30 minutes with 'Dangerous Beauty' director Marshall Herskovitz
Marshall Herskovitz has the square, unshaven jaw of a movie nefarian, but with an approachable grin. He looks completely at home in the darkly luxurious lobby of San Francisco's Prescott Hotel when he sits down to pitch his latest picture, "Dangerous Beauty."
Argumentatively passionate about his movie, it's easy to understand why his previous efforts (as a producer) were so successful. This is the man behind "Legends of the Fall" and two of television's most talked about dramas of the last 20 years -- "thirtysomething" and "My So-Called Life."
He speaks like he must have while pitching "Beauty," the glamorized biography of a 16th Century Venetian courtesan, to the studio heads, honestly using all kinds of 50-cent words to describe what he was trying to accomplish with this film, and actually made me revisit my modest opinion of the movie.
It's plainly obvious he was not a director for hire on this project. He sweated over this movie, probably lost sleep, and has a lot of energy riding on how it is perceived.
SPLICED: Catherine McCormack looks completely different than I expected. I guess it's because everything I've seen her in has had a period setting.
Marshall Herskovitz: She is so remarkably natural and unadorned in any way, in real life. You're right. Certainly in my film you see her done up in the most elegant hairstyles and makeup and everything.
S: And those costumes. We were talking about the costumes and she said you love them for about 15 minutes and then you can't breathe.
MH: She was actually quite a trooper about all that.
S: How did you get involved in the project?
MH: There was a biography that was published about four years ago by a US professor named Margaret Rosenthal called "The Honest Courtesan," which was the first time anyone in America had ever heard about Veronica Franco. The biography made the rounds of production companies. You know, sent around by an agent to see if there was a film in this. We were the only group foolish enough to think that there was.
S: That surprises me!
MH: Well, you know, Venice in the 1500s is not exactly what you'd call "high concept" fare in the film industry. You say, here's a story about a famous prostitute who was also a poet, where's the constituency for that in modern society? So it's understandable that not many people would have seen that there was a great film in this.
On the other hand, we felt that this was such a remarkable life and that the issues in the movie, the sexual politics in the movie, were so applicable to today, that in fact it was a wonderful way to talk about the changes that till need to take place in our society, and to get people to experience our own sexual dilemmas in a different way by going into this other time, this other place, and this other circumstance.
S: Just as you were saying that, scenes from the movie were flashing back in my head, so I guess you hit the nail on the head.
MH: Oh, good. Good.
S: Catherine McCormack. How did you settle on her for the part of Veronica?
MH: I had no idea who Cath was when we were writing the script. Obviously when you're trying to do a movie like this, the studio comes to you and says "We'd like to put a star in this part," and really there were maybe three or four women who would qualify as stars who were right for this part, and none of them were going to play this because the subject matter was too dangerous, too sexual. The whole project was to iffy for these people to want to pursue something like this.
So very quickly the studio, Regency, and a man named Arnon Milchan -- who is a very interesting, maverick kind of character in the film business, and the last of the old moguls, in that he's an owner-operator. It's his company and he makes the decisions based on his gut instinct and what he loves. He's done a lot of very interesting films over the years. He's had an interesting relationship with Oliver Stone, he did "JFK," ...
Anyway, we all felt that....I've completely lost where I was going. There was a reason for this...
S: You were talking about Catherine getting the role.
MH: I remember what it was. I'm sorry.
Arnon said early on "I will make this movie with a complete unknown, as long as she's great." He said, "In fact, I'd rather have an unknown and make a star than have somebody who's been around five or ten years and hasn't become a star. Go find somebody great," is what he said.
It was a pretty big vote of confidence on the part of the studio to spend $23 million on an unknown. I met with literally over 120 actresses for the part. And it was just very difficult to find someone who had all the qualities this woman had. But that's what we saw in Cath. She is so beautiful, so articulate, kind of ageless -- she could play 20, she could play 30 -- and elegant. You know, (leaning forward for emphasis) she just really had it all.
We did a screen test and showed it to the studio, and no one ever looked back. Everybody was so enthusiastic from that moment on that there was just no question that she was going to be great.
I was really looking forward to seeing this movie because I thought the brief scenes she was in "Braveheart" were just incredible. She made quite an impression in that movie. There's usually a reason for that.
S: And she's a doll!
MH: Yes, she is a doll. She's an absolute dear, too.
S: What do you think it is about Rufus Sewell? She said he was "dead sexy," and he has this incredible charisma. But the guy is a little funny looking, you know?
