Tim Roth as the bellhop in Four Rooms.
Photos: Claudette Barius.
For maybe ten years, this combo-director movie schemes been bouncing around the Indies in New York. Amos Poe and Jim Jarmusch talked to me about it in the early 80s and Scorsese, Woody Allen and Francis Coppola got together in 1989 to tell their New York Stories. Before that, the French New Wave, New German Cinema and Italian Neo-Realists did it (Paris Par Vu, Germany in Autumn, RoGoPag).
Fact is, this schemes supposed to outsmart the one constant problem of Indies nobody wants to give you money. Maybe theres a sort of critical-mass director deal: director + director + director making one movie = $. Perhaps.
But not easily.
Im standing in an industrial park in Culver City in a C & R Clothiers warehouse watching a bunch of jokers making a movie, Four Rooms. Four writer-directors shooting back-to-back; four directors of photography and crews; stars and indie stars: Tim Roth, Madonna, Bruce Willis, Jennifer Beals, Marisa Tomei, etc. Controlled chaos and tumult on the run. Not exactly Hollywood glamour moviemaking. Not exactly Indie Heaven hey cool, just shoot anything you want.
This is still Earth, remember? But somehow this feels like a crossroads change.
L.M. Kit Carson: First thing you said when I phoned was, "Why didnt you tell me it was going to be this tough?" Whats so tough? It started maybe semi-tough
Alexandre Rockwell: Howd this start? [Laughs.] Fall of 92, after In the Soup, Reservoir Dogs and Gas Food Lodging hit Sundance, Micky Cottrell and Doug Lindemann hosted a dinner party. And I talked out this idea: make an omnibus movie about a bellhop and multiple characters in different rooms at the Chateau Marmont on New Years Eve.
Carson: Different directors for each room?
Rockwell: We talked about Paul Bartel doing one, maybe Alan Rudolph. After that, I went to Quentin. Quentin got up on it; Lawrence [Bender] got into it. And [they] went to Miramax. And then (Im probably to blame as much as anyone), it got a little out of control. Miramax wanted to do it, but one of their conditions was that the group of directors represent a New Movement. The casting of the directors group was key it was Miramaxs hook. So we had to go back and tell Bartel and Rudolph that it wasnt going to be them. It was very tough; they were bummed out. Some guys got paid off. But now Lawrence was producing, Quentin and I were executive producing, and we got Allison Anders and Robert Rodriguez in.
Carson: You work out your stories as a group?
Rockwell: Quentin and I had talked [about] each others stories. They were similar in edge kinda comedy but not straight out yuks. But it wasnt any organic, collective, group mind. Quentin told Allison and Robert to write whatever they wanted comedy, tragedy, action. No rules, except the bellhop, the hotel room, New Years Eve. Everybody went off and wrote cold.
Carson: This one-room story had to be odd for you. Your earlier movies hered be the movie: you watch these guys walking around in the desert. Road movies.
Rockwell: Well, right. [Laughs.] I used to make the story an external journey through someplace, the desert. My characters go out to a liquor store but theres not enough liquor in the store so they drive to Nevada, they meet a hooker, the hooker gets them to go to Chicago to see her mother. Thats how my mind likes to work.
Carson: But this movie, youre trapped in a room. No place to go.
Rockwell: Yeah, but my mind is shifting a little bit. Maybe I learned something. And now the journey the desert its internal. Its more about character.
Carson: Okay, so you wrote four self-contained worlds and the bellhop
Rockwell: More like four separate weird minds that Tim Roth gets caught in. So we meet up again (actually at the Chateau Marmont), read our stories, they seemed to fit. And it was kinda fucking exciting. Like the old studio days where Sam Fuller bumps into John Huston down at the canteen and goes, "Jesus, John, I gotta problem with a fight scene. Whats a broken-down boxer do when hes on the mat but hes gotta win?" And Huston goes: "He spits a mouthful of blood in the spittoon and then puts a razor blade in his glove." The group did fit together as friends.
Carson: But in preproduction things got tougher?
