Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Bill Condon

Kinship with Kinsey

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

New York-born Bill Condon began his career as a film journalist, which led to his first film-writing job, on a low-budget horror film called Strange Behavior (1981). For almost two decades Condon continued in the horror and suspense vein, turning director in 1987 with Sister, Sister. In 1998, he very cleverly broke away by making a biopic about a horror director. Gods and Monsters placed at #2 on my own ten best list, while the National Board of Review chose it as the year's best film. It also won Condon an Oscar for Best Screenplay Adaptation. The success of that film allowed Condon to break out and try other projects, such as adapting Chicago for the big screen, as well as his most current project, a biopic about infamous sex researcher Alfred Kinsey. During a recent visit to San Francisco, Condon revealed that he began working on Kinsey in 1999, not long after winning his Oscar. "I had my first meeting on Chicago and now the DVD is in the remainder bin, all during this. That's how long it took," he says.

Combustible Celluloid: Lynn Redgrave, who was so good in Gods and Monsters plays a key scene here. Just one small scene that vindicates everything Kinsey does over the course of the film.

Bill Condon: I was so happy when she agreed to it, which didn't happen quickly. I had dinner with her and said, 'it's not a big part.' And as I was leaving, I just slid in the fact that it's on page 118. Of course, she went home and read only that scene. And she said, 'it's too small.' And I said, 'just read the whole script and you'll understand that it actually sums up the whole movie.' And she did that and then she agreed to do it. That whole idea, 'you saved my life, sir.' That's something that's become more and more clear to me, not only when I was doing the research, but now on this tour. This is not like any other movie tour I've ever done, where you kind of get typical questions; 'what was Liam Neeson like?' This is like new discussions all the time. I got to be on a panel with contemporary sex researchers and the new head of the Kinsey Institute whom I've never met before. And you realize that so many of these things are life and death issues. They're doing a study of condom use, and you would be amazed. There's like a small but significant percentage of the American population that puts on condoms after sex. It's incredible! The amount of ignorance that's still out there!

CC: It's rare in a biopic -- which demands a showy centerpiece performance -- to have such good performances by supporting actors.

BC: Kinsey is such an odd central character. One way I keep thinking about it is that American movies always flatter the audience into thinking that they're the smartest person in the room. So even if you're watching a movie about a villain, there are always these foils, these people who look stupid compared to him. Whereas Kinsey, while he's brilliant, he's so missing the point. He's the butt of the joke. He's not in on the joke. And that's a weird person to put at the center of a movie. You can really grow impatient with him. Which is why Laura Linney's character is the way in. You need someone humanizing him and helping you see him in a different way. It's also why I think Liam pulled off something incredibly hard, that people don't even see. That character on paper puts me to sleep. But there's something about Liam's qualities, that temporal thing. He has three lecture scenes, these long swaths of information. Liam, who's working so hard to do the American accent, inevitably there's a lilt that he's suppressing but is still there. But he makes it sound pleasing.

I've been a big fan of his from the films, but the stage work -- The Crucible and Anna Christie -- he was so amazing on so many levels in a way that I hadn't seen as much on film. In general this is a cast with a strong theatrical background. The way that that pays off, is a little residual James Whale, I think. He had a very ripe style in everything and Lynn was able to capture that and keep it real in Gods and Monsters. Maybe it's the gauging or something. But you take the Lithgow character. That is a guy who is so extreme, and you couldn't write it that way if it weren't true. He's so one-dimensional; he's just horrible. An actor who had just been in movies would have been desperately searching for the moments that humanize him. But Lithgow, and all the actors, took him in this different direction, a theater actor's direction, which is just to heighten it a little. It's going to be the most awful thing you've ever seen, and it's going to be slightly ridiculous, without undercutting the reality of it. It's my favorite kind of acting and I don't think you see enough of it in movies.

CC: This didn't occur to me until much later, but I had a good laugh over Tim Curry as the repressed, puritan sex teacher.

BC: Yeah! Dr. Frankenfurter. I also think of Dylan Baker, with his Happiness baggage: "You don't want to get into anything too abnormal."

CC: Here's something you said six years ago when we talked about Gods and Monsters: "I really think the biopic thing so rarely works because people's lives don't have the dramatic shape that can be satisfying. It does take some kind of bold idea."

BC: Which in that case was Whale's ailment and the structure from the novel, which took just a moment. I assumed, going into this, I was going to find that same moment with Kinsey. There's one scene, when he becomes famous, he's hanging out in New York. And there's a lunch he has with Joseph Campbell, Ian Forster and Forster's policeman boyfriend. That's a great opening scene for a play. And I kept trying to find, what is the moment in his life? And I couldn't do it. It didn't feel like it was the right approach.

CC: I was wondering if a director of horror films, who might be more in touch with the human condition and the human body, might be more qualified to make a film about sex and sex education?

BC: There's some truth to that. This movie was a challenge to approach visually, because it is the ultimate talking heads movie because of the interview format. When I was able to open it up, it was things like intercutting between Kinsey losing his funding and Laura going up the stairs to see what's on the other side of that door. That's a pure horror movie scene. Those techniques always seem like the purest way to tell a story.

Richard Sherman, the production designer, had this idea of squares, like in a graph. That became one way to approach it visually. There are an awful lot of squares. As the project develops, it becomes more and more dominant. In the scene with the pedophile, you go into the hotel and it's all squares in the windows and we put up this room divider behind him. And then there are squares behind him. So it's like this attempt to get people into boxes. When the project falls apart, at the low point, it's all circles. With Gods and Monsters, it was clear that this was a Sirk movie and Whale's 30s expressionist style doesn't belong in this color, widescreen movie. And this one took longer to invent.

CC: Do you ever look to James Whale for inspiration or, "career advice"?

BC: When I was starting out and I was writing, I spent a couple years writing for Tony Richardson (Tom Jones). Liam Neeson is his son-in-law, though they never met. And Lynn was his sister-in-law, so I've always circled around this family. But I do think that it's interesting. I really love the city of Los Angeles -- the city part, not the movie part. I've lived there over half my life. I'm in a good moment now. It's not easy, but I'm getting to make the movies I want to make. And that will inevitably pass, as it does for everybody. But I do often wonderŠ What is it like on the other side of that and what's it like to linger in that city once that happens? I definitely do feel a connection.

October 28, 2004

See also: Strange Behavior, Gods and Monsters, Chicago and Kinsey.

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