Interview with Keith Gordon

Director Keith Gordon is more recognizable then most filmmakers. That’s because before he went behind the camera he starred in some of the most popular films of the 1970s and 80s. His first film was 1978s “Jaws 2,” in which he and his fellow teens are terrorized by a great white shark until police chief Roy Scheider once again saves the day. He shared the credits with Scheider in his next film, playing the young Joe Gideon in Bob Fosse’s Oscar winning “All That Jazz.” Roles in films like “Dressed to Kill,” “Christine,” “The Legend of Billie Jean” and “Back to School” kept him busy until, in 1988, he went behind the camera to direct “The Chocolate War.” He followed that film up with his adaptation of William Wharton’s “A Midnight Clear.” The film was a critical success, earning comments like “Gordon shows the kind of filmmaking talent that creates genuine excitement” from the Washington Post and “Gordon is uncanny in the way he suggests the eerie forest mysteries that permeate all of the action” from Roger Ebert. His other films include “Mother Night,” starring Nick Nolte, “Waking the Dead” and “The Singing Detective,” which stars his “Back to School” co-star Robert Downey, Jr. as well as Robin Wright, Mel Gibson and Adrien Brody.

Currently you can catch his work on television, where he has directed episodes of “House,” “Rubicon” and “Dexter,” even scratching the actor’s itch by appearing in one of his “Dexter” episodes. While planning his next project, and anticipating his 50th birthday on February 3rd, Mr. Gordon graciously took time out of his schedule to sit down with MovieMikes:

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Michael Smith: Let me start by wishing you an early happy 50th birthday!
Keith Gordon: Well thank you! It’s a strange one coming up. I usually don’t think much about birthdays but I will say that 50 gives one pause. I does make you reflect on your life and what you’re doing and what you have done…where you want to go. It’s really my first birthday ever where I’ve thought, “wow, this is kind of wild!” It’s really a big number. Half a century. You realize you’ve lived more of your life then you have left to live. I find it very perspective changing. And again, I still haven’t fully digested it. But it’s the first one where I’ve thought, “Wow!” I’m going to be 50 and I realize I only have so many vibrant years left. Hopefully 30 or 40 of them. Hopefully there will be many. My father died this year and that also reminded me of my own mortality. So there’s a lot of thought about what do I want to do with my days? What’s important to me? What’s valuable to me…what do I want to focus on? How much money do I want to make versus what do I want to do to satisfy myself artistically? It really makes you wonder where you want to be.

MS: Both of your parents (Mark and Barbara Gordon) were successful stage actors. Did they influence your decision to make acting your profession?
KG: Obviously when you grow up in a theatrical household you’re going to be influenced by it one way or another. You’ll probably end up running and screaming from it and become an investment banker! I went into it. It’s an interesting irony with my parents because they were always very verbally discouraging of my going into this field because they felt, and it is, a cruel and harsh business. So few people make a living at it. So they would always give me the speeches… “you don’t want this life”…and yet I saw in my father the artistic joy that he had, even when he was struggling, and how much it meant to him to be part of that creative process. And I learned a lot from him. My mother was not really a working actress when I was growing up. She quit when I was born and really only did bits and pieces much later after I left home. Most of her career was before and after my childhood. But my dad…that was his thing. If you grow up with a father who’s a preacher you’re going to learn a lot about the Bible. I grew up with a father who was not only an actor but an acting teacher and a director. So that was the subject of conversation around the dinner table a lot. I absorbed a lot through osmosis and found that I was truly drawn to it instead of being bored by it. If my folks were alive today they’d tell you, “No! We never told him to do it,” but I think being around it and seeing the good sides, as well as the bad, certainly drew me to it. And of course it was my own interests as well. I’ve always primarily focused on film while my father was mostly a man of the theater. He did T.V. commercials and films and episodes of T.V. shows to make money but his passion was really the theater. I was the other way around. I worked in theater as a training ground but I’ve always really been in love with films from a very young age. Even before I thought about it as a career I was a movie geek!

