Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Taylor Hackford

Working Classy

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Russell Crowe (left) with director Taylor
Hackford on the set of Proof of Life.
American director Taylor Hackford today appears at the San Francisco International Film Festival to collect his lifetime achievement award in directing and to screen his feature directorial debut, The Idolmaker (1980). Mr. Hackford, 59, was recently nominated for an Oscar for his acclaimed film Ray, and has also directed An Officer and a Gentleman (1982), Dolores Claiborne (1995), The Devil's Advocate (1997) and Proof of Life (2000). I spoke to him via phone about his life's work.

Combustible Celluloid: How did you come to choose "The Idolmaker" to show at the festival?

Taylor Hackford: It was an interesting piece because, as opposed to a genius musician [like Ray Charles], it's also about another era. It's somebody who didn't have classic good looks and didn't make it in show business. It was the era of Tab Hunter and Rock Hudson; they all had a certain look. It was the idea that Tony (Ray Sharkey) had to find face men and imbue them with a certain talent. Then later, the Al Pacinos and Robert De Niros came along and, they didn't necessarily have the glamour. That is speaking to a particular time.

CC: That time has also come around again to today, with "American Idol" and whatnot.

TH: Less so in the U.S., but in England -- England has a fantastic tradition of music. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, etc. That rediscovered rock and roll and England has completely lost itself with boy bands. It's just so boring. The compelling story to me is the story of the idolmaker, the guy who doesn't have a lot of self worth. He has a fairly strong ego but has to make that happen through puppets.

CC: My favorite scene is the one in which Tony is standing backstage watching his first creation (Paul Land) perform; he's going through all the same motions behind the curtain.

TH: Bob Marcucci, whom the movie was based on, consulted with me on the script. He still could go through all these little movements that he had taught Frankie Avalon and Fabian. I got the idea of putting him backstage and showing the puppet master really going through it. He wanted in the worst way to be out in front.

CC: In any case, The Idolmaker makes a very interesting comparison to Ray. One is about the guy who gets left behind by the talent, and the other is about the talent who leaves everyone behind.

TH: The thing that's interesting about The Idolmaker. It was my first film, and it was my opportunity. Ray Sharkey was a wonderful talent, and you feel that. Ray is a very different kettle of fish. He's a true genius. But the drive is similar. Ray Charles refused to listen to those people who said "you're a cripple." With his drive and his refusal to accept that, he was striving to prove that he was as good or better than anyone else. I make films about working class people. Show business is one of those things that people can use to get themselves out of the lower rung of society. An Officer and a Gentleman was about getting out through the military. I'm always interested in those vehicles through which people can move. The entertainment business is always a possibility.

CC: I noticed that you're very gifted at shooting music sequences. A great scene in Ray is the on-stage creation of "What'd I Say." Most directors either do too much or too little.

TH: If you zoom in and zoom out, it takes you out of the music. The director's job should give you a sense of music without drawing attention to itself. You're there because something happens live. It's different than on a record. There's something that's being created at the moment. You come up with a visual style that allows you to get in. What I try to do is get inside.

CC: Can you talk a little about your working methods?

TH: When I finish a film, I put it away and I never look at it again. Occasionally I do now because of the DVDs and the commentary tracks. I usually put it aside and go onto the next. I never went to film school. I worked for the KCET public television station in L.A. I worked in concerts. I have done a lot of music. I feel very comfortable shooting music, and I think you can see that. The style of The Idolmaker is very heavily influenced by Bob Fosse. There's a lot of style and a lot of movement and camera placement that came from Fosse. Ray was a different kind of piece. My proudest moments in Ray were in those "chitlin" clubs. Ray Charles ended his life in concert halls, where people would go in tuxedos and quietly listen to a genius perform. But in these clubs, he had to get people up dancing. He was a dance band. What I tried to create was a little of that energy, a little of that exuberance. The great thing about music is when you can get people on their feet.

CC: Some might portray you as a man's man director, but you've directed several top-notch female performances over the years: Debra Winger, Jessica Lange, Kathy Bates...

TH: I defy you to find a better woman's performance than Kathy bates in Dolores Claiborne -- the kind of pain she was in that she wasn't even aware of. People look at that film and they don't get it. Then they finally clock it that she's this walking wound. She's very smart and very aware of what causes that neurosis. There are a lot of things in that film that I'm very proud of. I tried to quote Magritte the painter, then also getting into the hearts and minds of these three tough women. They've been through the world of men, and have suffered, and are survivors. This is not tooting my own horn; this is singing the praises of the people I work with.

CC: There was one woman in Ray. She was a backup singer, the tallest one. I don't think she had much dialogue, but I couldn't take my eyes off of her.

TH: Aunjanue Ellis. I just completed a pilot with her, and my smile muscles were exhausted. She plays a Marine working in the Pentagon. My editor worked for a week on one scene and he had no idea that she was the same woman he had edited in Ray. But I look at the supporting actress category and none of my women got nominated. My sense is that Ray is an interesting film because Jamie did this performance, but his relationship with these women is a stunning ensemble of emotion.

CC: You're known for working with all different races, creeds and colors in films like Ray and Blood in Blood Out. Obviously that's a benefit, but does it ever cause you any trouble in the movie business?

TH: It's a double-edged sword. You're trying to make films in a commercial medium that are very specific. I try to make films that will convince the most difficult subject. What I was trying to do in An Officer and a Gentleman was convince Marines with Louis Gossett's performance. They're a very tough organization. In this particular instance I was tying to get the Marines to look at him and go, "that's a Marine."

Blood in Blood Out is a movie about the Latino experience. I'm always interested in the working class people. I am one. They're subjugated, they're paid very little and they can make it in show biz. Whether it's James Cagney as an Irishman in Yankee Doodle Dandy or it's La Bamba [which Hackford produced]. Gangster movies are as old as Little Caesar (1930). What I was doing was updating it. But when you do that, when you do something that's ethnic, you risk the white audience, the general audience looking at you and saying, "what are you doing?" And then you get the Latinos saying, "how dare you? Why don't you make films about Latino doctors and lawyers?" On the surface, you can say that Taylor Hackford shouldn't do this because he's white. But when Latinos come up to me and say, "thank you," it means a lot. The Los Angeles riots happened while we were editing it and it almost never came out. It never really got its chance. But today you cannot find Blood In Blood Out in any video store in a Latin neighborhood. It's always checked out.

When black people look at Ray and say, "Yeah... he got it. He got black culture," that's the best compliment I can get.

C: You're the nineteenth director to win this award at the San Francisco International Film Festival. Of the directors that have won before you, whom do you most admire?

TH: Kurosawa. I know my films aren't like his, but he was able to tell a story, with incredible style. He could do the whole thing. He could make you laugh and cry; he could do the violence and the subtlety all at once. And at the end of his career, to do something like Ran, these huge costume dramas. He's in my top five of all time. The other thing that's particularly sweet about this: The first longish film I did was a portrait of Charles Bukoswki and I entered it in the San Francisco Film Festival and it won the "Silver Reel." So the first recognition I got was from the SF film festival.

April 21, 2005

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