Combustible Celluloid

Interview with John Malkovich

Being John Malkovich

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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Of all the directors John Malkovich has worked with, the 94 year-old Portuguese master Manoel de Oliveira claims the honor of the most frequent, with three films together. The first two are The Convent (1995) and I'm Going Home (2002), and their third is currently in post-production.

De Oliveira vexes most American viewers -- and many Portuguese viewers, for that matter -- with his extreme slowness and care. He's one of the artiest and most difficult of European directors.

At the same time, Malkovich has worked twice with the American writers-turned-directors David Levien and Brian Koppelman, who specialize in cheerfully dumb Hollywood pulp (Rounders, Knockaround Guys). Malkovich hopes to work with them again as well. "They've done two films and in both of them, I played a character called Teddy. And in the next one I want to play Teddy White, a guy who likes White Castle [burgers]," he jokes.

This appreciation for the two different kinds of filmmaking is reflected perfectly in Malkovich's feature directorial debut The Dancer Upstairs, which debuted at the San Francisco International Film Festival and opens in Bay Area theaters on Friday.

The Dancer Upstairs combines a highly political sensibility and an appreciation for other cultures with a formula Hollywood detective story. The Oscar-nominated actor Javier Bardem (Before Night Falls) plays a detective in charge of tracking down a mysterious group of radical political group in an unnamed South American country. (Malkovich shot the film in Spain, Portugal and Ecuador.)

Malkovich says that none of his filmmaking friends really pointed the way for him. "I love Manoel deeply, but I don't really have influences in that way. Because I think a film that you direct is your expression, the way you see it."

"I could always frame shots and things," he continues. "I've worked with an awful lot of good technicians, and I've worked with many directors who weren't great shot makers. I learn most from operators, who say, 'that's not a shot.' That's where the action is in the cinema."

One thing Malkovich tried on The Dancer Upstairs was working with non-professional actors -- even though he himself is one of the most accomplished acting craftsmen alive today.

"There are some things that amateur actors couldn't do, I suppose, but my feeling is that it's something that most people can do very well. They do it their whole lives. They know how to lie. They know how to pretend to be someone else. They know how to pretend to be amused and pretend to be sad. They know how to get what they want. You have to know how to shoot them and work with who they are. They can't work with who you are."

On the other hand, Malkovich was thrilled to work with the trained veteran Bardem, whom he considers the greatest young actor working today.

The 49 year-old Malkovich began his illustrious career by joining Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre, breaking ground with a stunning performance in Sam Shepard's True West. That led to big, acclaimed Hollywood films like The Killing Fields and Places in the Heart -- the latter earned him the first of two Oscar nominations.

But after a few years, he left Hollywood for the south of France where he has lived with his family for about ten years. He doesn't have an L.A. address of any kind and only returns there for meetings and such. In addition, he co-owns a restaurant/nightclub in Portugal.

Before embarking on The Dancer Upstairs, Malkovich cut his teeth by directing three short films, all quirky little fashion-related films for his friend, the English fashion designer Bella Freud. The films were shown at fashion shows, in film festivals and on European television, though Americans may not get to see them anytime soon. "They're very odd and I like them enormously," Malkovich says.

"When you make a film you actually make three or four separate films," he continues. "There's the film you write, there's the film you have in your head, there's the film you shoot and there's the film you edit. They're all pretty different."

Malkovich is also busy with his production company, Mr. Mudd, which helped produce Terry Zwigoff's masterful 2001 film Ghost World. Future projects include The Libertine, from a play by Stephen Jeffreys; Found in the Street, based on a Patricia Highsmith novel; Ripley's Game, another Highsmith, with Malkovich playing the title role; and Kill the Poor.

Mr. Mudd also has its own clothing line; Malkovich looks particularly trim and sporty in a pinstripe jacket.

The real Mr. Mudd once worked as Malkovich's driver in the mid-80s on The Killing Fields. Rumor had it that Mudd was a convicted murderer. According to Malkovich, he loved to scare old ladies and pedestrians during their drive by swerving towards them.

"One day after a six hour drive and watching him do that 70 times, I asked him about the murder rap," he says. "And Mr. Mudd had a philosophy. He kept looking in the rear-view mirror -- he looked like Noriega, all pockmarked -- and finally he told me about the murder rap. He said: 'Sometime Mr. Mudd kill, sometime Mr. Mudd not kill.'"

Malkovich displays his famous reptilian smile, "What could I possibly add to that?"

April 17, 2003

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