MS: You co-starred as Doug Fetterman in “Jaws 2.” What are your memories of the production? Were you part of the original group of kids cast for the film?
KG: I was one of the few people to make it through the incredible carnage of that film…not so much on screen as off screen. As often happens with Hollywood blockbusters, when things aren’t working people get fired left and right. I think it was because my part was originally so small that no one thought to fire me! I had friends on the set that got fired without shooting a foot of film. They hadn’t had time to do anything wrong. It was really a panic. They had already put so much money into the movie…the shark wasn’t working right…John Hancock wasn’t working out. So they had to let him go and throw out the footage he had done. (NOTE: John Hancock was the original director of “Jaws 2.” Unhappy with his work, the producers replaced him with Jeannot Szwarc. As Hancock’s wife, Dorothy Tristan, had written the script, there was a great delay in the filming schedule. For more on the making of “Jaws 2” please see my interviews with Joe Alves and Carl Gottlieb). So the studio went into a panic state, which will happen when you’re suddenly spending millions and millions of dollars that you hadn’t planned on. I mean, as it turned out, “Jaws 2” made a ton of money and was very successful but I don’t think they were convinced it was going to be. Sequels were not as common at that point…certainly not blockbuster sequels. I think that as our budget doubled and more from what they had planned on there was a lot of fear. And the funny thing about making movies is that fearful thinking about wasting money always leads to wasting more money. You jump on one solution then you jump off of that one to another solution. They brought in new writers to re-do the script but they kept all of us on location during that time, which was something I never really understood. There were all kinds of strange decisions being made, mostly I think because they were in scramble mode.

Click here to view our ‘Jaws” interview with Carl Gottlieb
Click here to view our ‘Jaws” interview with Joe Alves

MS: Your next movie also put you back on screen with Roy Scheider when you portrayed his character, Joe Gideon, as a young man in “All That Jazz.” What are your memories of working for Bob Fosse?
KG: That was a film I begged to be a part of. A friend of mine was working in the art department and I read the script long before production started. I read the part of the young Joe Gideon and called my agent and said, “look, can you get me in?” They were looking for a dancer, which I’m certainly not. I almost fall down walking (laughs). But somehow they convinced Bob to let me read. He liked my reading enough that he said, “we’ll make the dancing part work.” And that’s his genius because when you watch the movie it actually looks like I’m dancing and that I know what I’m doing. And that’s a combination of brilliant cinematography, brilliant direction and brilliant use of a double for a couple of wide shots of the harder stuff. It was interesting to work with him because he was a huge hero of mine. Yet he worked in a way that as an actor…and I think this was because I wasn’t there long and I was young…that was very challenging. If somebody who wasn’t such a genius and directed me the way Bob directed me I think I probably would have bristled at it. But I think that when you work for a Bob Fosse…or a Martin Scorsese or a Stanley Kubrick…and they say “stand on your head and quack” you do it. You don’t question. Bob directed me very much like a choreographer. He was really obsessed with my body language. It was always, “ok, after this line count to three and then move your left hand from this bottle to that bottle and let it sit there for five beats…” My physicality was super choreographed. We didn’t talk a lot about the emotions of the scene, which I thought was an odd technique. But it worked and the scenes came out really well. Obviously the guy knew what he was doing. Another thing he did, which I later learned was a classic “Bob” thing to do…there’s the moment with the strippers where they have me in a corner and they’re sort of molesting me…it’s sort of erotic and terrifying at the same time. For me as an actor…I was seventeen years old when I shot that scene and either a virgin or close to it! The women in the scene were overwhelming…they were real strippers…one was a transsexual…they were a little creepy for somebody that young. Bob came over to me just before we shot and said, “it would really be good if you could actually get hard for this scene.” Then he walked away. And I was terrified. All I could think was that I was now a failure on every level because there was no way I was going to. And I realized later that what he was doing was getting the fear in me…he did it with that manipulation. And I heard lots of stories later about him from people…he would kind of play mind games to get actors into states that way. But he did it magnificently and got brilliant results out of it. So many actors give their best performances in his films. And part of that was because he found ways to push buttons, even if they weren’t conventional and a little disturbing at times.

