Keith Gordon
by Rob Blackwelder/SPLICED

SPLICEDwire interviewed Keith Gordon on Friday, March 17, 2000 in San Francisco

"Waking the Dead"


Keith Gordon and Billy Crudup
Courtesy photo
Director Gordon poured heart, mind into passionate, eerie, cerebral romance about haunting memories of lost love

By Rob Blackwelder

Keith Gordon's directing résumé consists of largely under-the-radar independent films, uniformly intimate, challenging and deeply psychological. But he's not some pretentious auteur or eccentric artiste. He's just a guy who finds genuine gratification in both making and watching movies.

Given a forum to talk about film -- all-time favorite movies, overblown Event Movies, Oscar movies (he hopes "American Beauty" might signal a revival of thinking person's blockbusters), even movies he's visibly frustrated he missed while in the director's chair -- his demeanor gets borderline giddy.

Meeting me in San Francisco for just such a conversation -- about his new film, "Waking the Dead" -- Gordon arrives in the lobby of the urbane Hotel Monaco looking a bit like a mellowed former Goth in his mid-30s. Wearing black-on-black, a button-down shirt and a duster, his thinning black hair and goatee lend him a slightly sinister semblance -- until he breaks into an inviting, angled grin, projecting an unmistakable warmth and joie de vivre.

But back in the 1980s when he was an actor (he was the nerd who owned the possessed car in "Christine") he wasn't such an obvious optimist. "I was basically fairly cynical. I was one of those of those life-sucks-and-then-you-die people," he says.

That was before he met his wife, Rachel. "I don't think (life is) tragic any more. Life is full of loss and pain, but I now think it's really worthwhile."

It was this change in his outlook, Gordon says, that drew him to Scott Spencer novel "Waking the Dead" -- a unsettling, emotionally wrenching love story about Fielding Pierce (played by Billy Crudup in the film), a young politician driven to the brink of insanity by the haunting memory of his dead love (Jennifer Connelly), a warm, beautiful social crusader who had tapped into the sensitive soul beneath his practiced exterior.

"I identified with Fielding, I identified with that arc," Gordon says. "I can imagine if I ever lost Rachel that I would be devastated and go mad and have to work my way back to appreciating what I had gotten from her instead of dwelling on the loss."

Best known for the chilling, mysterious character-driven World War II dramas -- one featuring a battalion of U.S. soldiers trapped by Germans in a mountain cabin ("A Midnight Clear") and the other about an American playwright sending Allied code within his Nazi propaganda broadcasts from Berlin ("Mother Night") -- Gordon's adaptation of "Waking the Dead" has his trademark air of eeriness and intellectualism, mixed with an engrossing, cerebral and spiritual romance.

The movie thrives on remarkably natural performances from Crudup and Connelly, the kind of under-rated but recognizable actors the director likes to cast in his films -- and subsequently astound everyone who sees them. In "Midnight Clear," he cast Ethan Hawke, Matt Dillon and Gary Sinise when all of them were low on Hollywood's radar. "Mother Night" helped Nick Nolte escape of a big budget-bad movie rut and also starred Kirsten Dunst and Sheryl Lee ("Twin Peaks") in powerful performances.

Now he's rescued Connelly from her period movie glamourpuss pigeon hole ("The Rocketeer," "Mulholland Falls," "Dark City"). So as a fan of both his films and his leading lady, when we plopped down in a corner of the Monaco's well-appointed Mediterranean lobby, the first thing I had to ask him was...

SPLICEDwire: Are you on a crusade to employ under-appreciated actresses in complex and satisfying roles?

Keith Gordon: (Smiles broadly.)

In "Mother Night" it was Sheryl Lee, who is great, but she gets stuck in the cheesy roles.

She's very talented! I was one of the few people to actually like "Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me," and to think she was really good in it. I mean, she basically does a two-hour nervous breakdown on screen. I thought, if she can do that, she can probably do anything else, too.

And now Jennifer Connelly.

I had to be convinced with Jennifer. It was really her agent who got me to look at some stuff people hadn't seen. A couple of little independent films, one that barely got released and one that didn't get released, and that was the stuff where I went, Oh, oh. Wow, there's real talent here. This girl can act!

Billy really liked her, too, which helped. I called Billy and said, "You did 'Inventing the Abbotts' with her. What do you think?" And he's like, "Nobody realized how good she is. She's been under-used and wasted." Then we brought her in for this audition, and it was just great.

She's also really smart...

She's like Mensa or something, isn't she?

Yeah, exactly! Yet she's played all these girlfriend roles and people assume she's not really bright.

She's always the ingenue or the temptress.