Rockwell: Right. In my room, Seymour Cassel was supposed to do the guys role. But because of some TV show, he couldnt do it. Five days before production Seymour drops out! So Harvey [Weinstein, head of Miramax] starts sending out messages: "Alec Baldwin! Now we go get Alec Baldwin" And Im in a panic five days, I dont have time to read Alec Baldwin! And if it doesnt work? Id just blow too high stakes a game.
Carson: But finally its up to you. Nobody else is going to make the phone call.
Rockwell: First, Im not dissing Alec Baldwin. But I thought hed bring the wrong quality to the role too much the good-looking stud. But hes Alec Baldwin. What the fuck am I going to do?
Carson: Call Harvey?
Rockwell: Yeah. Im going, "I dont want to talk to Harvey. Wheres Quentin?" But I make the call and Harvey goes straight for my gut: "Rockwell, what do you want to do, be an art film director for the rest of your life?" Thats how he talks. And I go: "Gee Harvey, now that you put it that way, not really but Harvey, stop busting my balls." And he goes: "Okay. No Alec Baldwin, but I tell you what you gotta use Dustin Hoffman as the old bellhop and well put him in makeup." And Im seeing Little Big Man, you know, Im going, "Dustin Hoffman? Not this movie." Im not saying I dont want to work with known actors but I do want to work with the right actor. So I go: "We deliver you Marisa Tomei, Madonna, Bruce Willis and Antonio Banderas for three-and-a-half-million dollars, Harvey. Cut us a little slack here."
Carson: You knew you wanted David Proval?
Rockwell: Sort of. By accident. Id had a reading after the operation on my knee. And a casting agent brought David Proval in. He read and I was laughing my head off. Maybe I was stoned on post-op drugs. Or maybe I wasnt maybe this guy was amazing. He was like an insecure Al Pacino: "Hoonney [whines] would you get me my gun?" And at the end of the reading, David split. The role had been cast with Seymour. So now I had him come back in one more time to meet Jennifer [Beals] and Tim [Roth]. And they both turned to me after he left: "Thats the fucking guy! Thats the guy!" So, with only five days left before shooting David was my only shot. Somedays, fate can do a good thing.
Carson: Off set, when I watched David Proval turn into this guy there was a humility about him. It was a surprise, because the character as written couldve been just a scary bastard.
Rockwell: But thats not interesting. David Proval plays it terribly afraid, totally insecure, a real sweetheart, but a desperate sweetheart, and thats what I wanted. Hes got a gun and his young wife tied up to a chair but theres something rotten in Denmark. This guys actually a bleeding heart, lonely man. Look, directing all I know is, I got to make the moment feel right for me. Because if it doesnt feel right for me, it wont feel right for anybody. And youve got to give that moment to you. Not by telling them how to do it but by getting the right actor. They know how to do it better than you.
Carson: Now youre cutting the four different short movies together?
Rockwell: And cutting them down.
Carson: But how does a group-edit work?
Rockwell: After we watched the rough cut, it was hard. We went out to a Dennys. Ordered chicken taco burrito burgers. And we just sat there. We didnt even look each other in the eye. My minds racing. Talk. Somebody? Whos going to talk first? Because we all have final cut. But what can I say about, like, Roberts room? His styles so different from mine. What am I going to say, "Need more action, Robert?" But nobodys talking, so finally I go: "Uh... I think my room sucks."
Carson: You started the project you bite the bullet.
Rockwell: Yeah, Im learning. Before Id have said: "Me? Cut one frame? Fuck you! My contract says final cut. Bye bye." Yeah, if it was just my film, forget it. But its not just my film. Three other directors also made the film. And maybe Im the guy throwing the wheels out of whack. So Im going back to my room to consider removing some sections. Even though Im in love with those things. Asking questions Ive never asked myself before Am I cutting the heart out of my piece? What is kissing ass? Brown-nosing? Selling out? And you know what? Were working that deal out.
|Madonna, Sammi Davis, Valeria Golino, Lili Taylor, and Ione Skye in Four Rooms|
Carson: Part way into preproduction on Four Rooms, Quentin came back flattened from non-stop promo on Pulp Fiction and wanted to pull out. And you and Alex pulled him back in.
