Interview: Keith Gordon talks about his acting career & approach to directing
In the second part of our interview with Keith Gordon the New Yorker tells us about working with the shark in Jaws 2, De Palma’s ability with actors, and Michael Caine’s X-rated Hollywood stories.
Actor, writer and director Keith Gordon has enjoyed a long and successful Hollywood career, working as an actor with the likes of Brian De Palma (Home Movies, Dressed To Kill) and John Carpenter (Christine) on film, and on the New York stage with Joan Micklin Silver and Michael Bennett. Since the late 1980s he has turned his attention to work behind the camera, making critically acclaimed feature films such as A Midnight Clear, The Singing Detective and Waking The Dead. This has involved work with some of the industry’s top actors like Robert Downey Jr., Ethan Hawke, Billy Crudup, Robyn Wright Penn, Adrien Brody and Gary Sinise. He has also directed episodes of top US-based television drama including Dexter, House M.D. and more recently The Killing.
In the first part of Top 10 Films’ interview with Keith, he discusses the production of A Midnight Clear, the World War II drama he adapted from William Wharton’s novel. In this, the second part of our interview, we delve into Keith’s earlier acting career, looking at how De Palma, Carpenter and a mechanical shark inspired and educated his love of directing.
There was a bunch of sequels made in the late seventies and eighties that I’ve clung to as personal favourites ever since I first experienced them as a child. It was a period where the sequel, although clinging to the same commercial goals as today’s trite long-winded franchises (how many Saw’s and Final Destination’s is there now?), was a fresh and exciting continuation of a great story. Aliens is certainly the stand out, one of the finest sequels ever made, while the troubled production that plagued Superman II failed to diminish the entertainment of another adventure with the eponymous superhero.
Another favourite from around that time was Universal’s sequel to Jaws, released in 1978. The brilliant Roy Scheider returned to the character of Chief Brody for another twelve rounds with the sea-dwelling monster plaguing the happy-go-lucky bathers of Amity Island. Yes, you’re right, we all saw Jaws explode at the end of Spielberg’s 1975 classic in that memorable “Smile, you son of a bitch” moment but the world of fiction has its own rules. Thankfully, at least for those safely hiding behind the flickering image of a cinema screen, Jaws (or his sister, brother, mother or grandpa) returned because Jaws 2 remains one of the most enjoyable sequels ever made.
In one of those moments of happenstance I was flickering through the movie channels on television recently when I found Jaws 2 about to start. Having avoided buying the Jaws box set for fear of having to watch parts 3 or 4 ever again (although admittedly, I have soft spots for both), I only have Spielberg’s original on DVD. So I hadn’t seen Jaws 2 for many years but it was a film, back in the 1990s, that saw its constant use send our VHS copy to magnetic tape heaven. The film features Amity Island’s Commander-In-“Chief Brody” having to clean up the mess of another spate of sea-based deaths while the local mayor, again played by Murray Hamilton, denies any possibility the “accidents” could be associated with another deadly Great White. But Brody is unconvinced and loses his job over his protestations. However, when he learns his two young sons and their friends have gone out cruising the sea in small sail boats, he sets off to bring them in safely. But, as expected, the shark gets there first.
In the film, whose teenagers-in-peril mark a spike in stories based around high school kids having to deal with unstoppable forces of evil thanks in no small part to the blossoming slasher genre, one of the group is non-other than recently interviewed A Midnight Clear writer-director Keith Gordon. It was his first feature film role. Memorably, Gordon’s character is the nerdy tag-along of the group who’d rather pretend to be engrossed in a book than wallow in contempt for the jocks enjoying seventies free love. Within a couple of days of watching the film I found out the actor, writer and director had made himself available to talk about the new home video release of A Midnight Clear. I hoped, once the formalities of promoting his critically-acclaimed 1992 film had been crossed off the check list, we could talk about some of his early work as an actor. These include personal favourites such as Brian De Palma’s incredibly effective Hitchcockesque Dressed To Kill where Gordon worked with actors Michael Caine, Nancy Allen, Angie Dickinson and Dennis Franz, and John Carpenter’s adaptation of the Stephen King novel Christine.
