Gavin O’Connor is hardly as exhausted as I anticipate. Just as I’m being walked upstairs to talk to the critically acclaimed director, I’m told this is his last interview of the day. Not a good thing.
Despite the fear that O’Connor may be spent, I actually find him to be an engaging conversationalist, whose passion for his latest film [Pride and Glory, out tomorrow] is rivaled only by his daughter’s passion for Disney Music.
As we talk, it seems O’Connor is well prepared for the onslaught of attention he’s sure to get once Pride & Glory hits the theaters.
Do you mind if I ask you some “ice breaker” questions so as not to lull you to sleep?
Not at all.
Okay, great. What’s dominating your ipod at the moment?
You know what’s dominating my iPod? It’s all my kid’s music. I have a six-year-old girl. She loves music. She loves film. She loves theatre. So, I have a lot of High School Musical, and a lot of Disney tunes, so a lot of Jonas Brothers, and Hannah Montana. So, we’re always downloading her music onto my ipod, so I’m listening to a lot of kid’s stuff these days.
What was your worst job?
Well, I never looked down my nose at any of that stuff. I did whatever I had to do to make a buck. So, I had a lot of jobs, and… they were all okay.
Do you have a least favorite celebrity?
A least favorite celebrity? [Laughs] You definitely have come up with questions I haven’t heard before.
You don’t have to answer it if you don’t want to.
No, that’s okay. There’s a thing going on with this generation of kids these days that all want to be famous for… not really doing anything. So you can put them all in one big blender and blend them up, because they all come out of these reality shows, and these are shows I don’t even watch, but I always hear about these people. But whoever those faux-celebrities are. I try not to concentrate on those kind of negative things [in Hollywood], though.
If there’s one book you’ve read that you wished you’d written, what would it be?
[Laughs out loud] Oh my gosh. That I wished I’d written? There was this one book I read recently, and I was fascinated by it. I don’t know if I’d say I wished I wrote anything, but you always see movies and say you’d wished you’d made it. But, there’s this book called The Forever War by Dexter Filkins, and it would be the opportunity to write something like that that would have afforded me the opportunity to… live his life. This guy was a war correspondent who was in Afghanistan at the early part of the Taliban. Pre 9/11. This is when Al Qaeda-camps were all being set up, and it’s about his whole journey from the mid-1990s in Afghanistan, until today in Iraq. That whole experience that he’s had he wrote about. It’s an amazing f**king book. In some way I wish I’d written that because it would have meant that I’d had that kind of life experience.
Good answer. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, but most people choose Kerouac, or Edgar Allan Poe, or some other popular alt-author. Good answer. Awesome. Alright, let’s get down to it.
So, this is a movie you did two years ago, right?
We finished it two years ago, Yes.
I was reading about how this film actually was made. The whole process. There was some dispute over which actors would be brought in, and all that. Now one thing I found interesting is that a lot of the film deals with nepotism. Be it within the NYC Police Department, or within the Tierney family itself. Now when Noah Emmerich was brought on [as Francis Tierney Jr.], what was it like dealing with the studio’s insistence that his older brother Toby [then the President of Production at New Line Cinema] had something to with it?
It’s an interesting thing. Noah has been good in all my films. He’s a very good friend, and he’s one of my favorite actors. I’ve always said that Noah is Hollywood’s best-kept secret. I was talking to Todd Field [Three-time Academy Award-nominated writer/director] about this because he cast him in Little Children. Have you seen it?
It’s a wonderful movie. Do you know Todd Field?
I am vaguely familiar with the man.
He did In the Bedroom…
Oh, yeah! Okay. I know him.
But the only film I had seen Noah in, other than in Miracle, was The Truman Show.
Well, you should see Little Children, because Todd Fields is a great filmmaker. I thought it was the best movie last year, unfortunately New Line released it, and they had no idea how to market the movie. But, Todd cast Noah in Little Children, and he was making that at New Line where I was doing Pride and Glory
As a studio executive, for the character of “Francis,” he wanted an actor who had a lot more value. Someone who brought more value to the film. To make a dollar overseas...
That’s what he wanted. So, it was a bit of a battle to get Noah into my film. It’s interesting because people think that it was a “lay out” to get Noah into the film…
… because it was [Toby’s] brother. It was actually quite the opposite.
That’s good to know. I figured there was more to it than that. Lots of people just believe whatever they read, so I’m glad I asked.
I was reading an interview Edward Norton did regarding his role, and his thoughts on Pride & Glory, and he said the timing of this film— despite the length it took to actually complete—couldn’t have been better. He insists the film’s coming out at a moment that suits its context. He says he docks that up to “good timing.” Now, there’s got to have been something frustrating in the movie taking so long to complete, but do you agree with him that you’re happy the film’s coming out when it is?
[Long pause] Yeah. We got the best of both worlds. We got to make the movie at New Line, which was independent-spirited. They let me make the movie. I didn’t give up script notes, I ended up casting Noah despite the other actors they wanted for the movie. We were never out of control. We were coming in on budget. They were happy with the dailies. So, they never became upset. It was very much like making an independent film.
The problem was when we ended up finishing the movie, while we were still at New Line, there was some fracturing going on internally there [at New Line], sort of a splintering of the studio. So, we sat down with the marketing department, and you could tell they had no idea how to market this film.
