Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Alan Rudolph

Something to Chew On

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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Making movies runs in director Alan Rudolph's blood.

His father Oscar (1911-91) was also employed in the picture business, working all kinds of jobs from assistant director to bit player, and with everyone from Cecil B. DeMille and John Ford, to Lenny Bruce and the Lone Ranger. He worked on the Hope & Crosby film Road to Rio, the Jimmy Stewart adventure classic The Flight of the Phoenix and directed Twist Around the Clock and episodes of TV's "Batman" and "The Brady Bunch."

"We didn't have a showbiz life," Rudolph, 59, says while visiting San Francisco to accompany his new film The Secret Lives of Dentists, which opened the SF International Film Festival last spring. "He was just a great dad. I don't think he really understood my movies, but he was proud of me."

Rudolph describes one early movie he made simply for a paycheck, a kind of sci-fi thriller called Endangered Species (1983). But it was Oscar Rudolph's favorite of his son's movies. "He thought that was great," the director says smiling.

Besides that film and a few other flirtations with studio work, Alan Rudolph has made a 30-year career out of odd, personal independent films, including Choose Me (1984), Trouble in Mind (1985), The Moderns (1988), Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994) and Afterglow (1997), which earned Julie Christie an Oscar nomination.

Even so, Rudolph is still very often identified with his mentor Robert Altman, with whom he earned his wings working as an assistant director. Altman continues to produce Rudolph's work from time to time, and Rudolph appears during the famous opening scene of Altman's The Player.

Yet, the two artists have very different styles. "I'm just proud to be mentioned in the same breath with him," Rudolph says.

Rudolph's new movie, The Secret Lives of Dentists is another decidedly un-Altman-like film, depicting the story of David and Dana Hurst (Campbell Scott and Hope Davis), a husband and wife team that works together as dentists. They also have three little girls at home.

One night David discovers that Dana may be having an affair -- just before the five family members subsequently start coming down with a violent 24-hour flu.

Denis Leary co-stars as the film's strangest character, a disgruntled dental patient who begins appearing to David as a kind of ghost, dispensing manly advice.

With nothing to hide, the film dives unabashedly into the thick of a seriously upset marriage with all the emotional strings attached. "Campbell and Hope have known each other for years, which is why those looks have such meaning," Rudolph says.

"Campbell deserves a lot of credit," Rudolph says. "I think he's in the front ranks of American actors. But he wants the back seat. If the spotlight gets too bright, he turns it off and runs away."

"I find that with some of the best actors," he says, referring to both Scott and Davis, "the difference between them and stars is that they just refuse to play the game."

Rudolph himself also refuses to play the game, which is why he describes each and every one of his films as an "uphill battle."

"That's one of the real drawbacks of trying to make films today," he says. "The audience is so preconditioned; if you went out on the street and talked to kids, they would say, 'I have to see this film because it's number one.' People used to go to films to learn things. At least I did."

The director explains that his own personal film school consisted of going to movies to watch Bergman, Fellini and Truffaut, learning new and different ways to tell stories -- and most important of all, truthfulness.

"There isn't a cop in America today that didn't learn how to be a cop from watching movies," Rudolph says. "People go to movies to learn how to fall in love or to be a lawyer. Which would be fine if films were more honest about it."

Rudolph describes talking to an audience member following the San Francisco festival screening of Dentists. The viewer thought the film was unusual because it was so real -- which the director says is a shame.

"I'm humbled by film," he says. "By the potential of it, the power of it. There's nothing like it. It allows you to sit in the dark, and you have no stake in it. It's not you. And yet you can connect your most private place to some complete stranger's in a piece of fiction. And feel as if you've experienced it. Or touched something. And that's pretty powerful stuff."

The Secret Lives of Dentists may come from a place of pain, but Rudolph is convinced that a proper audience will find humor in it as well. Certainly it contains a heavy dose of truth, which everyone will be able to connect with. "That's one thing we all have in common," he says, "a secret life and the dentist."

April 17, 2003

Movies Unlimtied