MS: You had a great horror film double feature with roles in “Dressed to Kill” and “Christine.” Are you a fan of the genre?
KG: Yeah I am! Or I should say I’m a fan of really good horror films. There’s a massive amount of schlock out there…I’m not one of those people that like horror films just because they’re horror films. I think a well made horror film is a great movie. But then I like every great movie. I don’t think there’s a genre that I prefer. I just like great movies.
MS: What was the best part about working with Rodney Dangerfield in “Back to School?”
KG: Obviously he was hysterically funny. There was nobody quite like him. He was arguably the best stand up comedian of his era. There was a new kind of comedy coming out with people like Richard Pryor which was genius in its own way. But Rodney was really the last of the classic stand up comics. In terms of working with him it was challenging because Rodney wasn’t the most comfortable at making movies. I don’t think the process of acting was something that he enjoyed that much. I think the person who really deserves a lot of credit on that movie and doesn’t get it is Alan Metter (the director of “Back to School”). He got a great performance out of Rodney and really got a performance out of Rodney that was not only funny but very human. You really liked him. And that was hard because Rodney was not comfortable revealing anything. He was most comfortable hiding behind a wall of jokes. And if you asked him to show anything that was more “human”…that was scary for him. It was difficult for him and I think Alan really did a beautiful job of getting him confident enough to let him have a handful of moments in the film that were more human…that balanced out all of the wackiness. I think that’s why the film works so well. It’s extremely funny but you also care about Rodney as a character. And I think Alan did a remarkable job working with him to allow that.

MS: You made your feature film directing debut with “The Chocolate War?” Having worked for some great filmmakers in the past (Fosse, Brian De Palma, John Carpenter), did you use anything you may have learned by studying them on set in your approach to directing?
KG: Sure! I could give you a two hour answer to that question. Everything I did was influenced by the directors I worked with. They were my teachers…I never went to film school. I learned a lot about directing actors from my dad…he did a lot of that. I was a nooge on the set. I followed De Palma and Carpenter around on the set. I did it with Fosse but he was a little more stand-offish and busy. I went to all of them and told them “I want to do what you do. Can I come into the editing room? Can I watch dailies? Can I ask you questions? Can I be annoying?” (laughs) And they were all incredibly gracious. Brian especially because he was a teacher…he taught filmmaking at college. In fact the first film we did together, “Home Movies,” was a college project. He directed and the students did everything else. I acted in it and it was an amazing learning experience. It was set up to be a learning experience. I was hired as a professional actor but I ended up acting like one of the students…like I was part of his class. He would literally be directing the film and at the same time explain the choices he was making. Even on “Dressed to Kill” he was endlessly patient in explaining to me why he was doing a certain thing with the lights or a camera movement or a filter. He’s such a brilliant technician in how he uses visuals. I really think I learned a lot from him. So by the time I got to my first set I was ready. I learned from all of them. I loved the way John Carpenter ran the set of “Christine.” It wasn’t like the crew was here and the actors were over there. He constantly works with the same people so the set has a very familial feeling to it. People were laughing and having a good time. You got the feeling that people wanted to be there. And I remember thinking when we were shooting the movie, “God, if I ever do get the chance to direct I want my set to feel like this!” Making movies is hard. Sometimes you’re working fourteen or fifteen hours a day. It’s draining. And my feeling is, if you can’t make it fun people are just going to burn out on you. Before the movie is over you’re going to start losing the focus and loyalty and enthusiasm of your crew and cast. And I think that John did a magnificent job on a film full of stunts and effects and long hours. That was a huge lesson and I try as a director to set that kind of tone with my crew and my cast when we’re on set.

