picture now that it has been reissued on Blu-ray by Olive Films, I was even more bowled over by Gordon’s achievement, and even more curious about how he got it made. Using the Blu-ray release as an excuse, I sat down with Gordon to get the lowdown on one of the weirdest, most wonderful movies of this century’s first decade.
Filmmaker: How did The Singing Detective first come to you? It wasn’t something you initiated, was it?
Gordon: No, I came on to it very late in the process – they were already in pre-production. The original director fell out because he decided he couldn’t do it in the budget range they had – around seven and a half million dollars – and they were in crisis mode. I was probably Robert’s idea, because we had worked together as actors in Back to School and always talked about doing something together again…I think Robert had liked my films, and he suggested me to Mel. I met with both of them and they hired me pretty quickly, which was great because it was material that I loved. I was already a huge Dennis Potter fan, and had read this script when it first floated around in the early ’90s. I desperately wanted to do something with it, but at that point it was owned by studios and they were trying to make it as a much bigger film with Oscar-winning directors and actors; Barry Levinson was attached at one point, there were Dustin Hoffman and Anthony Hopkins versions…. There were all these A-list versions of the film that never happened, largely because it’s so damn weird – in some ways it’s even more experimental than the series. It’s choppier, it’s less coherent—
Filmmaker: Things you were criticized for even though Potter wrote the script.
Gordon: Yeah, it’s very frustrating. The movie rankled a lot of people, which I understand because whenever you do an adaptation or a variation on something beloved some people are going to hate it. And people loved this original miniseries – rightfully so, it was brilliant. I was getting hate mail before I even started shooting, and people criticized me for changing the time period and compressing the story and softening the end…all things that were in Potter’s script. It was one of the last things he wrote before he died, and it was his idea to reset the story in 1950s America rather than 1940s England, and to shorten it and make it more a choppy, hallucinatory movie where you share the character’s confusion, as opposed to being a longer, more coherent film about confusion. Some critics said, “How dare Keith Gordon make these changes to Dennis Potter?!” but I didn’t do anything that wasn’t in Potter’s script! And I think he had very strong reasons for all the changes he made to his own material, including giving it a slightly more positive resolution – something we were criticized for doing because people thought we were trying to sell more tickets or something. Believe me, we never thought this movie was going to sell a lot of tickets, which is why it ended up getting made the way it did. Mel Gibson basically just put up the money himself and made it for a budget that he figured he would eventually get back given the actors we had.
Filmmaker: It’s hard to imagine it as a big-budget studio movie of the kind you were initially describing.
Gordon: If you made this movie for thirty or forty or fifty million dollars, you would have to make so many compromises to justify that budget that it would just be a total mess. I always wanted to do it, but I couldn’t get in the door when they were talking about doing it as a big-budget studio movie. I would say to my agent, “Barry Levinson dropped out, can I get a meeting?” but they wouldn’t even talk to me. So to have it come back to me and essentially fall into my lap seven or eight years later was a kind of wonderful providence. There wasn’t much prep time though, which is always tough on a small film with a lot of ambition. When you don’t have a lot of money you want to make up for it with time, so that if you can’t afford something you can figure out how to be clever and overcome your limitations. In this case the budget was stretched even thinner because Robert was on probation at the time, meaning we could only shoot in L.A. – we couldn’t go elsewhere to save money like I had done on my previous films. Everything is pricier in L.A., from the crews to the locations, and that was made more challenging by the fact that I didn’t have as much prep time as I was used to. Usually on independent movies you have more than enough time to think about the movie beforehand, because it takes so long to get the money and then the money falls through and then you raise it again…during that time you’re always in a sort of pre-pre-production period, thinking things through. I didn’t have that luxury here.
Filmmaker: Let’s talk a little bit about your relationship with Robert Downey, Jr. It’s an unusual part for him, in that his reputation is as a bit of an improviser and a very physical actor. Here you’ve got him working with a text by an esteemed writer in a movie where he spends more than half the story stuck in bed. Was that frustrating for him, and if so how did you help him deal with that?