MH: (Robust laugh) First of all, Rufus has one of those faces that defy being put into a category. He is by terms absolutely beautiful. At certain angles you're just so struck by what a beautiful face it is. At other angles, it's a face that's overly intense. The features are too strong in some way, and I think that kind of a face fascinates in some way. When somebody is as intelligent as he is, it shows up in his eyes. His face is so alive, yet he has a darkness in him.
Rufus is this incredibly funny, charming man, who in some ways is a 12-year-old. He tells silly jokes and does magic tricks and is a goof. And he takes all of this about his sexual attractiveness with a huge grain of salt because he finds it very funny. So there's this wonderful combination of humor, irony, self-effacement about him.
He's always played bad boys before this. He loves to play anybody who doesn't fit into the main stream. I think half the characters he's played are gay, and he would love to play heroine addicts, he would love to play criminals. The last thing he would ever want to do is play a straight leading man. People have been trying to get him to do it for year, and he's been afraid to do it because in some ways it was so much easier for him to hid behind a mask of the character.
So to sort of put himself out there as "the guy" in this way, I think just rubbed him the wrong way. This was the first time he had agreed to take on a part like that. It was scary for him. It was an interesting process, really, of helping him just to let go of all the accouterments and just be naked in that way, to just be "the guy."
I read very similar comments from Leonardo DiCaprio talking about "Titanic." How difficult it was at first just to play "the guy," because it's so much easier to play somebody who is tortured or in some way alienated. The modern generation of actors somewhat came of age in opposition to the great leading men of the past, and it's terribly difficult to step into those shoes and be that leading man without embarrassment. So it was fun working with Rufus on a part like this.
S: Catherine said she thought the biography was full of information but was a little dry, so the script was much more fun because it had a whole atmosphere about it. Did you find the same thing? Can you tell me a little about the biography?
MH: The biography was intentionally somewhat academic. It was trying to be a very complete account of this woman's life, and there was a lot of detective work in it. (Rosenthal) had to go through a lot of records and she was reconstructing events based on official records and transcripts and things like that. What we found in the biography were what I'd call the tent posts of the story, the facts that would hold up the story.
She found these remarkable true events in this woman's life, then we constructed and emotional story around that. But all of these events depicted in the movie are true. Her mother was a courtesan and taught her to be a courtesan. She did have a nemesis at court named Mafio and they did have poetry duels. She did seduce the king of France, who subsequently gave 100 ships to Venice. There was a plague. She was brought up on trial for witchcraft. I won't talk about the end of the movie, but I will say the end of the movie is accurate.
So we found that the true events of this woman's life were very usable as drama, and very little fictionalizing needed to take place. There's some compressing, for instance the war with the Turks really took place over 25 years and was over by the time the plague started. In our movie, the was is still going on when the plague starts. So big deal. Sue me. I'm not going to worry about that. That's part of a filmmaker's job. We've only got two hours to weave things together.
But we were really remarkably faithful to the facts of her life. We were not faithful to the texture of the time, as I put it. We had a paradoxical problem, which is the people of Venice in the 1500s saw themselves as the center of the world, the most advanced city in the world, the most educated city in the world -- they lead these remarkable, sensual lives and lived for beauty and elevated conversation and sexuality and wine and food -- and really knew themselves to be at the pinnacle of human society.
But when we look at the details of their lives, we are struck by the fact that the didn't bathe, their clothes were filthy, they had skin diseases, they wore a half-inch of makeup, their furniture was ugly and uncomfortable. That doesn't look very sensual to us. But my job as a filmmaker is to help the modern audience have the same experience people had then, so I have to change some of the details of the texture of their lives so we can have the same reactions they had. I think that's my job, as a matter of fact.
So there is a sense in which the film is intentionally glamorized or beautified or even abstracted from real life because I wanted to give an experience to an audience. I wanted the movie itself to be delicious. I wanted it to be a sensual experience to watch the movie.
As part of depicting that world, I was trying to say something about how hard it is still for us in our culture today to embrace joy and sensuality -- that we are still so mired down in the destructive, dark difficulties of life that we still live in the residue of puritanical culture, which is really what took over Europe during this movie. This was the Reformation. This was people all through Europe saying there's too much screwing around going on. So they got stricter. In the north they became Protestant and in the south they reformed the church and had inquisitions. But it was the same attitude coming in.
I took particular joy in depicting a city that was so good-naturedly accepting of sexuality. In the beginning there are these bare-breasted women, and the guys are jumping in the canal, or the fact that the whole city is outside her apartment waiting to know what happened with the king. Or the fact -- this is true -- that when someone got married, in front of all the guests they would put the two people into the wedding chamber and close the door and everybody would clap. It was just accepted that sex was a part of daily life, and we find that funny now because we're still sort of afraid of it. When I screen the movie and I see the reaction of audiences to that moment, that sort of good-natured laughing, it pleases me because they understand that there was something unthreatening bout sexuality to them.