MS: You earned high praise for your WWII film “A Midnight Clear,” which I once declared in a poll as my fourth favorite Christmas movie of all time (behind “A Christmas Story,” “Die Hard” and “Love Actually”). What drew you to that project?
KG: That was actually a project that somebody approached me on. I had made “The Chocolate War.” It wasn’t like people were throwing offers at me. It was an odd little indie movie that had gotten some good reviews. It didn’t make a lot of money or anything. So mostly I was approached with things that were kind of schlocky and didn’t interest me at all…bad horror movies…whatever. I had been approached by one producer with a very Hollywood movie, but it was not me. It was an action/teen movie…not something that I was drawn to. It wasn’t horrible and would have been a very “smart” career move. I was kind of heading towards doing that but not really excited about it. Of course, like what happens with so many studio movies, that movie never even got made. But somewhere along the line A&M, the studio that had made “Birdy,” bought the rights to several other of William Wharton’s books , “A Midnight Clear” among them. (NOTE: like “A Midnight Clear,” the film “Birdy,” which starred Nicolas Cage and Matthew Modine, was based on a novel by William Wharton) But it was hard to set up as a studio film. I believe that Tom Cruise was attached for a time. He wasn’t at the top of his fame yet but he was climbing. He had already done “Risky Business.” I forget who the director attached was but he was somebody who had already made a real splash. But none of the studios wanted to make it because it was too subtle…too sad. Meanwhile, A&M is saying that they don’t want to keep spending expensive option money on this book if we’re not going to get it made…we need to do something with it or let it go. And they had the idea of doing it like it was an independent film. At the time independent films were just starting to get a lot of attention…it was a fairly new concept. After “Sex, Lies and Videotape” it started to catch on but it wasn’t as much a part of the lingo as it is now. They had liked “The Chocolate War” and asked me to come in and share my approach to the material. I liked the book a lot and one of the things I said was that I didn’t think I would change much about it. It works very well…it’s a very cinematic book. And in a funny way I think that’s what got me the job. A lot of times in Hollywood when you come in as a writer or a writer/director they want to hear all of the ways you’re going to make the story different. That makes it seem like you’ve got a lot to say. But because I thought of myself as a director first and a writer second I didn’t feel like I had to try to out-write William Wharton. He was a brilliant writer. I told them “this is a great story.” Yes, I would try to do things with images to mirror what he did with words but I would keep the basic story the way it is and use a lot of his dialogue, which is really well written. I would function more as an editor rather than a writer because they had a really good book on their hands. I think the liked somebody coming in an saying THAT instead of saying, “well, let’s change the setting to Vietnam…let’s do this…let’s do that.” That’s sort of the Hollywood thing. You get the job by showing that you’re going to make it better. But I think when you’re working with great writers…and I’ve worked with some great ones…Kurt Vonnegut and William Wharton and Scott Spencer…you don’t necessarily have to try and out think those guys! They’re pretty smart. All you want to do is help it work in a new medium. So A&M took me on. I wrote a script and they seemed really happy with it. And then there was the very slow process of putting the money together. It came together and fell apart a whole bunch of times. We thought it was happening…it didn’t happen. We thought it was happening…it didn’t happen. And it really came down to where the teen motorcycle movie I was supposed to do for the studio was getting closer to happening. They needed an answer from me and they gave me 48 hours. I told A&M that they better close something fast because I couldn’t afford to turn the other movie down. And in that 48 hours they found the rest of the finances needed to do the film. It was really cobbled together. There were probably eight or nine different sources of money. But they were able to meet the deadline and I was able to do the film I wanted to do.

MS: You returned to the great war, and its aftermath, with “Mother Night.” Do you see this as almost a bookend to “A Midnight Clear?”
KG: I didn’t think of it that way going in because they’re just different kinds of stories. I was aware that I was back in WWII again but it was such a different universe. I wasn’t on the battle field. It was really a different kind of character study. So to me it was an interesting irony that I was in the same universe but it wasn’t something I intended or set up for. I think the reality of most filmmakers lives, certainly mine, is that I think people see patterns. They see you did “this” movie and connect it to “that” movie but they don’t realize that at any given time you probably have five or six movies that you really want to make and it’s just the luck of the draw when one of them actually gets going. And if a different film had gotten going people would be drawing very different conclusions about what you were interested in or what your body of work was trying to say. Because at the same time I was trying to make “Mother Night” I was also trying to make a broad, black comedy about the U.S. justice system. And if I had made that movie people would have said, “ah, he’s interested in ‘X’ instead of ‘Y’.” It’s a funny thing. People look at somebody’s work and they don’t realize that, there but for a role of the dice, you could have had a very different career at any given moment.