Allison Anders: I dont know how Alex put it to Quentin, but I cried and that was genuine. Id just lost a movie last year Paul is Dead thanks to Mr. Big Adventure on Sunset Boulevard suddenly walking out on it. And Alex had made a movie Somebody to Love but couldnt get it distributed. So we both had a lot riding on Four Rooms.
Carson: A lot? Like maybe your life?
Anders: I didnt know what we would do. Im sure I didnt know what I would do. But, I mean, Quentin was overwhelmed, beat. He was even thinking, well just give the money back to Miramax. And I understand dropping out I dropped out of high school. [Laughs.] But this was a killer to us. And Quentin hadnt quite thought this out. But once we told him about it... he did think it out. [Laughs.] And the deal stayed.
Carson: Back in December, this struggle to make this movie looked "amateurish" in the best meaning of the word. Looked like work for love. Just a bunch of people striving hard to get something odd put together.
Anders: That was the weird thing, wasnt it? There was almost no bullshit. There was that funky directors room Alex was always riding his exercycle to keep his knee limber, Quentin sprawled on the sofa. It kind of did feel like film school. And I thought the other day because were all so busy now I miss the group. And I kind of wish we could all hang out. Try to stay connected to each other, like before when we were shooting.
Carson: When this project started, did you already have a story?
Anders: No, not exactly. I had a couple of ideas maybe do a dramatic piece, like an agonizing break-up. A woman and a married man finally saying goodbye to their affair in a lonely room. Then I figured Id do something with all women. So I thought, a bunch of women together? What are they? A band? No. Thats Beyond the Valley of the Dolls you cant top that! Okay, theyre a coven of witches. Whyre they in that room? Well, theyre trying to resurrect a goddess...
Carson: Your thoughts actually run and jump like that?
Anders: Yeah. I get it from my mother. [Laughs.] Okay: They need something out of the bellhop. What? They send down for all kinds of weird shit? Uh, not exactly. Something particular they need something out of him. Out of him? Okay: what would these witches need only from a man? Sperm.
Anders: Naturally. [Laughs.] Now, of course, as I start putting together the story, I realize this little storys got a kind of deeper level, all about feminine power. And archetypes of feminine power.
Carson: Like the archetypes Madonna uses?
Anders: Right. When maybe we could cast Madonna I thought a lot about how shes played this stuff out. But you know, surprisingly, I think Madonnas mostly explored archetypes of women that men invented the virgin, the whore, the child, the dominatrix... I think thats why women have a very complicated relationship with her. And even her personal kind of power is a patriarchal kind. Shes a strong business woman meaning she can match any guy. She kicks in that male world very hard.
Carson: Masculine/feminine power. For a comedy, its interesting that powers at the core of all four rooms.
Anders: Yeah. The further I developed and shot the story I kept thinking, "Whats so funny about this?" Because I was sure that this was just silly its just a silly sorta 60s Jayne Mansfield-type comedy. This is not about personal theres nothing personal in this for me at all. Right? So, I finish shooting then come back one day to shoot this last bit where Jennifer Beals passes the spirit of the Virgin Goddess walking down the hallway, and Jennifer goes to me: "So, what is this saying, Allison? This Goddess, she was sexual but she was a virgin and she was turned to stone on her wedding night before she could give her virginity to anybody? And shes been turned to stone for 40 years? Whats this mean to you?"
Carson: A legitimate question.
Anders: Yeah. I just thought, okay, good question. But back in the editing room, I started watching the pieces of this bit Im cutting, and I kind of go: "Oh...." And I realized I just turned 40 years old and I knew that I had this huge crisis in my past of being raped when I was a virgin that I thought Id dealt with, but Id never really dealt with the specific fact that what it meant to me was I never got to choose who I gave myself to the first time. And that was a bigger fucking deal that I hadnt dealt with!
Carson: You started as a shooter, making movies in Catholic high school?
Robert Rodriguez: St. Anthonys junior seminary in San Antonio.
Carson: Seminary? Wanted to be a priest?
Rodriguez: Well, officially youre supposed to at least be thinking about being a priest. But I was just hiding out, trying to figure what I was going to do with my life. I just felt like a complete idiot, like I was going to be a bum.
