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CineVegas '05 Interview ('The Outsider' Director Nicholas Jarecki)

by Erik Childress

THE OUTSIDER is Nicholas Jarecki’s portrait of James Toback, the notorious New York movie director. For structure, Jarecki makes it his business to chronicle the production of Toback’s last thriller, “When Will I Be Loved,” starring Neve Campbell. But THE OUTSIDER is more than a behind-the-scenes look at moviemaking; it’s a “behind-the-eyes” look at a forceful, magnetic personality driven by keen intelligence, shaped by undeniable creativity, forged by joyful narcissism, hammered by insatiable compulsions and nurtured by many loyal, famous and powerful friends. Like gambling on horses, ingesting 10,000 micrograms of LSD and indulging a voracious sexual appetite, making movies is a compulsion for Toback, something he simply must do. And it’s something he does like nobody else. Featuring Robert Downey, Jr., Brooke Shields, Mike Tyson, Harvey Keitel, Norman Mailer, Barry Levinson, Jim Browne, Robert Towne, Brett Ratner, Roger Ebert, Bijou Phillips and perhaps the only on-set interview Woody Allen has ever granted, THE OUTSIDER is far from hagiography. But they imagine Jim’s pretty happy with it.

Talk a little about your opening montage, where you interject Toback's fascination with the flesh with the translation to violence.

NICHOLAS: I needed to find a way to show the viewer who James Toback was, and I wanted to do it obliquely. Originally I had a scene where Jim was describing the whole purpose of the documentary to Woody Harrelson as we were all going into a nightclub, but I thought that in order to care about Toback, you needed to see that his work was compelling, and right away I wanted to set up the world we were about to visit: gambling, sex, drugs, madness. That's Toback.

When you were 14 years old, if someone asked you what you wanted to be when you grew up, what would your answer have been?

NICHOLAS: By 14 I wanted to be a director. It all started when I read Making Movies by Sidney Lumet and watched The Godfather, Serpico, Twelve Angry Men, and Taxi Driver. Then when I was 15 I worked as a technical consultant on Hackers with Angelina Jolie, and I fell in love (not with her, well, maybe, but with the whole process of making movies).

How did you get started in filmmaking?

NICHOLAS: I took a 6-week course at Princeton University given by the New York Film Academy when I was 16. We ate, slept, and breathed movies every day for 45 days straight, shooting on 16mm Arriflex cameras with no synchronous sound, and we edited on Steenbecks. I got about a thousand blade cuts on my hands, but I learned how to put film together. Then I went to NYU Film School and started doing commercials and music videos after I got out, but that wasn't leading where I wanted, so I wrote the book BREAKING IN: How 20 Film Directors Got Their Start to find out how everyone got into the business.

How did you get The Outsider started?

NICHOLAS: James Toback was one of the 20 filmmakers I interviewed for my book BREAKING IN, and his was the most fascinating LIFE STORY I heard. He's such a fascinating character, a brilliant scholar and intellectual on the one hand, and a depraved madman who as Roger Ebert says in THE OUTSIDER is "addicted to the sins of the flesh." You can't ask for a more compelling subject. Plus, it was about movies, and I wanted to show what it means to be a filmmaker and a creative artist. I think young people are very interested in how films are made and who makes them, and although there is a lot of coverage of this subject, I didn't think a documentary had been made that really showed what it was like to make an independent movie from start to finish and how much struggle is involved. So when I heard Toback was shooting a new sexual thriller with Neve Campbell in 12 days, I called and asked him if I could show up on set and film. He told me to be there the next morning at 6am.

Bijou Phillips calls Toback one of the greatest directors of all time “and everyone knows this”. While we clearly admire much of his work, did we miss something by not including him on our Top 100 list of active directors working today?

NICHOLAS: Yes. Toback's movies are excellent. They don't always fully work, but the moments he captures are very powerful. Downey's virtuoso performance in Two Girls and a Guy, Harvey Keitel's ferocity as the terrorist leader in Exposed, Brooke Shields and Mike Tyson in Black and White -- these are landmarks. Toback is very underrated.

Two of the standards of filmmaking documentaries are Hearts of Darkness and Lost In La Mancha. One of the best, in my opinion, is actually a two-hour documentary on the making of Jaws, which was previously only available on the special edition laserdisc and is now finally being made available in its entirety on a 30th Anniversary DVD this June. Were any of these films an influence on you making The Outsider or were there others?

NICHOLAS: Hearts of Darkness is a seminal classic. Coppola's work is incredible, and I really admire that documentary. I can't say the same for Lost in La Mancha -- I actually think the documentary those guys did on the making of 12 Monkeys was quite superior. But what I wanted to do with my film that was different than those movies was to use the making of Toback's movie as an analogue for his life -- I wanted to reveal the man through his work, and expand out into his history in general. Then I needed to get those personalities like Woody Allen and Norman Mailer and Downey to comment on what it all means. And I also wanted to show what a battle getting films distributed is-- I think this is the first time that's really been explored.

When you were shooting the film, did you have CineVegas (or any other film festivals in general) in mind?

NICHOLAS: Not really. I just wanted to get the film out there as best I could. You do the work and then you hope for the best. That's all you can do.