Gordon: I don’t think I’m telling tales out of school to mention that this was the first movie Robert ever did where he wasn’t using drugs. So he was very nervous, because if you’ve been an addict you can start to convince yourself that the addiction is part of what made you good. I had to help him realize that his talent wasn’t because he was high, his talent came from somewhere else – he was just at the beginning of learning that.
Filmmaker: Do you think the rapport the two of you had formed acting together in Back To School helped make him more comfortable?
Gordon: Yeah, I think he trusted me as a human being maybe more so than as a director, because I hadn’t directed him before but he knew I was a nice guy and was going to be gentle with him at a time when he needed that. A lot of what I did on that film was emotional support more than directing, just making him believe he could do it, and showing him that I believed he could do it. It was the first time he had worked for a while, and it was a very demanding role, and when he came in he just wanted to throw the script out and do his own thing. I had to kind of seduce him into seeing the power of what Potter had written and make him realize that what he had done on other movies wouldn’t work here. On a lot of movies, even ones that are well written, the dialogue isn’t essential in the same way – if you’re as smart as Robert you probably can make up your own stuff and make it better. That wasn’t going to work here, and it was a very slow process getting Robert to come around to that way of thinking. Eventually Robert did learn to respect Potter’s writing and really absorbed it; when he did make things up he actually improvised in Potter’s voice, which is very difficult – it’s almost like improvising Shakespeare, the language is so precise. I would tell him that as long as he gave me a few takes that followed the script, I would give him one where he could do whatever the hell he wanted, and some of those improvisations made it into the movie. He carried a thesaurus around and was always looking up words that he felt would work in Potter’s idiom and also allow him to come up with material of his own.
Getting back to your point about the physicality, that was definitely an issue for him. He really pushed against the idea of spending the whole movie in bed, even though it’s what the script is about – a man in the worst prison possible, his own body. I got him to come around by using one thing he was struggling with to help him solve another: he was afraid of not being physical, but he was also afraid of the anger he had to convey. Robert is not an angry person, and this guy he was playing was vicious. So I used one thing against the other and told Robert that one of the things that would help him get to that anger would be to allow himself to grow frustrated being confined to the bed all the time. He ended up loving that idea, and by the time of shooting he had done a 180-degree turn and decided that the confinement was one of the best things about the character. Later Robert accused me of playing Jedi mind tricks on him, which I took as a wonderful compliment! A lot of good actors have to go through that process in order to embrace the hardest stuff, and the best thing you can do as a director is give them confidence to do things they haven’t done.
Filmmaker: Robert aside, you have a lot of actors in this movie involved in fairly daring and sometimes dark – sometimes funny – sex scenes. One of the most sensitive scenes from a directorial point of view comes when you have a child watching his mother in a fairly rough sexual encounter. How did you approach that?
Gordon: We had a little kid playing a young version of Robert Downey, and I didn’t want to have him watching a woman playing his mother having extreme sex with a man she wasn’t married to. So we shot his close-ups and I told him that the man was hurting his mother, and that’s what he reacted to; off screen the other actors were pantomiming some slapping, and that gave him something to look at. It was disturbing but not sexually disturbing, and that seemed easier for him to cope with and made his mom more comfortable – though of course there’s an interesting question of why a man slapping a woman is less detrimental or disturbing to a child than a man having sex with a woman! But then, this was not normal, healthy sex, so I think it would have been a lot for a kid to take in.
Filmmaker: How did you make the actors comfortable in the other sex scenes throughout the film?
