Your character in Manhattan , Isaac, famously said, “People should mate for life, like Catholics and pigeons.” Anything Else suggests this is a pipe dream…
I think it is possible, but you have to be incredibly lucky. Sometimes you meet your soulmate on your first marriage, sometimes on your fifth. What I don’t believe in are people who say, “I have a good relationship because I work at it.”
You shouldn’t have to work at it. You should want to see that person, to spend time having fun with them. It should be like the guy who works all day then goes home to play with his sailing boat.
You’ve since said The Player is a soft satire. What did you mean by that?
Meaning it’s not a truthful indictment of Hollywood. It’s much uglier than I portrayed it, but nobody would’ve been interested if I’d shown just how sadistic, cruel and self-orientated it is.
Paul Thomas Anderson
Do you see There Will Be Blood as a historical movie or do you invite parallels: oil, war, George W Bush?
I see it as a historical movie. The parallels are inescapable, of course, but at the same time… God, I hope we didn’t make a soapbox film. [ Pulls face ] It would be so corny. At the premiere I got asked a horrible red carpet thing where the guy wanted a sound-bite answer.
He said, “What is the film?” And completely out my ass, I said, “It’s a horror film about the birth of California.” And I thought, “That’s a fucking good answer, I should remember that!” [ Laughs ]
So what new physical challenges did you face for The Dark Knight ?
We’ve gone a bit further with Keysi, the martial art we learned for the first one.
I’m actually learning how to do it more realistically than ever before, though it’s such an extremely violent way of fighting; there are literally moves where you tear someone’s cheek away from their face, or rip their nose off – every part of you becomes a weapon. It’s formidable.
Batman doesn’t kill, so we can’t have him doing that: we modify it.
Now that the dust has settled, how do you feel the [ Rings ] trilogy sits in cinema history?
Does the dust ever settle in this medium? Or, more to the point, should it ever settle? I’m in no hurry for it to settle on or around me…
But the trilogy is, even a few years on, a singularly remarkable achievement.
How did Reservoir Dogs first enter your life?
I simply got the script from my agent, who put me in touch with Quentin Tarantino. I had a long phone conversation with him.
Now, I had done films before – the films with the Coens, a couple of other interesting things that had got some notice – but he knew every movie I had ever been in. Even the ones that had fallen between the cracks.
I still had to audition, though. And I was still lucky to get the part because originally they were only seeing actors in LA. Then Harvey Keitel, out of his own pocket, paid for Quentin and [ producer ] Lawrence Bender to fly to New York to see actors.
Living the part of, say, Sailor Ripley in Wild At Heart must have been fun…
I was starting to come out of this whole style of method acting at that point. By then, I was learning to have a sort of mischievous sense of fun while playing parts.
It was David Lynch who made it clear to me that if you’re not having fun then the audience isn’t going to either.
That movie was very playful and there wasn’t a whole lot of time to think about things on set because David would come in with new monologues on the day and actually trying to memorise any of it was just absurd.
You couldn’t over-analyse, you jumped in and did it.
When you made the first Bond film – Dr No – how did you see you career progressing?
I didn’t have anything resembling a great game plan. Everybody claimed they knew that the James Bond films were going to be a successful series – it’s just not true. The same goes for myself.
If you had asked me when I was 28, I definitely wouldn’t have imagined I’d still be acting at 68. I’ve never been one for long term planning. I prefer a more personal approach – impulsively taking or not taking a role, liking or not liking it. Oh, and travelling a lot.
It’s really about doing what I think I can do well in the kind of movies that I would like to see. As for looking to the future, I always wanted to be an old man with a good face, like Hitchcock or Picasso.
I’m incredibly lucky to still be around at 68, doing all the things I want to do and getting extremely well paid for it all.
There’s a parallel with golf – a lot of it’s in the mind and the moment you start to lose enthusiasm or appetite, it effects your judgements and decisions. And then you stop performing well.
Enthusiasm and appetite are more important than anything.
Does it feel cathartic to make movies like Rabid , The Brood and The Fly ? Does it work out your fears?
Making any art – even movies about death – is cathartic. It’s a positive act, an act of creation.
Woody Allen makes a film every year. When he’s asked why he makes a film every year, he says, “Fear of death.”
I can understand that: if I wasn’t making movies, I’d be obsessing about death. If you’re making a film about death, you’re thinking about it in movie terms rather than living terms.