S: Speaking of the differences in society, one of the things that I noticed was the scene where we see a portrait of Veronica on the wall, with a totally different figure than Catherine has, with the round belly that was popular at the time. Was the contrast intentional?
MH: You bring up a very interesting question. I was flummoxed by the fact that the standard of beauty at that time was something we would find very odd today. It's not just that women very large, but there were very particular aspects of their anatomy.
If you look at all the paintings of that time, these women were very large, but very small-breasted, which of course is very rare in real life. It was their own unreal standard of beauty that is just as strange and unreal as ours, just different. And I said to myself, how do I deal with this in this movie? And it came down to it in the same way as the other period problems in the movie. Finally I had to allow a modern audience to have this experience with these women. The courtesans of Venice were considered the most beautiful women in the world. Venice was a tourist attraction, in part because people would come just to see them, just to watch them walk down the street.
They were the movie stars of that time. It was prestige position. You had to be educated...there was whole training to be a courtesan. It was quite a remarkable life, and in some way I had to adapt that to a modern sensibility in order for people to have the same experience as these women.
Even so, by the way, I tried to work in some variability. It's hard to see because they go by very quickly, but when you watch the film, there is a variety of body styles and even ages of these women. But in general I skewed it much towards what we would find attractive today.
S: You realize people might go into this film not realizing the attitude toward courtesans at the time and see it as glorifying prostitution. Has that come up? Is it something you thought about?
MH: It hasn't come up, but it's certainly something I thought about. Part of my intuition in making the movie was to discuss these issues of sexual politics that still effect us today. What I said to a lot of people working on this movie was that in some way the first two thirds of the film should be an advertisement for being a courtesan, but that the last third should make it clear what price is paid to be that.
My intention with this film has nothing to do with being a prostitute or a courtesan. To me that's just a metaphorical device for talking about what it means to be a sexual person in society. The point is, at that time a woman had to be a courtesan if you wanted to have any freedom at all. We don't have that situation today. Today we tend to think of women who work in prostitution as having been abused, as having low self-esteem, of having all sorts of issues of self that are destructive.
The movie is not to say that the answer for women is that they should all become prostitutes. The movie talks about really how we still, in the 1990s, have a problem with integrating sexuality into our lives. Still today if a woman works for a corporation she has to worry about how she dresses and worry about how she acts. People are going to talk behind her back. If she's pretty, people are going to say she got her job because she's pretty or because she slept with the boss. We still don't understand how to integrate female sexuality into the world at large. It still completely baffles Western society and I find that amazing, and in some sense horrifying.
S: I was looking at the press kit last night, and I want you to know that the sets for Venice, I totally bought it. I thought you shot it in Venice.
MH: I want you to know that people in Venice thought I shot it in Venice!
S: What happened with the release date for this film? It got bumped around like a pinball.
MH: This is definitely the kind of movie that does well in this moment, when the competition isn't so great and the film has the time to build an audience because the only thing it has to sell is itself. It doesn't have big stars, it's not a high-concept thing. So we'll get that chance in the marketplace now. We wouldn't get it in November, when we would be wiped out by the next big blockbuster that opened the next weekend.
S: The title change -- was "Courtesan" just a working title? Because, I should say this, "Dangerous Beauty" sounds a little Danielle Steele.
MH: I know. I know. (sounds a little piqued) There's no question a lot of people object to the title. This was not my choice.
I don't think "Dangerous Beauty" is a terrible title, because I think it at least says something about the movie. It's story-related. But the studio discovered that literally 95 percent of movie-going audiences did not know what the word "courtesan" meant, but more importantly, they thought it was Cortisone.
S: Oh, no. That wouldn't work!
MH: And the distributors felt they would literally be spending their entire advertising budget educating people about what the word meant, and they didn't want to do that.
I argued with them. I said nobody knew what "The Full Monty" meant, nobody knew what "M.A.S.H." meant. But they felt very strongly that they wanted a title that bring problems with it.
I'm of the belief that very few movies are effected by their titles, either positively or negatively. Once in a while a movie is hurt by a title. I think "The Shawshank Redemption" was hurt by its title. But very few movies are helped by their title. I'm hoping that most people will think "Dangerous Beauty" is just the title of the movie. It was very difficult movie to find a title for. I didn't think "Courtesan" was a great title, by the way. I thought it was kind of dry and academic, and it doesn't really say much.