Gordon: I try to avoid shooting sex scenes until late in the schedule, so that by the time you get to them actors are comfortable with the crew and comfortable with each other…if you can put them at the end of the shoot, there’s more of a sense of, “Oh, what the hell, why not?” We also talk a lot about what actors are comfortable with and what they’re uncomfortable with; I’d rather have someone less undressed and feel sexier about themselves than be able to see their breasts but feel like they’re miserable and awkward the whole time. It’s not sexy if an actor looks like they’d rather be anywhere else than in the scene. If an actor is into it their face can be the sexiest thing – the best sex scene I ever shot was one between Billy Crudup and Jennifer Connelly in Waking the Dead that just focuses on their faces. That was a good lesson for me, that good acting is sexier than two naked people wishing they weren’t naked. Here, it actually helped that the sex scenes were perverse and ridiculous and exaggerated, because the actors clearly weren’t playing themselves – we weren’t seeing what it’s really like for them to have an orgasm, and that allowed them to have more fun with it. There’s a scene between Jeremy Northam and Robin Wright where he’s saying all these dirty things and sticking his finger in her butt, but you don’t see it, and you don’t even see any nudity – they both appear to be naked, but we found an angle that didn’t actually show it and it both made the actors more comfortable and made the scene funnier.
Filmmaker: Robin Wright’s relationship with Robert’s character is interesting in how much of it remains unstated…you don’t really know the specifics of their past. What kind of work did the two of them do together on that relationship?
Gordon: We talked a lot about the timeline of when they had been married, when they broke up, what their life was like, but we didn’t overdo it – Robert doesn’t like to overthink things because he’s worried it will kill the spontaneity, and Robin was totally cool with that. But a lot happened while we were shooting; they would toy with what the relationship had been, and they looked for opportunities to show that these two people care about each other even though on paper the relationship is 90% hostility. There’s a scene where she’s feeding him yogurt in his hospital bed, and that’s something the two of them came up with – they were off on their own while we were setting up, and then they came to me and asked what I thought. I said, “Well, we didn’t really light for that, but let’s try it.” They showed it to me and it was great, so I reconceived the scene a little – it cost us a half-hour in relighting but was so much better than what I had originally planned.
They came up with a lot of things just going off on their own, talking without me around – and I encouraged that. Whenever I have actors playing characters who are in relationships, whether they’re romantic or sexual or familial, I always want them to spend as much time together as possible. Occasionally there’ll be a mutiny where they come to you and say, “Well, we decided…” and you realize it was a really bad idea, but for every time that happens there are ten times when it’s a really good idea and you get something out of it that you would never have thought of as a director. And the best actors I’ve worked with generally won’t beat a bad idea to death – they’ll push, but if you can say to them, “I know why you like this as an actor, but here’s why it won’t work,” even the big stars will back down. All you have to do is present them with a rational reason, and if you can’t, maybe you have to question if you’re wrong. If I can’t tell an actor why they shouldn’t do something that they want to do, it usually means I’m stuck in a preconceived notion of what the scene should be, and that’s never good. Of course, I’m talking about good actors – where it gets tricky is when you have actors who aren’t that good who want to change things. Because the difference between a really good actor and a mediocre actor is instincts – the good ones know either in their gut or intellectually what works for a scene. Mediocre actors have instincts too, but they can be really off – or they can be good for that actor but not good for the movie as a whole. That’s why I only work with really good actors!
Filmmaker: Well, you have a reputation as being someone who’s great with actors.
Gordon: It’s so funny, people will say that to me and then ask me to do a project because they have an actor who isn’t all that good and they think I can pull something out of them. And it’s not so much that I’m great with actors as I cast great actors. I don’t have a magic wand; if someone’s not talented I can’t make them something they’re not. If somebody’s really good I can help get the best out of them, but that’s really different from working with someone who doesn’t have that thing that great actors have, which is a combination of emotional freedom, intelligence, insight, openness, bravery…I can’t just give that to people. I can create the situation where they can do their best, but when people come to me wanting me to make a bad actor good, that sounds like a nightmare to me. I want to start with great actors, and I want to work with people who aren’t going to make my life miserable. I’ve walked away from situations with big stars who would have gotten the movie made because after meeting with them I realized that my entire focus would be on dealing with their craziness rather than the project as a whole. It’s just not worth it. At the end of the day making a film is hard enough; you’re working fourteen, fifteen hours a day, essentially seven days a week because even on your day off your mind is racing. So I don’t want the headaches – which is different from saying you don’t want fights and disagreements. Fights and disagreements are fine as long as we’re all coming from the same place and the fights are about the work and not just being abusive to other people. When I was an actor I saw other actors be mean to people with less power on the set, or get production assistants fired, or pick on less experienced actors and undermine their confidence…I have no patience for that kind of cruelty, and I’ve had projects fall apart because I wouldn’t go down those roads. Yet it’s funny how things sometimes work out…often those projects have ended up happening three years later with someone who’s better than the original person would have been anyway. Most of the time walking away works out for the best.