Yeah. And then you go to her house and there's philosophy books all over the place. I remember at the audition we were talking about quantum physics! She was talking about stuff where I was having a hard time keeping up! I thought, OK, she's smarter than me, that's a good sign because I've always thought that Sarah's kinda smarter than Fielding.

She's also incredibly sweet. I mean, it's one of those things where you're like, OK, what's wrong with this person? Because she's really talented, she's really nice, she's really smart, she has the most beautiful little baby -- it's like somewhere there's gotta be a picture of her that's ugly and vicious or something, because there's nothing about Jennifer that isn't really wonderful.

Was this was her first film back after having her baby?

First thing after she had the baby. She was a little nervous about it, and I was a little nervous about it, because having a baby on the set -- is it going to be a big distraction? Is it going to be a problem? But it was wonderful! It put her in this wonderful, peaceful, connected place that I think really fit Sarah. I think some of the glow she has, some of the openness, came from the fact that she just had a child, and she was full of that hope and love and possibility that new mothers tend to have.

But I think it also effected the crew wonderfully. I think especially for a movie like this -- which was intimate, it was a love story -- the quiet sweetness (the baby) brought to the set was just wonderful. The whole crew just smiled a lot.

I think this is Jennifer Connelly's best performance.

She worked really, really, really hard. She'd never been through an extensive rehearsal period before. Unlike Billy, who came from theater, she wasn't used to what that meant. But she took to it like a duck to water. She really flourished in taking the time to really explore the character, to really research and try things and improvise and learn. She came in with a completely open mind and just threw herself into it. She would call me in the middle of the night and ask, "What kind of pasta do you think she likes?" It sounds silly, but it was wonderful! That's the kind of question somebody asks when they're really trying to get inside the character. When we were working on sets, she cared what books were on the shelves. That's where the performance came from, because she built such a complete woman. She knew Sarah inside and out, so she could improvise. She was just in the character.

Well, I got all of that.

Great! Good!

I knew she was deep inside the character when in this scene -- their first date -- she laughs and stomps her feet as she laughs! That was just beautiful, so natural.

That was something that only happened on that take. Never happened before, never happened again. Both of them were full of those things, and what was wonderful was they wouldn't hold onto it. They would let it happen if it happened in the take, then in the next take something different would happen. That's why I felt so lucky. I had these two actors that could do that. Each take had its own life. Each take was unique. I could have put this movie together twenty other ways -- forgetting structure, just of the same scenes. Just different tones. Like the scene on the subway (a strikingly intimate conversation between the lovers that is one of the best moments in the movie). That's one four-minute take. But there are other whole versions that had a whole different tone to it.

That's the thing that so enraptured me about this movie was how completely natural this relationship was. In that scene the analytical part of me was watching that scene thinking, I could just be sitting across from these people on a subway. They weren't even acting.

That scene was half improvised. They were so into the characters that what I would do often is that we would do a couple takes by the book. Then I would say, "OK, we've got the boring version now. Throw the words out. It's my script, it's not Shakespeare. Throw it out. Forget the words, just talk. What are you really saying to each other? Make it your own."

These two would take the same arc of the scene, they'd get all the important ideas of the scene. But by putting into their own words, they had to suddenly really listen to each other. They didn't know when the other one was going to stop talking or start talking. They weren't waiting for a cue. They were having to have a real conversation. That's how you get those wonderful things like when she said, "Do you know how infuriating it is to love you?" That was completely improvised. That was just (in) that one take. That's how into it they both were. At that point, as a director you can sort of sit back and go on cruise control. That's the reward. It was so fun!

You talked about the rehearsal process. Is that the way you've always worked?

Well, I always like a lot of rehearsal on every project. I'm a great believer in going in and seeing what my actors need instead of trying to impose something arbitrarily. But I always like a lot of time because I know, no matter what, it's going to be valuable. I was always frustrated by the lack of time when I was acting, because what you're really doing then is rehearsing on camera, learning the character on camera. You're not really in the character that way, you're still trying to find it.

On "Mother Night," somebody like Nick Nolte doesn't need rehearsal to do fine work, but it let us etch in so many extra details. A lot of times on "Mother Night" our rehearsal wasn't even working on the film, per se. A lot of it was just creating a mood. One day at rehearsal all we did was listen to Nick read poetry. He just said, "I found this bunch of poems that to me mean something about this movie." Nick read poetry for four hours, and it was one of the best rehearsals we ever had. We actually laughed about how we could never explain to someone else how important this was.

On this movie, one of the most important things about rehearsal was the hours we spent talking about our lives, our own personal lives -- our love lives, our sex lives, our histories of relationships. So by the time we started shooting, it was like we'd always been best friends. It lead to a certain level of trust between the two of them, and me.