Carson: Mid-life crisis at age 13?
Rodriguez: The coaches put me in charge of videotaping the football games. Couldnt even do that right soon as someone threw the ball, Id follow the ball, get a tight zoom-in on the ball in the air, get a heros shot of the guy catching the ball. Then Id edit it always to make it look like our team won! The coaches went nuts. They couldnt see any of the plays! I got fired right away.
Carson: Do you like to work on everything simultaneously? You did Four Rooms while editing Desperado while writing a book?
Rodriguez: I fought with the studio so I could edit my own movie. The studio said they never let a director edit. Well, figure it out, thats how I like to do stuff. I finally won that battle. A week later I say, "While Im editing, Im going to shoot and edit Four Rooms for a rival company is that all right?" After much struggle, I agree that Id only do Four Rooms on the weekends and during Christmas vacation and when Im not editing Desperado. Columbia said, "Just hurry up."
Carson: More movies faster.
Rodriguez: Cast and shot Four Rooms, edited over Christmas six days all out, editing even when I was sick. Tilted back in my chair with the editing keyboard on my chest, half-asleep, half-dead. After straight 13-14 hours, your body just shuts down physically all thats running is your creative mind and the use of your fingers. And you can keep going zoned like that for quite a long time getting a lot of interesting stuff to come out. So I only had five weeks left to edit Desperado. Ended up mixing both at the same time on the Fox lot. Four Rooms in the North Room; Desperado in the South Room theyre adjacent.
Carson: Its the Rodriguez method?
Rodriguez: Definitely. I like it. Cause its all different kinds of seeing linked together writing, shooting,editing from beginning to end. Im writing shot-for-shot and angles. Then shooting these puzzle pieces. Then editing quick. Cause Im always wanting to see it! Once I start all I want is to see the movie! Carson: Doesnt it intimidate you at all to pick up the camera yourself and shoot?
Rodriguez: In what way? In that I am not experienced? For the kinds of movies Im making? You watch any other performance Antonio Banderas gives in any other movie he doesnt look anything like he does in my movie. Because Im in the camera. Im right there with him. It gets very intense. If I pull back to more just observing him rather than being in the middle with him, I think hed start looking like a potted plant. And I think this guy is too good, too enigmatic, too strong, and just too down-to-earth to be shot that way.
Carson: So in a way, youre acting with the actor, its all strong eye contact.
Rodriguez: Very instinctual. Very moment-to-moment constantly adjusting until it feels right.
Carson: Harvey Keitel and you, Antonio Banderas and you: give me a comparison dynamic between them. Each requires a particular kind of liberty.
Rodriguez: Antonio gets into a scene immediately: "Antonio, youre going to walk in here, go over here, jump up here." Then he always asks: "Id like to try this is this okay?" Im always, "yes, yes, yes do it!" Hell do it and look right away for the okay. Harvey is very internal. You gotta let him feel it out and say, "Wait a second. I hear what youre saying but I think I can do it a different way. Lets take if from the beginning and read the scene aloud, and I might..." And Ill get back and shoot and watch and adjust. Every actor has his own way of getting the work out. And you have to explore.
Carson: Four Rooms. First time youre working with other directors?
Rodriguez: It was a great experiment because you got to see how subjective directing is. For example, Alexs scene in the bathroom. I might have shot something else entirely. Quentin would do it another way, Allison another way.
Carson: The movie rule: "action is character." Youve taken it to the extreme. Feel maybe now youd like to go explore subjects a little more internally. Maybe do A Long Days Journey into Night?
Rodriguez: No. [Laughs.] I dont think so. Right now in my life I love energy. I dont feel like I need to do something "important" just to get respect.
Tim Roth: I got into acting as a joke. Auditioned for a play at school, a musical of Dracula. But I got the part, so then I had to do do it. Sing and dance in front of all my mates and all the bullies in the school. Terrified I walked out and pissed myself, literally pissed myself onstage. But halfway through I realized what a rush. Then I couldnt stop. Chasing that first buzz.
Carson: The night of Allison Anders birthday party on the Four Rooms set when I was watching you perform with the stripper.
Roth: When I got into Madonnas dress?