Stephen Frears said you fitted the role in Grosse Point Blank at that point in your life. He also said it changed you, smoothed out some of your angst…
He said that? I don’t know. I mean, he’s so bright that he’s probably right and I just haven’t seen it.
I think that once you get to express something in you, once you get it out, then you feel better. I know that as a lapsed Catholic I’m very capable of mulling over lazy notions of collective guilt.
To me, Grosse Point Blank was a metaphor for the people in the White House. How can they do those things and then go back to their families? It’s schizophrenic.
Guillermo del Toro
Hellboy II looks like it’s going to be very personal. Is it an arthouse movie on a massive scale?
I think that something was forever liberated after Pan’s Labyrinth .
Although I always say that my Hollywood films are ultimately films I enjoy as much as the ones I do on a smaller scale, I must say that Mimic , Blade II and Hellboy have different shades of shyness about the aesthetics.
This time, I really felt this movie will fully live in a world that is mine and mine alone.
Robert Downey Jr
You’ve been in plenty of situations where film directors have had to fight to cast you. What swung Iron Man in your favour?
I screentested. But I could do a year getting ready to do three scenes.
There is just no way that any other actor on earth was going to be able to do it as well as I did because none of them would be crazy enough to spend as much time contemplating it. It’s the love of the game, you know?
I’m gonna get this soooo dialled in that somebody else would have to go straight from the screentest to an institution to be as ready as I was.
Was Anchorman something that you’d had brewing as a personal project for some time?
Absolutely. Ron Burgundy has been a voice in my head for as long as I can remember. I’ve always watched way too much local news.
We had quite a journey, getting it made. It’s certainly my favourite thing out of everything I’ve done, maybe selfishly, because I wrote it. We worked incredibly hard to get that lo-fi ‘70s feel right.
There’s such a strong reaction to Anchorman . People either love it or they don’t get it at all. In a weird and backwards kind of way, you know you’re on to something when it divides people so strongly.
I think anything that’s really good and has a strong voice will always do that.
Fight Club is your best film to date, but it didn’t do well at the box office. How overlooked do you think it’s been?
I think it was ineptly handled in terms of the marketing. Having said that, I don’t think you could get more support for a movie than Fight Club had with its producers.
They put up an enormous amount of money and were constantly there going: “How can we help?” So in that respect, it’s not a case of the big, bad studio.
But am I happy with the movie? I look at is as a really wonderful opportunity that fell in my lap.
It would have taken a lot to fuck it up, because Chuck Palahniuk’s book contains a lot of salient, provocative and powerful subterfuge that’s bigger than movie stars, bigger than movies, bigger than the studio machine and bigger than hype. It’s universal.
I think there’s a kernel in Fight Club that’s undeniable. It certainly defines a time in my life when I had… certain frustrations.
And it has a sense of humour. But it isn’t just satire, it isn’t just talking about our capitalistic, consumptive nature.
It’s about a lot of things, and in that respect I’m proud of the movie.
Some of your movies dominate lists of ‘best of’, ‘most successful’ or whatever. How do you look back on them now? Blade Runner for instance…
My perception of that film is changed by the fact that Ridley Scott prevailed and got the rubbish narration taken away, so it’s a much better movie than it used to be…
Francis Ford Coppola
Youth Without Youth must have taken some working out! Could you even begin to finance this type of movie today? Could you get The Godfather made now?
People ask how The Godfather made so much money and I give them one word: risk.
When you set out to make a film that may not be a success, that may not even be a good film, you are also, possibly, about to find something new that connects with the audience.
In the old days, the people who owned movie companies were tough, vulgar moneymen, but they were also showmen who loved movies.
The idea of taking a risk could titillate them; LB Mayer would take a chance to get a bigger hit than Sam Goodwyn.
You won another Oscar three years later, yet you really had to battle to convince Jonathan Demme to cast you as Clarice Starling in The Silence Of The Lambs …
And I’d just won an Academy Award, too! But I read the book when it came out and immediately tried to track it down.
It had already been bought by a studio, who gave it to Jonathan Demme. He’d just made a movie with Michelle Pfeiffer and I knew that she would be his first choice, which is exactly what happened.
So I flew myself to New York and made an appointment with Jonathan and said, “I know you’ve made your decision but I would like to be your second choice. And these are the reasons why I think I’m right for this.”
Then left his office and figured I would never hear from him again.
One of your early anti-heroes was Mad Max . Why did you go for the part?
