“I look back on my life and it’s 95% running around trying to raise money to make movies and 5% actually making them.” This insightful quote from Orson Welles is how James Toback starts his latest filmSeduced and Abandoned, airing on HBO October 28, and essentially sums up the dance that filmmakers have done since the start of motion pictures—and especially suites the career of Toback.
A man, who for most of his filmmaking life, has been searching for ways to get his personal stories onto the big screen, you wonder how someone can be let down time after time but keep at it for decades. What you learn from Seduced and Abandoned, is that for Toback, some of the fun is the chase. In the film, Toback and his cohort Alec Baldwin head off to the 2012 Cannes Film Festival in search for money to make a film—Toback will write/direct and Baldwin will star. It’s to be an erotic drama that sounds part commentary on the Bush-era war and part ode to Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, which they’re calling Last Tango In Tikrit. We follow the two as they gallivant along the French Riviera hobnobbing with foreign investors and billionaires who they hope will shell out money for the film. But there’s more. Toback also interweaves a hypnotic celebration of the classics that have come out of Cannes (and moviemaking in general) by interviewing great auteurs such as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Roman Polanski. Not to mention, he also explores the mechanics of Hollywood today from the viewpoints of people like Ryan Gosling and Jeffrey Katzenberg.
It’s fitting that Toback would make Cannes the setting for one of his films—a place where your words are your only ammunition—as the 69-year-old writer-director has one of the best silver tongues in the business. He came to notoriety in 1974 with his screenplay The Gambler (directed by Karel Reisz and starring James Caan), which loosely explored his addiction to gambling and had his directorial debut four years later with Fingers, in which Harvey Keitel plays an aspiring concert pianist/loan shark and brought comparisons to Scorsese. And though he won a Best Screenplay Oscar forBugsy in 1991 and was responsible for coaxing the best work out of Robert Downey Jr. in the late ‘90s (during Downey’s rough patch with drugs), it seemed Toback’s hard drinking, gambling and womanizing always brought him more attention than his films.
But recently, the focus has come back to his work, and strangely enough it’s of the non-fiction variety. In 2008 he made the highly acclaimed documentary Tyson, exploring the demons of the legendary boxer Mike Tyson—who’s had cameos in two of Toback’s films, Black and White and When Will I Be Loved. With Seduced and Abandoned, we once more see the greatness of Toback, mixing perfectly placed music by the legendary composer Dimitri Shostakovich with a devilish exploration into the good and bad of the movie business.
While chatting with Toback over the phone, we touched on how the chase for money has changed since his heyday in the ‘70s, why you’ll never see him do a Kickstarter campaign and he reveals how a biopic he’s been trying to make his whole career may finally come to fruition—or is it just another seduction?.
I couldn’t help but think while watching this movie that if things happened differently your companion in this would have likely been Robert Downey Jr.
Right. The old one. The former.
What interested you about Alec to want to do something with him?
Pretty much all of the qualities that I like in anyone—which is a sense of humor, intelligence, open mindedness, free-wheeling adventuress, all of those things. He’s clearly in that category more than any actor I know and also quite reliable, which in this case was also very important.
Is there really a Last Tango In Tikrit project?
There certainly is and would be if somebody actually comes along and gives us the money. If anyone said, “Here it is,” when we were there we would have already been shooting, so it was not a gimmick. It was a good way of moving the story forward, having a driving narrative, but in fact, we were very serious about it and would still be. It’s a very fruitful idea, it’s just, as you can see in the movie, no one jumped.
And no one jumped when you premiered Seduced and Abandoned at Cannes this year?
No. I would say most people assumed we weren’t really serious about it. That was the general impression. People who loved the movie just assumed it was just done for the sake of the film rather than actually intending.
It’s an interesting McGuffin, so perhaps you played that up too well.
[Laughs] Yes. I would say with each succeeding month or year it becomes less likely. But you never know, I’m hoping now finally after 35 years it looks as if I’m going to be able to get this Victoria Woodhull movie made, which I was going to do with George Cukor in 1978. I shouldn’t say it because something always seems to happen, but let’s say it’s more realistically possible now than it’s been at any time in the preceding 35 years.
You had written the screenplay, Cukor was to direct and Faye Dunaway was going to play Woodhull—what has halted it through the years?
It’s been almost comical if it weren’t tragic. There have been a number of near misses, constant excitement, interest, curiosity, one wire transfer that turned out to be a fraud.
Yeah. It was literally from an African bank to a Swiss paymaster and somehow the Swiss paymaster never got it to us. I believe the quote from Dunaway’s autobiography is, “One of the greatest tragedies in the history of the movie business is that James Toback’s Victoria Woodhull script has not yet been made.” It really bothers me that I’ve written what I think is probably, along with Bugsy, the best dialogue I’ve ever written and yet there it is languishing.
What actress today could play the role?