Given the horror – and I don’t mean of the teeth-gnawing, bone-crushing kind – of Jaws after the mechanical shark, lovingly named Bruce, stopped working time and time again, it was perhaps unsurprising I should ask about 1978’s shark. “Actually, the shark was pretty ill-behaved on Jaws 2,” says Gordon. “They tried to design it to do more complex things, but the thing it seemed best at was breaking loose and sinking to the bottom of the ocean, shutting down production for a couple of days while they found ways to haul it back up!”
One of the things that sticks in the memory when I watch the film is the sight of terrified teens with soaking wet clothes shivering incessantly. The shark is almost a nice distraction from freezing conditions. “Yes, it was wet and cold,” admits Gordon. “It took almost eleven months between switching directors and starting all over again, and hurricanes knocking down sets, and sinking sharks. On paper it should have been a miserable experience. But I was sixteen years old, away from home and on my own for the first time, working on a real live movie, and hanging out trying to soak up as much as I could about how films were made (I already knew I wanted to direct).”
“Michael Caine said: ‘If there’s anything I can do with my performance to help you, please let me know.’ It was such a kind and generous thing for such a huge star to say to a young actor. He also told endless brilliantly funny (often X rated) stories about all the films he’s worked on. He’s an amazingly entertaining guy.”
Being Gordon’s first feature film meant the exhilaration of a major Hollywood production rather overshadowed being sodden for most of his scenes. And, since the young actor had aspirations to make a career out of this, in front of and behind the camera, he was too busy soaking up the vibe of a movie set to care about uncomfortable situations. Indeed, he wasn’t about to waste time while the crew were fishing Bruce mark II from the ocean floor. He says, “One of the things I did to pass the time was write two full length scripts from novels, and got halfway through an original script with one of the other cast members, Billy Van Zandt. I also hung out in the editing rooms they had set up on location a lot, trying to learn as much as I could about that part of the process.”
Clearly, the process of working in unconventional surroundings has meant doing so in his own films has come a little easier. In A Midnight Clear the production took place in the snow and freezing temperatures of a wintry Utah. Gordon laughs when I ask if the cold conditions were tough to work in. “Yes,” he exclaims, “is that enough of an answer!”
“Our poor actors were in real World War II uniforms which were notorious for not being warm enough. We gave them as much under-padding as possible, and they were all tough as nails and never wanted to complain, but I saw many a set of lips turning blue. We tried to get them into our warming tent as much as possible, but it was still rough on them.”
He admits it wasn’t easy for the crew either. “We often had to snowmobile up to a location (not the most efficient way to get a cast and crew – and also all the equipment – to the set. We lost a lot of shooting time that way, but in some cases it was the only choice). We actually had a camera freeze one night. And that’s not supposed to happen. But some of the nights were minus ten or twenty below zero, with gusting, cutting winds.”
It has to be said not all Gordon’s films were quite as harsh on the actors and crew. However, he did find himself back in the deep-end once again straight after Jaws 2 working with director Bob Fosse in All That Jazz and his first collaboration with Brian De Palma in Home Movies. These films were followed by one of De Palma’s true masterpieces Dressed To Kill in 1980.
Gordon says the production was like a home away from home as he had not only just worked with the director a year before but also co-star Nancy Allen. “It was old home week,” he says. “I love working with someone more than once so much of the initial nervousness isn’t there. Brian made it fun by doing a lot of takes and encouraging experimentation.”