He was The Man With No Name, except he had a name. I dunno, there was something kinda venal and immediate about him. Enigmatic, you know.
I found the style of the picture a little frightening, but also romantic. It touches upon myth and there is something good about that world – the harshness, the animalistic nature of it all.
And it was a way to eat and make a living and stuff. The way I saw it was: if you’re gonna have to do something to earn a crust you might as well make as much of it as possible. Sometimes you do, sometimes you don’t.
Looking back to Brazil , how do you feel about it now? Do you feel vindicated?
I wish I could make a film like that again because it was such a passionate affair, so cathartic, spew-the-shit-out-and-go-for-it stuff. I look at it and think: “Fuck me! It’s like somebody else made it.”
There’s parts of it which make me think: “Shit, I wouldn’t do that. But whoever it was, they did it!”
But I’m glad I didn’t compromise – you see, it came off the back of Time Bandits . Time Bandits was the most successful independent film in the world until A Fish Called Wanda came along. Bastard Cleese!
So I was in a very strong position, and my attitude with the studios was: “Now you can do one of my films,” while their attitude was: “Okay, now you can do a lot of our kinds of films.” It was very arrogant of me.
The smart thing is to keep leaping from your last success to your next success. My approach is exactly the opposite: use your success to buy the right to do that film that nobody wants [ laughs ].
And then we shot nine months on that film and it cost $13.5m and then it went out, and in the States people were walking out in droves.
It just made people angry, they were saying: “What the fuck is this shit?!” Which made me feel good, because at least there’s an indication I hadn’t compromised.
How did you end up taking the lead in Saving Private Ryan ?
Steven Spielberg and I read the script at the same time, without each other’s knowledge. Then I called up and said, “What’s the scoop on this thing?” and was told, “Hey, Steven’s read it too. You guys should talk.”
So we talked the next day and, 24 hours later, we were making a movie. We both agreed that the story was fantastic. The idea of hanging a movie on saving one guy’s life. This is a great yarn.
But the other side of it was being able to make this story now with our modern sensibilities and with all the tools the cinematographer has at his disposal today. There was no reason to do it unless we were gonna do it as authentically as we could.
That’s not just in terms of the equipment and the explosions and the blood and the pyrotechnics.
It’s also down to: “OK, where are they landing?” They’re landing at Omaha. “And who are they exactly?” They’re the Second Ranger Battalion. “Which wave did they land in?” They landed in the second wave.
The only thing that’s fake in this, other than the vast majority of the story, is that there’s no real village of Ramelle.
All the stuff that happens in the background of the film, that you will never hear about or see about in the course of watching it, is all based on a very specific set of decisions that Steven and Robert Rodat, the screenwriter, made – and that we all made when the time came to provide to provide input for the script.
The Star Wars universe has expanded far beyond the movies. How much leeway do the game makers and the novel writers have?
They have their own kind of world. There’s three pillars of Star Wars . I’ll probably get in trouble for this but it’s okay! There’s three pillars: the father, the son and the holy ghost.
I’m the father, Howard Roffman [ president of Lucas Licensing ] is the son and the holy ghost is the fans, this kind of ethereal world of people coming up with all kinds of different ideas and histories.
Now these three different pillars don’t always match, but the movies and TV shows are all under my control and they are consistent within themselves.
In the early days I told them they couldn’t do anything about how Darth Vader was born, for obvious reasons, but otherwise I pretty much let them do whatever they wanted. They created this whole amazing universe that goes on for millions of years.
How do you feel about Twin Peaks now?
I loved Twin Peaks . I loved the world of it. That’s all I cared about – going into a world in a continuing story.
Mark Frost and I never wanted to solve the murder of Laura Palmer. The second year, I would come back and do something every now and then, but basically I left it because you can’t do everything.
I have misgivings about the way it went, but I still - and always will - love that world.
How did you find working with Peter Jackson? Did he change at all over the course of making the three films?
Well, Peter stood up for the story of Lord Of The Rings all the time. That was always his principle concern: “I want people to understand what’s going on.”
And he very much wanted on-the-nose acting, in which everything is very clear. And sometimes I resist that because I’m always looking at what’s really going on underneath, because that’s often more interesting than what’s actually being said
But I think, without any disagreement, the performance that he’s put on screen is my performance – and does have a subtext, too.
Peter was always on the side of the actors. I never once saw him begin to lose his temper. Not to say he didn’t become agitated. He could get very excited and he laughs a lot. We made each other laugh.
