By Aaron Hillis
[Photos: Left, Chris Evans and Anton Yelchin in “Fierce People”; below, Griffin Dunne, Lionsgate, 2007]
Owing to the cult favoritism paid to his roles in “After Hours” and “An American Werewolf in London” (or if you’re feeling really perverse, the Madonna vehicle “Who’s That Girl?”), Griffin Dunne may forever be known first as an actor, then as a director. But since his 1996 short “The Duke of Groove” was nominated for an Oscar, Dunne has stayed busy behind the camera, having helmed half a dozen features, both studio fare (“Practical Magic,” “Addicted to Love”) and indies (“Lisa Picard is Famous”). His latest is “Fierce People,” a dark and lurid coming-of-ager adapted by Dirk Wittenborn from his 2002 novel of the same name. Anton Yelchin stars as a New York teen whose 1978 summer plans to survey an indigenous South American tribe with his anthropologist dad are squashed when he’s busted buying coke for his masseuse mother (Diane Lane). To repair their relationship and sober herself up, Lane brings her son to the haut monde Jersey estate of a billionaire ex-client (Donald Sutherland) whose aristocratic offspring (including hot-to-trot granddaughter Kristen Stewart) seem to Yelchin as foreign and dangerous a tribe as the Iskanani Indians he had hoped to study. Dunne, who is already busy with post-production on a new rom-com called “The Accidental Husband,” spared some time to chat with me from his home in NYC.
How did you get your hands on this story before it was even published?
Well, I knew Dirk socially, but I didn’t know much about his writing. I knew he was a novelist. He had written this incredible yarn, but he was stuck on the ending. He gave it to a couple of his friends, of which I was one, just to get an impression of it. It ended at this incredibly mysterious, tense place where the ending could have gone [in two different directions]. He had sort of painted himself into a corner there. I wasn’t sure how to get out of the corner, but I knew I wanted to tell the story in a movie, so I told him I’d option the book. When he finished the ending, he sold it very handsomely to Bloomsbury. When there were movie inquiries, I had already gotten there before anyone.
I haven’t read the book, unfortunately, but I’m told the movie has a significant alteration.
The ending is different. It ended with the kid getting the inheritance of the estate. Dirk had written it and you can get away with the tone in a novel as a sort of ironic, bittersweet, almost cynical ending. But in a movie, it suddenly translates into a happy ending. After what this kid had gone through, paying him off with a lot of money wasn’t very satisfying. It came across [that after] the brutalization the kid goes through, “Well now, this should make it better, here’s some millions of dollars,” as opposed to the theme of the movie being the ultimate coming of age of what kind of man he’ll grow up to be in light of the brutality and fierceness he’s seen in society. How will he take that and become a better person?
Having grown up with high-profile writers like your father Dominick and aunt Joan Didion, did you personally recognize any of the behavioral traits of the different classes represented in the story?
I’ve always believed that people who have acquired vast amounts of power or fortune have made great sacrifices on their own morality somewhere along the line. A lot of the decisions are made at the expense of someone else to come out on top. That’s how society, power and the economy work, so I recognize this. I was brought up in Los Angeles, not amongst old money, but Dirk was quite familiar with it. It’s actually more autobiographical to his life than to mine. I related very strongly to the kid being at a point in life before you’ve ever fallen in love, when you’re seeing your parents and adult figures having moments of real weakness and frailty, and the line between being the son, the friend and the one who takes care of the mother. All these things, I relate to as both a parent and remembering myself as a kid.
Not to make any insinuations, but what attracts you to a dysfunctional family story?
Oh, I think every family is dysfunctional, or everyone assumes their family is. There’s almost a competitive pride in people’s dysfunctions. It’s a natural inclination to assume we are the result of the way we were brought up. We spend our lives trying to overcome, embrace or blame that, use it as an excuse. People love telling stories about it: “You think that was bad? You know, when I was a kid…” I think about what kind of stories my kid is going to tell about me. But I actually find dysfunction in families a humorous subject rather than any sad-sack tragedy. The next movie I’m doing is about the siblings of the parents who wrote and appear in the illustrations of a book like “The Joy of Sex,” and how they’ve been brought up with that their whole life. Family never ceases to interest me.
What creative itch does directing scratch that acting doesn’t?
I think directing always exercises both the pragmatic and creative instincts. You know, I love acting, but going from job to job as an actor was never quite enough for me. I didn’t like the lack of control, both of what the next job would be, as well as being a cog in the overall picture. One of my strengths as a director is performance and working with actors, having been one. I feel like I get to play all the parts internally without having to wear the make-up.
After “Lisa Picard is Famous,” would you ever cast yourself again in something you directed?
Yeah, I would do it. I had cast and then fired myself in both “Addicted to Love” and “Practical Magic.” Both scenes in which I’d given myself a part involved hundreds and hundreds of extras. It was a huge production day, and I thought like an actor in that singular way. But when it got to really imagining all the logistics, I suddenly thought: no, no, no. I called someone up in the middle of the night and said, “Step in for me.” I laid it off to “This is the wrong day to multi-task.” “Lisa Picard” was great to put myself in because there was an improv aspect to it. I was directing, sort of controlling it, and throwing the actors off, whatever they were going to do. That was very natural, but yeah, it’s something I would like to do. I just haven’t had the right opportunity.
I enjoyed all the late ’70s gems on the soundtrack like the Dead Kennedys and the Talking Heads, and I thought the score blended in nicely.
A guy named Nick Laird-Clowes did the score. He was in a band called Dream Academy, and he’s someone whose work I really like. His roots are very much in the sort of Nick Drake, Joe Boyd-produced, early Pink Floyd kind of feel. My temp track was filled with early Neil Young like “Cortez the Killer,” and guitar-driven sounds that went from acoustic to a velvety kind of electric strum half junky, then its gets a little ominous. I guess that’s still my favorite era of music. I’ve never quite outgrown it, but luckily, it keeps coming back with every new group reinventing that sound.
So if I looked at your iPod right now, this is what I would see?
It would be riddled with it, plus Broken Social Scene and these new groups doing the same old thing. My battery just died on my iPod, hang on… I’m still into Arcade Fire, they’re all good. Citizen Cope. Devendra Bernhardt. I used Explosions in the Sky on the temp track for a while… Interpol, and all those guys. If I could get that guitar sound of Pavement, I would’ve loved to have had Steve Malkmus do my score.
“Fierce People” opens in limited release on September 7th (official site).