How about working with the great Michael Caine? “Well I will admit he did make me nervous at first, since I had grown up watching his films. But he was such a sweet, kind (and funny!) guy that the nervousness passed away really quick. We really only had the one scene together, right after my mother’s murder, and I’ll never forget how he came over to me on the set, and gently said, ‘if there’s anything I can do with my performance to help you, please let me know.’ It was such a kind and generous thing for such a huge star to say to a young actor. He also told endless brilliantly funny (often X rated) stories about all the films he’s worked on. He’s an amazingly entertaining guy.”
Gordon feels the great British actor from South East London hasn’t always received the credit his distinguished body of work demands. “As much as people love him, I don’t know that he’s gotten quite the credit for being as amazing an actor as he is. When you look at his work, the extreme range of roles he’s played, the way he’s at home in the darkest drama, or the silliest comedy, and how easy and effortless he makes it look – I really think he’s one of the great screen actors ever. But he’s so unassuming about it – on and off screen – that sometimes he doesn’t get the notice he deserves. Jeff Bridges strikes me that way too, among others.”
The experience working on De Palma’s Dressed To Kill was obviously hugely influential for Gordon, who was still in his teens. “It was a great lesson in the power of editing,” he tells me. “I remember hanging out and watching while they shot the scene where Angie Dickinson is murdered in the elevator. At the time I could feel my heart sink. It looked so phony, not scary at all. The wounds and blood looked like a high school play to my naked eye. And then you see that amazing sequence – with just the right moments of each shot, and the music, and you suddenly realise how much of the magic of a film is in that editing room.”
Certainly, De Palma was a great inspiration to Gordon who ultimately aspired to be behind the camera. “Every director influenced me at least to an extent but if I had to pick a couple who taught me the most it would probably be De Palma, but largely because we got to do two films together, not just one. And the first was Home Movies – an independent feature he made as a ‘teaching project’ using his university students as crew. So that was designed to be a learning experience.
“Working with Michael Bennett (A Chorus Line, Dreamgirls) on stage was huge, because I saw his genius at figuring out just what each actor needed to bring out their best, and the way he’d relate to each of us differently. There was no one bigger in New York theatre at the time, he could have come in and barked out orders. Instead he directed this little three character play, and found a way to give each of us what we needed. For example, he picked up that I worked sort of intellectually, and liked to analyse the hell out of everything. But that same approach made one of the other actors feel stiff and caught in their head. So he’d sometimes have me come in early so he and I could talk through all the ‘idea’ stuff without forcing it on the other actors. It was when I realised that being a good director is largely about reading people, and being a good psychologist.”
Fittingly, Gordon calls his “acting” years the “best film school in the world”. “Long before I started acting professionally, I was one of those nerdy little kids running around making films with my super-8 camera (there, I just carbon dated myself). And even when I started acting I knew my dream was to get to be a filmmaker one day. So I tried as much as possible to use my time on sets (or on stage) as an actor to learn about directing. I was lucky to work with directors like Brian De Palma and John Carpenter on film, and Joan Micklin Silver and Michael Bennett on stage, who were all absurdly patient with my endless questions, and my desire to learn how to do what they did. When I was acting in a film, I’d try to go to the set every day when I wasn’t acting, so I could just watch.
“I was lucky to work with directors like Brian De Palma and John Carpenter on film, and Joan Micklin Silver and Michael Bennet on stage, who were all absurdly patient with my endless questions, and my desire to learn how to do what they did.”
“I got something different from every director I worked with. For example, De Palma, whom everyone thinks of as a technician, was actually great with the actors. We took time to rehearse, he encouraged questions about character, and he also shot in a way that encouraged playfulness and experimentation. You’d do a take, and Brian would say, ‘Great, that was the angry one, now let’s try a lighter one, now lets try it quieter, etc. etc. He taught me that what takes most time on a set is preparing the shot, and there’s always time to do an extra take or two, and try something different with your actors, or see if they had some other idea they wanted to try.
“I learned from every director I worked with, famous or unknown, big studio movie, or off-off-Broadway theatre. And part of what I learned was that there were no absolutes. Each director works their own way, a way that fits their personality and artistic temperament.
