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Taylor Hackford’s Trip to the “Love Ranch”

Taylor Hackford’s Trip to the “Love Ranch” (photo)

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Not since 1985’s “White Nights” has California-born director Taylor Hackford (“Ray,” “An Officer and a Gentleman”) worked with Oscar-winning actress Helen Mirren. That isn’t to insinuate any animosity from that first collaboration since, well, the two eventually got married. Loosely based on the real-life story of America’s first legal brothel, Hackford’s ’70s-set drama “Love Ranch” stars Mirren as a ballsy Nevada madam who becomes ensnared in a volatile love triangle after her shady hubby (Joe Pesci) invites a South American boxer (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) to train at the ranch. By phone, Hackford spoke with me about shooting sex scenes with the Queen, why HBO’s “Cathouse” is bogus and the one film of his that never got a fair shake.

Why did it take so long for you and your wife to work together again?

When you’re an actor, you can work four times a year. As a director, you work every two years if you’re lucky. Of course I had a desire to work with my wife, but when I’m making films like “The Devil’s Advocate” or “Ray,” there aren’t roles for her. There might have been a couple of support roles, which I offered her, and she politely said, “No thank you.” [laughs]

I didn’t have really substantial roles, and everything to a consummate actor is the role. At a certain point, I decided that I needed to find something for the very reason that we hadn’t worked together in 25 years. When you’re living with the world’s greatest actress, you want to take advantage of that.

06292010_LoveRanch2.jpgThis was the script you were looking for?

Honestly, it was accidental. Mark Jacobson, an old friend who writes for New York magazine, called and told me he had written a spec script on a story that I knew about from the mid-’70s, the Mustang Ranch. I had never thought of it from the woman’s point of view. The two male characters in that story were Joe Conforte, the huckster who promoted the legalization of prostitution in northern Nevada, and Oscar Bonavena, who had been the heavyweight champion in South America [and came] to the U.S. and fought the best of the best in the decade of great heavyweights.

I hadn’t thought so much about Sally [Conforte]. Mark talked about this triangle, and I realized this is a woman of a certain age who is incredibly great at what she does, but in terms of romantic quotient, you would think it’s past her. Real stories are often times more phantasmagorical than fiction could ever be, and in this instance, Bonavena and Sally had an affair, were really caught up, he ended up dead, and most people felt it was Joe Conforte who had killed him.

06302010_loveranch16.jpgI took the idea to Helen, and she immediately warmed to it — I was surprised. I think at a certain point, Hollywood tends to type people. She had brilliantly played Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II in the same year. Then everyone said, “Oh, you’re just a queen.” I said, “You’re the madam of a whorehouse,” and she didn’t reject it out of hand.

You must have an intimate shorthand in communicating with Mirren, so what’s most challenging about balancing the personal and professional in that situation?

What’s tricky is to make sure your collaborators, especially the cast, don’t believe this is a cabal of a married couple, so intimate that we’re talking about different actors’ takes and so forth. Helen and I completely approach this as actor and director. She came to the set, she has her job to do, and an actor has to be “in charge.” If an actress has children in the film, you can’t say to these child actors, “Make this your mommy.” The actress has to bond and get familiar enough with those children to make it seem real on camera. In this instance, you’ve got an actress playing a madam who is part businesswoman, part mother confessor, part disciplinarian.

06292010_LoveRanch6.jpgWe really separated the labor. We never had lunch together, she was always with the actors. It was actually quite refreshing that way. We did sleep together at night and I’d fall into bed after 18 or 19 hours, and we’d have Sundays together to drive around New Mexico, but effectively, we were separate. That’s the way it should be.

Does it get trickier when you’re shooting your wife for a sex scene?

To me, the film is a sneaky love story in that you start in the brothel and think you’re going to be seeing something like “Cathouse” on HBO, and it isn’t that at all. It really gets into the characters. Those things on HBO are not the way a brothel operates. They’re performing, just like every reality show. I make films about working class people and I was interested in seeing the workplace. A brothel may be an aberrant one, but it is a workplace nonetheless.

I wanted to look at three cynical professionals who have been through the major part of their careers. They don’t have any romantic illusions left. Is it possible for emotions to take over and explode: passion, love, jealousy, all those things that happen to people that seem to be inured to any real emotions? In that, the love scene is an important catalyst in the story. It has to be believable and passionate and all the things you would expect.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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