I feel I’ve discovered some cousins in New Zealand I didn’t realise I had, and they’re called the Jackson family. We all feel like that. And if we’re not in King Kong , there’s going to be a rebellion from the Fellowship, I can tell you now.
Tim Burton’s Batman was a very big movie for you. How do you look back on that now?
Around the time of Batman I realised I was fooling around career-wise. It was great work and a great film but I didn’t want to be seen as this crazy, Joker figure anymore.
I think I had a conversation with myself, a real heart-to-heart, and decided I didn’t like people thinking of me as a fool. I’d done such good work, whether it was Goin’ South or One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest or Easy Rider …
But I think I was kind of losing it in the quality department. I was doing some movies that I should have backed away from.
David Fincher has talked about directing as “collecting moments”…
I thought you caught a very true thing about Fincher. Some people are very quick to pounce on me being a pain in the ass or challenging directors, or to pounce on Fincher as someone who’s really autocratic and combative with studios.
You know, it’s like, yeah, but… Fincher and I don’t get in a room together and assess those aspects of ourselves as a negative.
I challenge Fincher, he gets aggravated or whatever, but that’s part of what he knows gets the result.
And the truth of Fincher – I think you caught that vibe - is he’s very humble about process… He knows that Fight Club was the gift of all time to him – he knows that it was his to fuck up or make right.
It was the right piece for him at the right time. He’s incredible irreverent about it all.
Let’s go back to Nil By Mouth for a moment. It’s a bleak, brutal film but there’s also a lot of humour in it…
Yeah, we use humour to get us through stuff. We use it defensively as well, to put up a shield. In that environment there’s a gallows humour; it’s not very PC but it stops you jumping out of the window of one of them flats [ laughs ].
You would need a fucking sense of humour if you lived with someone like Ray. I mean Ray the character, not Ray Winstone the person!
How do you steel yourself for the kind of role you play in 21 Grams ?
I approached the film as a way for people to come to terms with death as a very sad and harsh part of life.
All these people are bought together by a tragedy, but at the same time, their pain makes them more aware of life, even thought there’s a lot of rage and anger involved.
My understanding was that there was this incredible intensity of suffering that links the three main characters, Paul [ Penn ], Jack [ Benicio Del Toro ] and Cristina [ Naomi Watts ].
They’re all experiencing some sort of loss and, in my character’s case, that loss is his soul. He somehow feels he’s inhabited by another man’s soul, and at the same time he feels this terrible empathy for Cristina’s suffering.
He doesn’t feel he deserves the heart because he was so unhappy in his own life and nothing much has changed for him.
With Jesse James , Andrew [ Dominik ] said it was tricky selling the movie to the studio…
He said one of my favourite things starting the movie. He said “Making a film is like watching all your great ideas crumble around you. It’s really agonising for you. And yet it’s something you must do.
The zombie trilogy spans three decades, from Night Of The Living Dead in ’68 to Day Of The Dead in ’85. Was this deliberate?
Oh, yes. Around the time I met Dario [ Argento ], I got this conceit where I thought, “Gee, wouldn’t it be great to do one of these every decade to reflect the times and the attitudes?”
So even though they’re sort of a continuing story, the characters aren’t the same and the personality of each film is so different that you’d never think of them coming from the same filmmaker.
That was something we were consciously trying to do.
You mentioned Goodfellas . Some people still have a problem with your decision to emphasise the glamour of Mob life…
I wanted viewers to be mad at themselves for liking Henry Hill. I wanted them to examine the exhilaration they felt at seeing how these people live.
That’s part of the danger of the film, just as in Scarface . You really get to like these guys. They’re ‘goodfellas’. But I was very careful not to glorify their world.
The last hour of the film is anything but the good life, you know? It’s really horrible, complete disintegration: the cocaine, the breakdown of friends and family. Henry can’t function.
Did it feel like you were making a sci-fi movie with Gladiator , with its CG elements, alien environment and the fact that it shares its golds and browns with Blade Runner ?
Well spotted. I think the two best periods, architecturally, would be Roman and Egyptian.
If you look at the badges of the crew on Alien , you will see the eagle insignia taken from a temple. And if you look at the padding of the space craft, it was taken form an Egyptian temple.
In Blade Runner , the interior of Tyrell’s room was Egyptian/Mayan. Now I am in the Roman Empire with Gladiator . If I had my choice I would live in surrounds like that.
The great thing about the Gladiator set in Malta was feeling the real climate of the Roman Empire.