MS: Any truth to the rumor that you got a job on the film “I Love Trouble” just so you could give the “Mother Night” script to Nick Nolte?
KG: That is absolutely true. That was basically a lesson in what you have to do to get independent films made. It was such a character piece that we needed a big actor to carry the lead role. Fine Line, which was New Line Cinema’s now defunct art film arm, loved the script and wanted to make it. But they basically said that there were only three actors that they’d do it with: Nick Nolte, Robert DeNiro or Daniel Day Lewis. So we went to Nick first and his agent told us that he was absolutely not interested. “Nick makes $8 million a movie and he has no desire to make a small film. Thank you very much but no thank you.” So then we went to DeNiro and we waited FOREVER for an answer. Finally we heard from his company that he was interested in directing it but not acting in it, which didn’t do me any favors! Daniel Day Lewis we could never reach…he was literally hitchhiking around Europe. He’s known for that…he doesn’t want to live an actor’s life. He was hitchhiking around Europe and his agent couldn’t reach him. Months went by. And then, as sometimes happens, luck becomes part of your career. I wasn’t really acting much anymore but a casting director who knew me was casting “I Love Trouble.” She told me they were trying to get some cool, interesting people in cameo roles in the movie and asked if I’d do it. I asked her to tell me more about it and she told me that Nick Nolte and Julia Roberts were in it. And I immediately said “if you can get me in a scene with Nick Nolte I’ll absolutely do it!” She asked me why and I told her I was a big fan. And I embarrassingly showed up for my couple of line part with a copy of the script under my arm. And Nick…he could have been a top of the line jerk but he turned out to be a real sweetheart. He could have screamed at me or thrown me off the set but he was really nice and extremely gracious. Another big piece of luck is that his then assistant had seen “The Chocolate War” and “A Midnight Clear” and knew my work and said to Nick that this was somebody he should take seriously and look at it. It took months. Nick is famous for losing things. Months went by and we didn’t hear anything so we figured he’d passed. Then his assistant called and asked if we could send another copy of the script because it had “just disappeared.” So we did. And a few days after that I got a message on my answering machine: “It’s Nick…I love the script. It’s great. Come on up to the house and we’ll talk about it.” Now Nick on the phone sounds like me doing a bad imitation of Nick. I figured it was Bob Weide, one of my oldest friends, who had written the script and was producing the film with me. And it took me a while to realize that it really was Nick. I went up and we met. We had a great time. We hit it off immediately and we talked about how we liked to work. We were really in sync with the character and the script and he was in. Much to his agent’s consternation. He wasn’t happy that Nick, who was making $8 million a movie, was going to take a tiny fraction of that to come do this film. But Nick was at the point where he just wanted to do work that he was excited about. And really, if you look at his career since then, that’s really what he’s focused on. He kind of burned out on the Hollywood thing. He went on to do “Affliction” and a lot of amazing movies. He didn’t really care about making a lot of money anymore. He was someone who wanted to do challenging work. I feel glad that we helped him get back to that part of himself. I think he had a really great time doing the film. I think he enjoyed having the freedom to work on a role that was that complicated and dark and full of taking chances. I think he really had fun doing it.

MS: You pretty much gave up acting to concentrate on directing, though you did appear in an episode of “Dexter”. Is there a role out there that would get you back in front of the camera?
KG: I haven’t put a sign up saying “Will Not Act.” I still enjoy acting. But there just wasn’t time to pursue a career as a director and as an actor. I like acting. Acting is a lot of fun. But the life of an actor…the audition process…going back three or four or five or six times for a part…having to be available at a moment’s notice. That didn’t fit with me trying to be a filmmaker. I was putting my time and effort into trying to put movies together. Would I have loved to have had Sean Penn’s career? Would I love to be in the position where people say, “not only will we pay you to be the lead in our movie but we’ll wait until you’re free and work around your schedule?” That would’ve been amazing. But I just didn’t have the time to take on two careers. But if I had to pick, the writing/directing side is more rewarding then the acting side. Now if somebody called me tomorrow and said “here’s a wonderful role…come do it,” I would have a blast. I just don’t feel like doing what it takes to get that. Which is a major time commitment. I don’t think people realize how hard the life of a non-superstar actor is. You’re constantly chasing roles. Doing audition after audition. Getting one out of the thirty or forty things you go up for. It’s a grind unless you’re a big star who’s always getting offered stuff. But if somebody called me and said, “hey, we’re doing a film of “Hamlet,” do you want to be in it,” I’d say “yeah, sure… of course!”

MS: What are you working on now?
KG: As any indie director does, I have a number of projects that are in the “close but not there” situation. I teach a lot too and one of the things I always teach is that the hardest thing about independent filmmaking…what makes it very seductive…is that getting from nowhere to close is really not that hard. Getting from close to “here’s a check, go make the movie” is what’s impossible. I have a lot of things that are one phone call away from happening. But that one phone call may never happen. Or it may be two years from now. You never know.

Click here to purchase Keith’s movies

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