Combustible Celluloid

Interview: Philip Seymour Hoffman

'Liza' Wide Open

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

January 12, 2003—Todd Louiso and Philip Seymour Hoffman met on the set of 1992's Scent of a Woman in which they both played minor roles. They spent a lot of time waiting around together and playing the old "Pole Position" video game.

Ten years later, Louiso and Hoffman met again on the set of a movie. Only this time, they did not enjoy much down time. That's because Louiso was directing, Hoffman playing the lead role, and the movie's budget clocking in at just about $1 million.

The movie, a powerful, quirky drama about loss and recovery called Love Liza, opens Friday in Bay Area theaters.

During those ten years, a lot happened to the friends. They became roommates, but moved out when the house they occupied kept flooding. Louiso worked as an intern for director Robert Benton, and each actor worked with Benton on different films -- Louiso on Billy Bathgate and Hoffman on Nobody's Fool.

Over time, Hoffman built up a reputation as a powerful character actor, earning acclaim for his roles in an extraordinary list of films: Boogie Nights, The Big Lebowski, Next Stop Wonderland, Happiness, Magnolia, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Almost Famous, State and Main, Punch-Drunk Love and the recent 25th Hour.

Louiso continued working as well, finally gaining notice as Dick the record store geek in High Fidelity, but all the while planning on turning director. He practiced with a short film called Fifteen Minute Hamlet, based on a Tom Stoppard play and starring Hoffman, as well as one of Hoffman and Louiso's favorite actors, Austin Pendleton (Amistad, What's Up Doc?)

Love Liza began over four years ago when Hoffman's older brother Gordy wrote the script and left it with the most appropriate person he could think of.

"My mom gave it to me," Hoffman says during a recent visit to The City. "It was on the counter at home." The actor read it, loved it, and approached his brother about playing a role.

At that time, Hoffman only considered the supporting role that eventually went to Jack Kehler, but over the years he built up enough clout and name appeal that he moved into the lead.

Director Louiso insists that either way the film would never have been made without him.

In the film, Hoffman plays Wilson, an internet programmer who loses his wife to suicide. We meet him in the six weeks following her death as he goes on vacation, returns to work and eventually tries to get back on track. He carries with him a letter from his wife that he can't quite bring himself to read. He ultimately regresses to a childlike state and begins huffing gas, eventually finding some kind of solace in model planes and boats.

"I liked such a sad subject matter during this time of prosperity," director Louiso said while visiting San Francisco last fall. "During the late 90s I always felt this sort of emptiness in the overabundance of wealth and things -- people trying to grab everything."

During the four years it took Louiso and Hoffman's brother to re-write and re-work the script, the dot-com boom collapsed, changing the mood of the film. Still, Louiso is not worried. "As long as you're dealing with larger issues you can't go wrong."

Louiso could not always claim to be so confident. A budget of $1 million is absolutely miniscule in this day and age, and Love Liza was not an easy shoot by any means.

"I definitely shaved a couple of years off my life trying to get it done in the amount of time we had," Louiso says. "Lisa Rinzler, the director of photography, saved my life. She and I would go out after shooting all day long to scout and shoot some more on video."

"There were scenes we couldn't do," Hoffman says. "There was this great shot that was in the first draft of the screenplay. When Wilson jumps into the pond to swim with all the boats, he goes underwater and you're actually seeing him underwater and you're hearing the boats buzzing above, and it feels very insulated. I remember that was my favorite description of what the film captures very well. But we didn't have money for an underwater camera."

Aside from Flawless, in which Hoffman shared top billing with Robert De Niro, Love Liza marks his first leading role, though despite working with friends and on such a small budget, he says that the work is the same.

"John C. Reilly said something, and I agree with him, that the work you put into a supporting role is just the same as the work you put into a lead. You just work more days."

But there's no denying the power of Hoffman's performance in Love Liza. With little dialogue and a lot of screen time alone, he manages to make grief into a physical presence. His body, his hands, his eyes, even his hair are precisely calculated to subtly reveal Wilson's pain-ridden state of mind.

Not to mention that Louiso's direction shows a natural gift. He spends an equal amount of time developing the emotional core of the movie as well as the visual.

"People are just completely bowled over emotionally by this movie, or sometimes they're just irritated," Hoffman says. "They want to know why we put them through that. I don't quite mind that response so much, because the film does put you through what Wilson's going through. If you're open and watching that movie, there's no way you're not going to experience what he's experiencing. And I think that's a plus."

Partial Philip Seymour Hoffman Filmography:
My New Gun (1992)
Leap of Faith (1992)
Scent of a Woman (1992)
Money for Nothing (1993)
The Getaway (1994)
When a Man Loves a Woman (1994)
Nobody's Fool (1994)
Hard Eight (1996)
Twister (1996)
Boogie Nights (1997)
Next Stop Wonderland (1998)
The Big Lebowski (1998)
Happiness (1998)
Patch Adams (1998)
Flawless (1999)
Magnolia (1999)
The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)
State and Main (2000)
Almost Famous (2000)
Love Liza (2002)
Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
Red Dragon (2002)
25th Hour (2002)
Owning Mahowny (2003)
Cold Mountain (2003)
Along Came Polly (2004)
Strangers with Candy (2005)
Capote (2005) [Academy Award]
Mission: Impossible III (2006)
The Savages (2007)
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007)
Charlie Wilson's War (2007) [Academy Award Nomination]
Synecdoche, New York (2008)
Doubt (2008) [Academy Award Nomination]
Mary and Max (2009) (voice)
Pirate Radio (2009)
I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale (2009)
The Invention of Lying (2009)
Jack Goes Boating (2010) [Also Director]
The Ides of March (2011)
Moneyball (2011)
The Master (2012) [Academy Award Nomination]
A Late Quartet (2012)
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)
God's Pocket (2014)
A Most Wanted Man (2014)

Movies Unlimtied