Is it true you swam across a raging river to get the Top Gun job?
It sounds like a corny old Hollywood story but it’s absolutely true. I went on a river trip because I was trying to ingratiate myself into the studio system.
It was a trip down the Grand Canyon with Jeffrey Katzenberg, Don Simpson, Jerry Bruckheimer and a bunch of other guys.
I was vying for Top Gun with another director and I think he’d bagged it. But Don was wasted, so he said, “If you swim these rapids” – these huge rapids were a mile long – “I’ll give you Top Gun .”
So I shook on it, jumped overboard, swam it and said, “Now you owe me Top Gun .”
How does Clerks hold up when you look at it today?
I’m just amazed that I managed to get a career out of that movie. I look at it now and I’m just like, “How? Why? Who saw that movie and though, ‘Let’s start giving this guy money?’”
It’s amusing to watch, but it looks like hell. Having said that, in many ways I dig the fact that it looks that way and that’s just the filmmaker that I am, the guy who wants to shoot very simply, who doesn’t really care what it looks like, who’s more concerned about how it sounds.
But as you go along, people are encouraging you to grow as a filmmaker: “Why don’t you move the camera? Why don’t you get a better DoP?”
For American Beauty , Mendes encouraged the cast to contribute to their characters’ backgrounds through rehearsals. How much did you bring to Lester?
We met at exactly the right moment, Lester and I, because I was experiencing my own sense of wanting to break out and change and move beyond things that I’d felt I’d become identified with.
The industry, and journalists, and to some degree audiences, like you the way they discover you, and it takes a while to get away from something if a particular impression has been laid. And with me it was a dark impression, laid back in 1995.
I played characters who were manipulative and always seven steps ahead of everybody else, and this was an incredible territory to play. But I recognised pretty early on that if I wanted to move in another direction I was going to have to take some steps toward doing that.
Then there was another new impression that started about me because of my personal life, because I wouldn’t answer certain questions about my personal life, so then I became even more mysterious, even more dark.
So I moved myself in a direction where I could start to play characters who were closer to my own experience and closer to the kind of work I’d done in the theatre.
What’s been most interesting is, since American Beauty opened in the Unites States, the tenor of the kind of parts I’ve been offered has changed completely.
You disapproved of the Jaws sequels. Why didn’t you make any of them?
Because the first one was a nightmare! There were endless problems with the shark and it was an impossible shoot.
I thought my career was over because no one had ever gone 100 days over schedule. It was successful, but I never want to go near the water again.
Fifteen years on from Reservoir Dogs , do you still get the same buzz from people responding to your films?
Oh yeah. I mean it’s nice to make money, but ultimately the payoff is that the film is well remembered and people love it and 10 years from now they’re still watching it, and in 20 years it’s still in their collection.
But the instant gratification is watching it with the audience and seeing if it works.
It must have been satisfying winning the Oscar for Training Day …
It was beautiful. It was also so wonderful to win and have the chance to express my thanks to Sidney Poitier, who was given an honorary Oscar on the same evening, and thank him for being the first great Afro-American star. He paved the way.
Awards are great, of course, but I don’t try to get my head filled with glory because of them. My mother was saying: “Man gives the award but God gives the reward.” I’m looking for the reward.
When it comes down to it, an Oscar’s 15 pounds of statue. Awards are icing on the cake.
You’ll have your time in the sun and your time in the shade. Right now, it’s pretty sunny for me [ laughs ]. How much better can my career get, anyway?
What direction do you think Mulholland Drive would have gone in if it’d stayed a TV show?
I think it was always heading towards making my character a dark, twisted, angry person. It was all so heightened that you could tell nothing was going to be as pure as it seemed. It was David Lynch, after all!
After I’d do one of those bubbly scenes he’d call “Cut!” and go, “Bad Betty, she’s gonna do something bad!” Only I didn’t quite know what. I thought maybe she’d have a collection of chainsaws or something…
How do you feel about winning the Best Supporting Oscar for Good Will Hunting ?
It’s now the world’s most interesting paperweight, but it’s a great honour because it was voted by my peers. Has it changed me? Do I suddenly think I’m a great actor? No, I’ve still got a lot of work to do.
Besides, it had a half life. For the first day it’s incredible and everyone’s congratulating you. The next day it’s a few less. A week later it’s five people. A month later it’s, “Hey, aren’t you the guy who… Do you know Matt Damon?” Then it’s back to normal.