Carson: You got into Madonnas dress?
Roth: At the wrap party. I put Madonnas rubber dress on and sang "Like a Virgin." Got carried in by the crew.
Carson: Not the wrap party Allisons birthday party. At the start of the shoot.
Roth: When I got up on the stage with the stripper?
Carson: and you did a sort of hyped-up combo Pee Wee Herman/Jerry Lewis/Stan Laurel and I thought, this is the bellhop. Its the way you were playing the bellhop in the movie.
Roth: Actually, yeah, kind of cartoon-like.
Carson: Whered that character come from?
Roth: Its very bizarre. I didnt know what I was going to do. And I was worried because Id never done anything like this before, yknow, cartoon acting? Intending to make an audience laugh? But early on the first day of shooting I did a reaction shot for Allison its when I see Madonna for the first time. And I remember watching Jaws when Richard Dreyfuss is swimming slowly under a wrecked boat and suddenly a half-eaten head pops out! I remember how that shot made me jump when I was a kid! So I just re-did that jump! And that extreme reaction shot began the character.
Carson: Okay, but normally how do you prepare to get to the role? Do you do a character history?
Roth: It changes from film to film. I dont know. I dont have a method. I go over the script things come up to my head. You really dont need to know everything about a character to play a character. Most of its subliminal anyway youre packing stuff away all beneath the surface. You know, actors talking about how to do acting its real dull. I liked it better when nobody talked about acting. Kept it mysterious.
Carson: Whats it like to work with four different directors on the same character?
Roth: Exhausting. Because theyve all got their own sense of humor, different shooting styles. Allison used big blocks of light, like an old movie and shed improvise in a second. Alex has lots of piddly little lights all over the place and he is very carefully involved in creating the gags and how the scenes set up...
Carson: Did it break up your acting?
Roth: I only worried on the hand-off days going from director-to-director. But my job was try to hold onto the integrity of my character, however insane he was and he was completely insane.
Carson: Then Robert shooting like a rocket 50 to 70 set ups in one day.
Roth: With Robert I cant remember much because he works so fast. Shoots this bit, this bit, this bit, this bit and when theyre setting some lighting over there, hes over here shooting someone else just because he knows how to. But he was quite easy. All Id say was, "Okay Robert, where do you want me now."
Carson: Was Quentin different this time?
Roth: Yeah, because he was also acting. When hes just directing a film hes very focused fun to work with. But acting/writing/directing he gets very, very, very nervous. Plus Quentins already excited. So it was tricky for him to switch all those different jobs inside.
Carson: Watching the Four Rooms shoot, it struck me that this whole bunch directors, producers, actors were at a crossroads. After this they were going to have to tangle much more with the machinery of Hollywood.
Roth: Well, theyre not exactly the outcasts anymore.
Carson: What if somebody starts throwing millions and millions at you?
Roth: Id love it.
Carson: Dont think all that moneyll leech at your soul?
Roth: Its fucking welcome to try.
Carson: Want to talk about Four Rooms?
Quentin Tarantino: [Laughs and laughs.]
Carson: Say "No." Just say "No" so I can quote you.
Tarantino: No. [Laughs.] You gotta get famous. [He is scrambling through boxes of free merchandise sent to his office.] Look, they just give you all these things. Free shoes. [He holds up a pair of oversized fire-engine red tennis shoes.]
Odd fact is: I had co-producer slot on a small studio movie (a whole other story) shooting at the same time back in December. And Id drive, 12 minutes from this small set, to the big studio lot for meetings.
And driving through the studio gates was like driving into a Magritte painting. The place was motionless. Stop-frame. Semi-surreal. Echoing footsteps. Maybe some lone figure standing insecurely in a long slanting shadow. Like: nothing going on here. Except the feeling of gigantic corporate secrets hatching someplace deep inside this joint.
[Fact is, corporate-land was making big changes. Disney/ABC. Westinghouse/CBS. Time Warner/Turner. And they tell us: this is the Future.]
But Id go back and forth from the ever-more-monolithic studio to this rackety rolling-and-tumbling Four Rooms. And Id wonder: Yes, this is the crossroads which way to the Future?