“For example, I could never direct by bullying. It’s just not my style. I strive to make everyone – cast, crew – feel like a part of the artistic process as much as possible. I want to surround myself with great people and let them make me better, show me things I might not even know about my own script. If the caterer has a great idea for a shot, who cares that it came from the caterer?
“I try to follow Truffaut’s advice; I always have a plan, and know exactly what I want, but try to have no ego about giving it up when anyone else has a better idea. I also learned that I’m better at seducing someone into an idea, than forcing them into it. I love it when I can guide actors to a place where they discover the scene for themselves, even if I could have just spelled it out. But if I just tell them it will never feel like it’s ‘their’s’ in the same way. But that’s just my make up. Watch 100 different directors and you’ll see 100 ways to direct.”
Many people will recognise Keith Gordon from his role in John Carpenter’s Christine which was released in 1983. The film adaptation of the Stephen King novel saw Gordon take on the lead role as Arnie Cunningham, a high school student who buys the car of his dreams – a 1958 Plymouth Fury – only for it to turn out possessed.
Working with the man who made Halloween and The Thing was another great learning curve. “Carpenter really taught me the kind of atmosphere I wanted on a set. Christine was just fun to do. John would play practical jokes, the feel was light, so there never was a sense of just ‘grinding through the day’.”
He says the film was “challenging” but “fun”. “I think once we found the look of the character in his various stages, a lot of the feeling came along by itself. I worked on physical things like having my voice slowly change register over the course of the film. It goes down a lot in slowly going from nerd to killer. It was one of those jobs where I looked forward to every day.”
Gordon certainly recalls Christine with fond memories saying it was the film in which he had the most fun. “The combination of the slightly over-the-top Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde role, John Carpenter, the great cars, and the chance to act out all sort of adolescent fantasies like terrorising your parents was pretty unbeatable,” he laughs.
“As a film-maker, the films I enjoyed the most (I can’t say which I think is ‘best’ – my opinions of them bounce around every time I see them) were Mother Night, because one of my oldest and best friends wrote the script and produced with me (and the cast, starting with the great Nick Nolte, were a blast to work with), and Waking the Dead because it was very close to my heart. There’s dialogue in that film that comes right out of my marriage.”
Of course, working with the terrific acting talents of Billy Crudup and Jennifer Connolly on Waking The Dead helped. “My two leads were beyond what any director could dream of in terms of attitude, hard work, and just being good people.” He adds, with a tinge of melancholy: “Let me put it this way – that’s the only film I’ve done where we all literally sat around and cried when I said ‘that’s a wrap’. Even though we’d worked a long last day, Billy and I just sat there drinking beers and reminiscing until the sun came up. Add in that it took nine years from script to screen, and it was a pretty amazing feeling to actually get it done.”
The talented New Yorker has achieved a lot in a career spanning over thirty-five years that has seen acting largely move to one side as directing has taken over. Gordon took some time out to talk to Top 10 Films during the busy shooting schedule of US drama series The Killing which has just started screening its second series on television. As a young kid dreaming of making movies, running around shooting short films with his super-8 camera, he’s every right to be proud of his achievements. Indeed, Christopher Nolan has just hired him as director on a supernatural thriller he’s developing. But does he have a favourite film from this great body of work?
“It’s funny, I love each of my films. They all were very special experiences in their own way. They all have sequences or elements or memories I’m especially happy with. At the same time, there’s my perfectionist side that looks at anything I do and can think of 10,000 little changes I’d make. I will say that A Midnight Clear seems to be the film of mine that speaks to the most people. It got the best reviews, people still seem to react strongly to it. And I think its message (for which credit goes to William Wharton, not me) is very timeless and always important.”
A Midnight Clear can be bought on DVD and Blu-ray now. Order the Blu-ray through Amazon.co.uk here.