Filmmaker: Speaking of your acting career, it was hard not to think about All That Jazz watching The Singing Detective in that it’s another genre-bending musical…was it on your mind at all when you were shooting?
Gordon: I did rewatch it before I made the film, basically to see all the things we would never be able to do, partly because of the budget and partly because Potter’s conception leant itself to this movie being the anti-All That Jazz. Potter said that the musical numbers shouldn’t be “good” in the classical sense; he vocally disliked Herbert Ross’s version of Pennies From Heaven – which I really liked, just to be clear – because he felt the musical numbers were too big and slick and finished and accomplished. Potter’s feeling was that he was telling stories that take place inside people’s heads, so they should feel amateurish and half-done and not slick and beautiful. Given our budgetary restrictions, I thought, “Wow, thank you, Dennis!” and tried to use that as a template. We weren’t going for All That Jazz, we were going for the fragments inside someone’s head.
Filmmaker: That fragmented quality is one of the things I love about the film. You have so many shots with negative space, where the area around the characters just drops off into darkness. And then there’s the opposite, in the “Mister Sandman” musical number, where the image is over-lit and bleeds into white around all the edges.
Gordon: I had an idea very early on that the noir sequences should not be the noir that we’re familiar with from movies, at least not the 1940s ones where they had a lot of money – I guess it would be a little closer to the 1950s noirs, like the ones made by Sam Fuller or Kubrick, where they had no money for sets and things looked a little phony. They would shoot on location but the lighting would be dark because they couldn’t afford to light up the whole area, and when they shot on a set…well, that apartment set in The Killing, for example, is clearly a set. It doesn’t look realistic and it isn’t even supposed to. So we adopted that idea of an unreal noir and took it a step further, because Robert’s character isn’t making noir films, he’s writing noir novels. And they’re unfinished ideas, so I liked this notion that the movie is so dark that it’s almost like we’re on unfinished sets – like if you turned the lights on there wouldn’t be walls there. There are shots where it looks like there’s nothing around the characters, such as the opening – we shot it in a parking lot but I wanted it to look like we were on an old soundstage where the only things were a couple neon lights and a car. The challenge was creating a sense that people are just floating in darkness, which spoke to the idea that this guy is forming ideas in his brain and we’re seeing them as he’s imagining them, in fragments and unfinished scenes and places. In the “Sandman” sequence where we go to white, it’s the opposite look but the idea is still to capture the unreality of it, because it’s a fantasy – it’s how he wishes things would be. One of my favorite scenes is a scene between Robert and Jeremy Northam in the street, where we shot with black-and-white projection in the background going by. It’s weird and completely unrealistic, but it’s like Dan Dark trying to write a scene in his head and just throwing up footage from an old movie behind the characters while he figures out what’s going on between them. That was another way of giving the impression of an unfinished world, something cinematographer Tom Richmond and I tried to do throughout the film.
Filmmaker: Were you shooting primarily on sets or on locations, and do you have a preference?
Gordon: If you said I could only use one I would probably go with location shooting, because often the limitations real locations impose on you force you to be more creative – when I look back on my movies many of my favorite shots are shots I wouldn’t have thought of if I wasn’t on location. But I love the flexibility of sets, and on The Singing Detective we were largely on stages because we had to create an artificial world – not just the noir scenes, but even the hospital had to be kind of stylized and unrealistic. I wanted a contrast between the darkness of the noir scenes and a kind of over-lit, blown out quality in the hospital, because the noir scenes are where Dan Dark goes to hide. Where’s the worst place for a guy with a skin disease who’s ashamed of everything in his life and doesn’t want to be seen? The brightest place in the world. So we lit the hospital more like a lab than a hospital, with horrible fluorescent lighting that made him look like a bug under a microscope. We also changed the dimensions of the hospital room by moving the walls in and out several feet in different scenes, emphasizing the disorientation the character feels. I don’t necessarily think the audience notices, nor should they, but hopefully they subliminally feel a sense of dislocation when the size of the room changes.