I would say Jennifer Lawrence or Scarlett Johansson. It takes her from 19 to early 30s so it has to be someone in her 20s who can play younger and a little older. I’m like a punch-drunk fighter with it. But there are a number or reasons that I actually feel it might be headed to fruition this time.
I wish you all the best. Getting back to Seduced and Abandoned, how much of it was done on the fly?
Pretty much all of it. What you see on the screen was very much what it was. It was not planned other than in the most obviously necessary ways, but essentially the idea was to take something that was organic and on its own momentum and catch it rather than orchestrate it. The orchestration is in the editing and I had done this with Tyson as well. I worked with the same editor, Aaron Yanes, and essentially, when you do a movie without a script you’re basically consigning the writing process to post production. It’s a completely reverse process because you’re not worried about it in advance. All the things you normally think about when you’re writing, you just put out of your mind and it frees you to shoot whatever you want to shoot—you don’t have this burden of “Did I get this?” “Did I get that?” “Will this fit with that?” “Do we need another take of this?” All of that is out the window because you’re admitting you’re going to write it in the editing room.
The music for this film is much more engaging than Tyson or your other documentary, The Big Bang. Why the music of Dimitri Shostakovic?
I have to say he’s been one of the seminal inspirations of my life. In fact, in Black and White, that mix is Shostakovic’s 11th with Wu Tang Clan, and the 11th and the 5th are not only the great Shostakovic symphonies, they are maybe the two great 20th century symphonies. So to me when you love certain music you almost certainly find a way to find it suitable to what you’re doing cinematically as opposed to turning your movie over to a composer and saying, “Would you like to write some music for me?”
I always found that to be an odd kind of thinking about music in movies. You figure everything out, you decide that this is the way your movie is going to play and then you say now let me call someone in who will do the music, as if the music was some dissociated extra dimension to the film that you don’t have any qualification to think about since you don’t compose music. But you also don’t act. You don’t shoot with the camera, and yet you’re very much involved with it and to me music as well.
One part of the movie that may take people aback—who aren’t engrained in the movie business—is how a name actor gets a film the financing it needs, regardless how the story is. Avi Lerner says in the film, “I don’t read scripts,” how frustrating is it for you as a screenwriter to see that stories are disregarded?
I believe we’re in a post-literate age in relation to scripts. I think computers have contributed a lot to that, but you basically have a world in which the number of people who read has diminished. I think if you’re not going to give a script its due, you have to have a simpler and more financially predictable measure of whether you’re going to go ahead with a movie or not, and obviously casting is the first thing that comes to mind.
Look, I think it’s a miracle I’ve been able to make the number of movies I’ve made given the frustration and obstacles and parallel reality I’m dealing with. But frustration to me comes as part of the inevitable territory.
So does making a movie like Seduced and Abandoned give you a second wind?
Well, anytime I do anything it brings back a sense of reality, so it’s not just planning and thinking, it’s doing. But what I feel about this movie, which makes it more exciting probably than any of the others, is that it doesn’t resemble anything that’s been done; it’s a reinvention of the idea of what a movie is or what you call a movie. It’s something as a result that makes you feel that you’re part of something new, part of something that changes the medium in some way. Not that people are going to run and do the same thing, but that you haven’t done something that is just another version of. That’s more exciting than anything. Saying you made the greatest film noir ever or greatest screwball comedy ever is nothing to sneeze at, but on the other hand, to me, it still isn’t the same thrill as saying, “Name me another movie that resembles the one I did?” I can’t come up with one that resembles Seduced and Abandoned sufficiently for there to be any legitimate comparison.
One of my favorite lines from the movie is when you tell an investor, “200 years from now your name will still be remembered because it was on this film.” Is that a go-to line you use when you need an investor to commit?
Yeah. I believe it, which always helps. In addition, it gives another reason to invest. Let’s face it, only a recklessly strange investor thinks that movies would rank up there as a good ideal investment, so you’re not ever going to get people who are saying, “My life as a shrewd investor is once again come to the fore, I’m investing in movies now.” That’s never been a logical move to make with your money so you have to come up with something else.
What are you thoughts on crowdfunding to get financing?
It’s a little too impersonal for me. I like physical one-on-ones. There’s something about that that, at least for me, is a more likely mode of success.
So if you and Alec really wanted to make Last Tango In Tikrit and just need some seed money you wouldn’t do a Kickstarter campaign?
No. I would be disinclined. [Pause] If it were the only way to do it I guess I would put it above theft.
I’d like to end with the question you posed to your interviewees in the film: Are you ready for death?
Oh my God, beyond ready, I’m eager! The thing is, I have seven or eight murders that I want to commit first. I figure if I’m going to go I can’t let them hang around, there’s no way. When I say now is the time, I need to take a sort of one-day indulgence and wipe them out before I go. [Laughs]