Yeah. So I was really scared. But then, the studio [New Line] gets folded into Warner Brothers. New Line is no more. Now they are a part of Warner Brothers. So they inherited… my film. They inherited a movie they never would have made. So when we all sat down—Edward, and Colin, and Noah, and Jon—we felt we were fucked. The studio had just inherited our movie. But, in the best of both worlds scenario, they really got their head around the film, and believed in it. They felt they knew how to market it, and make money with it. Sue Kroll [head of marketing at Warner Brothers] was the big champion of this. So, then we had the “machine” of Warner Brothers behind this movie.
Wow. Did Jon Voight sign on right before you guys started shooting, or was he hired a bit earlier?
Nick Nolte was on the movie for over a year. We did a lot of work on character, and the script with him. We came very close [to getting it]. Once we got out of prepping the film, and we all moved to New York, Nick’s knee gave out. He started having to use a cane, and he couldn’t walk. His knee was all fucked. He ended up having to leave the movie because he could barely get around. He literally had to have a knee-replacement surgery. So I got it so we could push whoever was going to play the old man for a week… They brought cast-lists in. I didn’t even need to look at it. I said, “Jon Voight.” That’s who I wanted. He got the script. His agents said he had to read it then and there. Got on the phone with Jon, and we talked about it. He said, “Let’s do this together.” The next day he was on a plane.
It was amazing. The next thing I know, he’s on-set. It was a crash course for him. I had to catch him up to all the work that I’d done with Nick [Nolte]. What’s interesting is, the second Jon showed up on set that night, we were in the middle of shooting—Edward, Colin, and Noah grabbed him, and pulled him into Edward’s trailer. They told him, “Look, this is how we’re making this movie. We’re going to fill you in on our process…” We had work shopped the movie. Edward had been attached for four years. It was a lot of work.
I called it “method filming.” Nobody was just showing up and saying their lines. It was a long process. A lot of work went into the film… before we ever shot it. So, they started dialing Jon into the process. So before scenes, I would see Jon, and he said, “I can feel the energy, this is crazy.” I thought, “Great!” He spent a week catching up, and catching up. I spent that weekend with Jon, the whole time just working on his character. He started hanging out with Deputy Inspectors, and Inspectors, and Chiefs. He did all his own work on his own while I was shooting, and when he showed up to work, he was ready. I think he’s brilliant in the movie.
Totally agree. Loved what he did with it. He was definitely my favorite part of your movie. His mannerisms and the nuances he used were great.
One more question—Going back a few years, before you started making Tumbleweeds, with Janet McTeer, you had said you saw her on a talk show—Charlie Rose.
Right! Charlie Rose.
Yes. You saw her on the show, and knew right then and there that you wanted her for your movie [Tumbleweeds]. Everyone in the industry talks about that “it” stars have, and how they just have “it.” How do you know someone has that? How did you know she was right for that role, or how an actor is just… “right” for a role you’re casting?
Well, I wrote Tumbleweeds...
And I saw Janet on that show. But, I had been hearing about Janet for a number of years. She won a Tony Award for this play called A Doll’s House. She was “The toast of New York.” I remember reading Ben Brantley’s review of the show. He called her performance, “The single greatest stage performance,” he’s ever seen. He’s been reviewing plays for years. For him to write that, I was like, “Who the fuck is this lady?” I’d never heard of her.
So, then she’s on Charlie Rose—I’m a Charlie Rose junkie.
Right. I had been trying to get this movie [Tumbleweeds] off the ground. I had made features, and now I’m trying to make this independent movie, and it’s very hard. Then I saw her, and who she was in that interview, as a person—the spirit of Janet was simply the character of “Mary Jo [Walker]”. She started talking about her nieces and nephews… and how she related to them. She had this “Mary Poppins” kind of quality. She was vulgar at times. She swore like a sailor. Very witty. Very smart. She was sassy—All the stuff I’m seeing in the interview, and I’m going…
“Bam,” it’s her!
Yeah. That’s the character! The idea of finding somebody that no one knew, excited me. It wasn’t an actor from another role where you have that memory of her playing someone else. It’s just this character played by someone with an immense amount of talent. She had never been to the states before. She’s a Brit.
And, she’s a stage actress.
Phenom. She’s a phenom. She’s a force.
So, I got her a script. She dug it. I met her. I was insane about making the movie. She called me up the next day and said, “You’re crazy, but I’m going to do this!”
[Laughs out loud]
She told me she believed in what I was talking about.
So with Jon Voight, was it a similar situation?
Well, Nick [Nolte] was very different from the character.
Yeah I can’t see him as “Francis Sr.”
I know. And that’s what I liked about him. Nick is not a company man. Nick is not a by-the-book kind of guy. He’s a counter-culturist, he’s a rebel. He’s a liberal. He’s a hippie!
He is. So, I liked the idea of cleaning Nick up and doing a complete one-eighty with creating a guy who’s nothing like him. It would have worked, because Nick’s an amazing actor. But once that ended, and I had this list of all these great actors, I went to Jon immediately, and for a number of reasons. I’d been watching him since I was a kid. I think he’s a brilliant actor. I knew he was from The Bronx—so he’s a New York guy. He’s Irish—I new that. I knew his politics. I know he’s grown into a company guy. In the film world he’s sort of a Patriarch. He’s very respected and revered. He toes the line—That’s the guy! And, for me as a filmmaker, who do I want to work with? Who are the actors that I love?
Yeah—Go get the best.
Yeah. I was like, “Jon Voight!” They were bringing up other names. Unbeknownst to me, they had sent in another actor for me to meet. He showed up, and they told me I had to meet him. I said I didn’t want to. I wanted Voight, and that was that.