Filmmaker: Did you do anything in the therapy scenes between Downey and Gibson to manipulate that space or give it a sense of progression as their relationship unfolds throughout the movie?
Gordon: Yes, the idea – as with much of the film – was to make the scenes looser and more relaxed as they went along, because that’s what the characters were going through. The first time Robert’s in the room with Mel, we flirt with crossing the line a lot and put Robert dead center in the frame with his head blocking Mel’s body…it’s weird, and when you cut back and forth between them something feels odd and uncomfortable about it. We made it intentionally uneasy, so that people would sit there feeling something was wrong. There were a lot of discussions between me and Tom Richmond about walking a fine line so that people would sense something was off without necessarily getting thrown out of the movie thinking we had made some kind of mistake. We wanted people to be affected by the camera but not conscious of the camera. Something else we always did was create prisons for Robert, putting him in the center of the frame or in frames within frames – he was almost never allowed to the sides of the frame until he started to feel more free in the later scenes.
Filmmaker: Although there’s kind of a clear progression emotionally, the movie is all over the place in terms of tone – did that make editing more challenging than usual?
Gordon: Sure! It’s a comedy, drama, character study, musical, noir, love story…the list goes on. In editing the big challenge was always trying to figure out, “what is this scene?” and “how does this scene fit into the whole?” because depending on how you edit it you can really emphasize different aspects of the movie and play it more for comedy, or drama, naturalism or surrealism. Every scene in the movie could be edited in a lot of different ways for a lot of different effects. Luckily my editor Jeff Wishengrad and I were able to put the movie together rather quickly – given that it was a relatively low budget we didn’t have a ton of coverage. That gave us time to watch the whole movie several times and make modifications, because you can work on individual scenes forever, but it’s how they dance together that’s the most important thing. I always try to get to a reasonable cut as fast as I can so that I can start watching the whole movie, because so often you can have a scene that seems great but doesn’t serve the whole, or a scene that doesn’t seem to be working by itself but plays beautifully in context. Of course, with a movie like this we could have edited for a year and put out five different versions…ultimately we just went with what felt right to us. We were lucky because Mel Gibson was a great boss – he said at the beginning that he wasn’t going to give me contractual final cut because he didn’t want to establish a precedent, but he also said, “I’m never going to put a gun to your head and make you do something you don’t want to do.” He was absolutely good to his word, and it was great because we didn’t have a studio – there was just Mel – and this film would have been a disaster going through the normal studio testing process. It’s too experimental – I can’t tell you how many times in interviews one person would point to something as being their favorite thing in the film, and in the next interview I did the interviewer would talk about how much they hated that very same thing. With that kind of movie, editing by committee doesn’t work. Now, not surprisingly, the film wasn’t very commercial, but I never felt the pressure to make it that…we all knew going in that we were making a very weird movie that wouldn’t be for everybody, and it’s to Mel’s credit that he never got cold feet given that it was his money. In fact, he encouraged me to make it weirder! I have to say, we all know Mel has had his problems, but my experience with him was terrific. I’m Jewish, and I never thought he was anti-Semitic…he was kind and funny and supportive and the crew loved him. Watching him and Downey together was something special, too – Mel was really there for Robert, and we didn’t have much time because Mel was prepping The Passion of the Christ. We had to shoot over twenty pages in three days.
Filmmaker: Downey basically credits Gibson with saving his career.
Gordon: And he did. You have to remember, Downey was not hirable at this point in time; you couldn’t get him insured. The only reason we could use him is because Mel was financing it, and Mel said to Robert, “If you go down, this is my money, and I’ll kill you” – that was the insurance! People might not realize how unusual that is – you just don’t make a movie without insurance. The fact that we did was purely because Mel was willing to take that risk for Robert, which I found really touching.