By Aaron Hillis
[Photos: Steve Buscemi and Sienna Miller in “Interview,” Sony Pictures Classics, 2007]
Perennial character actor Steve Buscemi is instantly recognizable for his roles in films like “Reservoir Dogs,” “Ghost World” and “The Big Lebowski,” and his indie cred has only been bolstered in the years since his filmmaking debut “Trees Lounge.” Even being in the spotlight, however, Buscemi pretty much loathes being interviewed, which couldn’t be more ironic, considering his fourth directorial feature is the 2007 Sundance drama “Interview.” The former Mr. Pink stars as political journalist Pierre Peters, a curmudgeonly egomaniac who can’t stomach that his editor has put him on the show-biz beat by assigning him to interview self-absorbed soap star Katya (Sienna Miller). Though they predictably clash from the get-go, circumstances force them to spend an evening together in her Manhattan loft, leading to a complex, often antagonistic, and ultimately revealing back-and-forth that leaves them both with their scars exposed… or does it? Based on the 2003 film of the same name by the late Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh (who was murdered a year later for his political beliefs), “Interview” is the first installment of what’s intended to be a “Triple Theo” trilogy, a series of New York-based remakes that Van Gogh had planned to direct himself. Buscemi, who will hand off the project’s baton to actor-directors John Turturro and Stanley Tucci, was polite enough to grant an interview, but prefers to let the work speak for itself.
What do you think Van Gogh’s intentions were in remaking his own films?
Well, he loved American films and New York, and he wanted to work there I think that was the simplest reason. All three films deal primarily with a relationship between a man and woman, essentially two-character pieces, and I think he felt that that would translate well. I don’t know specifically how he talked to actors, but I know he devised this system of shooting with three cameras so that they would always be on camera. He shot the films in sequence so there’d be that continuity, and he did these really long takes so that the actors could develop a rhythm with each other. He was also fond of shooting close-ups first. Typically, the close-ups are the last things that are shot, but by then, the actors are pretty well rehearsed. He was more interested in those unrehearsed performances.
You implement some of these techniques, but the two films still have distinctive tones.
I think it’s partly stylistic, and also a cultural thing. For me, the original is a little bit more intense, which I really loved. Theo’s version had more of a Buñuel quality to it; just the fact that they start dancing without any music, and then music comes in. It’s certainly more apparent in his film “Blind Date.” I’m probably more of a realist, and I like to justify everything. But I didn’t want to, nor could I make the same film that Theo made. That was understood from the beginning, that his film was just a starting point and the inspiration.
So reverence was never your intention?
When I watched the original, I felt like I was witnessing the break-up of a long-standing couple. I wanted to stay true to that, and I was less concerned about getting the details and plot points [accurate]. So we changed some of that, opened it up a bit. We added the restaurant scene; that location is not in the original. We changed the age of Pierre’s daughter and the nature of how she died, and his confession about the wife is different. The beginning scene with Pierre and his brother who is really my brother, Michael Buscemi they were not brothers in the original, just friends. There were little things like that, and we tailored the film more towards Sienna and I, our personalities or whatever we felt we could bring to it.
Having not been familiar with Van Gogh’s films prior, what motivated you to take on this project?
I love the performances that he got out of his actors, especially in “Interview.” I was drawn to the story and these characters that are seemingly from different worlds. There’s an age difference, and they both go into [the interview] with apprehension, or even disdain. But there’s a real connection made, and I was interested in what happens to that connection once it’s made. You know, why the need to sabotage it; what is in their personalities that drives the evening the way it does. It’s very much like a play, but I didn’t want it to look like a filmed play. Judging by the original, which was cinematically and visually interesting, I wasn’t too concerned. It was daunting as actors to start with those close-ups, and sometimes it gets exhausting doing long takes. But, by and large, I really enjoyed working that way.
How do you direct when you’re constantly in front of the camera?
It’s just a feeling that you get. I mean, what better way to observe than being right in the middle of it? Nowadays, with the advent of the video playback, you can always watch what you’ve done. Sometimes we would do three or four takes in a row, and then I would check the last one. Sometimes we’d just videotape the rehearsals; it was a little different each day. If I thought something was amiss during a take, I’d watch the playback to see what didn’t feel right. Other times, I didn’t need to. I could just tell where to make an adjustment in my performance or Sienna’s. By the nature in which it was shot, with all the handheld and [multiple cameras], I was pretty comfortable that we were getting a lot of interesting angles. I had a lot of trust in Thomas Kist, the DP. But it really makes me admire what Buster Keaton and Chaplin did, all those guys who directed themselves in the days before the video playback.
Do you think it’s necessary to like a movie’s characters to appreciate them?
Yeah, I would say so. I think characters can do unlikable things, but if you don’t care about them, it can get difficult to watch. It was important for this film that both characters be intriguing and likeable on some level. But what I like about people are sometimes their unlikable traits. I like complicated, complex people who have a past.
What question do you hate most in interviews?
It used to be when people would ask me to explain my whole life. [laughs] That gets tiring after a while. There’s a line in the film where I ask Katja, “Were you always interested in acting?” and she just bangs her head on the table. That one gets kind of old.
“Interview” opens in limited release on July 13th (official site).