One thing your films have in common is an otherworldly undertone, something mysterious and uneasy going on. What draws you to that?

I'm going to give a dorky, non-answer answer. It's what I like in other movies. When I was a kid, those were my favorite films. I love Nic (Nicholas) Roeg ("Walkabout," "The Man Who Fell To Earth"). I love Stanley Kubrick. I loved movies like "Taxi Driver," which had that atmosphere. I love movies where it feels like you could almost be watching a dream. I wish I could put it into some intellectual -- it's just was I enjoy.

You have some visceral reaction to it.

(Excitedly) YES!

You're not relaxing and having fun. You're tense and it's engaging you.

I always liked, from a very young age, things that made me be an active participant as an audience member. I guess it goes back to when I was 7 years old and my dad took me to see "2001." He didn't know what it was. He thought it was rocket ships! In a way it was a terrible mistake, but in a way it was the most important thing that ever happened in my life because I was too young to understand it, but I wasn't too young to understand that I didn't understand it. That really turned me on. It made me go, "I have to see that again." I made my dad take me over and over again, and talk about what does the baby mean?

And your poor dad is going, "I don't know what the baby means!"

It's true! That's exactly what happened! But that frustration of not knowing was fascinating to me, and I loved it. I loved being driven crazy by it. That started a life-long fascination with me for things that make me be an active participant. Things that made me really think about them. Things that made me have to work as part of the experience -- to really be engaged.

Did you change anything significantly from the book?

No, no. There were a lot of things lost from the book -- the book is 500 pages. Huge subplots and stories and wonderful things got lost. My first cut of the movie was three hours long because I wasn't ruthless enough in cutting down my own script. It was a big lesson, I gotta say.

Sometimes you have to make the cut of the movie you wish you could release, then start paring it down.

Well, what was interesting was that when I saw it, it wasn't the movie I wished I could release. I realized in the movie form, after three hours it got boring. You can put a novel down, with a movie you're asking someone to stay focused. Suddenly a lot of these completely substantial subplots, which were great in the book, were really kind of annoying on film. So I was really happy to be going, "OK, let's lose this, let's lose that." Getting it down from three hours and 10 minutes to about two hours was really easy. The only thing that was hard was just the last 15 minutes or so. That was a process that happened through editing -- "Emmm, this scene is really good, but we don't really need it."

Why did you want to make this particular book into a movie?

Part of what drew me to the material was that the biggest change in my life over the last 12 years has been my now wife, Rachel, who was my Sarah. She has brought a lot of things to my life a lot of the things that Sarah brought to Fielding's life. Light, hope and meaning, belief -- all sorts of things that I didn't have. (When I met Rachel), I got for the first time that kind of unconditional love, and it changed me. So that's part of what drew me to the story. I identified with Fielding, I identified with that arc.

But I also like the idea of sort of celebrating in some way having a happier self by making a film that wasn't tragic, although it's still sad. I still think life is really sad. But I think -- for the first time, having been in love -- that I don't think it's tragic any more. And that's a really big difference. Life is full of loss and pain, but I now think it's really worthwhile. I think that loss and pain can also teach one lessons and we grow up from it and become better people through it, and that it doesn't have to just be pointless suffering. And I love the idea of a story that was about that.

When did you first read the book?
1991. Nine years ago.

Did you immediately think, "This is a movie"?
I didn't even get all the way through it. I was having a very visceral response -- which, again, I think had to do with my relationships with Rachel, which was at that point just beginning to flourish. I so identified with this guy and what he was going through and what she meant to him, that I got maybe a third of the way through reading the book and there was a scene -- it's not in the film -- where he was on the plane taking her body home and he just started thinking: I just want the plane to crash, I just want the plane to crash. I don't want to have to think about this.

Oh, wow.
I started to cry and I thought, I want to tell this story. I'll never forget the chill that ran through me. Then I finished the book and I was sure I had to tell it. I saw it (in my mind). I saw what it looked like, I saw what it sounded like, I suddenly pictured what the cinematography would be like. That's what happens once in a while. You date 500 women, you mean one and you go, Whoa! And that's what happened with this.

So the whole movie just clicked?

More than anything I've ever done. It just felt fated to be a great experience. It was just, basically, kind of perfect. Maybe I'll quit now and open a bicycle shop or something. (Laughs.)

On our last day, Billy and I just sobbed together for about a half hour because it was over, from both the joy of having done it and the sadness of it being over. Then we just sat around drinking beers until 8 in the morning, watching tapes of "South Park." It was great.

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