Have you been turned down by other festivals? If so, which ones and what could be improved about the festival circuit?

NICHOLAS: We've shown everywhere we wanted to. I've found the festival circuit to be quite accomodating. I think the organizers could be a bit more accessible before your film is selected, but hey, then they'd have 10,000 filmmakers calling them all day to ask "what's up with my film?" So I can understand.

How have things changed for you since your film started playing on the festival circuit? Describe what that's like and your thoughts about CineVegas. What are you looking forward to most during your CineVegas experience?

NICHOLAS: I think Tribeca really helped start establishing a press profile for the film. We raised awareness by getting the movie on ACCESS HOLLYWOOD, BBC, ABC, NY1, The Village Voice, New York Observer, Variety, etc, etc. I'm really looking forward to Cinevegas. Vegas is the ultimate location for this kind of movie-- sex, drugs, gambling, what better place?!

PS I'm a really big fan of CSI, so a Vegas visit is overdue!

When Will I Be Loved was scheduled to premiere at LAST year’s CineVegas film festival and was literally taken off the schedule at the last minute and eventually premiered three months later at Toronto. Do you have footage on the cutting room floor of this late period in the film’s release?

NICHOLAS: Sadly no.

The film is probably most infamous for Neve Campbell's nude debut. In an industry that loves to market sex even down to a PG-13 market, why do you believe the film had such a hard time finding a distributor?

NICHOLAS: I think that Jim makes innovative work that is not always easily digestable into one-line marketing pitch. I'm actually confused as to why this one had such a hard time, though. It was a thriller with strong performances and a great deal of sexuality. Maybe people prefer to get their sex through porn now, I'm not sure. I think distributors were just wary of taking a chance. It's very difficult out there. On a positive note, the film has sold almost five million dollars in DVDs, and I have to think that might have something to do with Neve. So all's well that ends well.

During the scenes of frustration with Toback trying to sell the film, it was almost as if he didn't want the film to rest solely on Neve's exposure. Was this his way of trying to protect her or did it, in fact, become a fundamental selling point to IFC?

NICHOLAS: Nobody's stupid. Fill in the blanks. But Jim is not an exploiter -- that's the first question I asked Neve, actually. They both believe in their film. It was not about the money -- Neve turned down several million before to be naked, so...

You have several people in the film, including mentors like Robert Towne and Norman Mailer, admirers such as Robert Downey Jr. and Woody Allen and even Roger Ebert. Did you ever consider balancing it out with those who are harsher critics of Toback or who had negative things to say about the man or his career?

NICHOLAS: It wasn't about making a puff piece or a scab-ripping expose. It was just about telling the story of this man and what he goes through, and what that means in the broader context of making movies and art in today's world. I think that you see the reality of Jim's existence -- he makes the work and then as his producer Ron Rotholz says in what I think is a very harsh moment -- "People want to make a score. They want to find the next Tarantino. You make films that are almost impossible to market." That's not a statement Toback agrees with, but it doesn't matter what he thinks. He lives in the world just like everyone else, so what happens happens. There's a price to the way Jim does things. But he pays it. And I think that's perhaps the most honest thing about him.

Toback explored cultural relations in his 1999 film, Black and White. Do you feel that audiences and critics missed the boat on that one in light of the recent success and acclaim for Paul Haggis' Crash? Or would they make a solid double feature together?

NICHOLAS: They're both great films. In fact, Crash has some similarities to my next film THE INFORMERS which Bret Easton Ellis and I wrote together based on his book. But I ultimately think although Crash's plot "works" a little better, Black and White appeals to me more. It has a viscerality of something that was "captured" as opposed to produced. That's a great double feature.

Have you seen any independent films recently on the festival circuit, in theaters or on video that influenced you? Or anything that you would just like to give a shout-out to that audiences should be seeing (or given a chance to see?)

NICHOLAS: The film I keep telling everyone to see is Sorcerer, directed by Billy Friedkin. Forget everything else and check that one.

Did you find many of the actors working with him a little nervous about the amount of improvisation in Toback's work?

NICHOLAS: Toback has an uncanny relationship with his actors. I think that he stacks the deck by waiting to cast until he really knows the people. He and Neve talked for 8 hours before they decided to make a go of it -- he picks people who get the madness, who are willing and eager to take a risk. It wouldn't work any other way.

One of the actors in the film complains about a "beard mishap" that delayed shooting one day and calls Dominic Chianese a "bigger diva than Grace Jones." Can you please tell us the Dolph Lundgren/Grace Jones story that Toback refers to?

NICHOLAS: It involved a briefcase filled with money and something in the bathroom. Unfortunately it will have to remain a mystery. Sometimes less is more.

What’s the one glaring lesson you learned while making this film?

NICHOLAS: Don't wait for breaks to come-- go out and start shooting. It's all a struggle but as Woody Allen says, it's worth it. What else can you do but struggle to make something good? You have to do it yourself and you have to fight the battle, whatever the odds. That's the only way to get something real.

What documentaries have you seen that rank at the top of the class and help represent what's important about the medium either as educational or entertainment.

NICHOLAS: Unzipped, Comedian, Mr. Death. All -- incredible.

You probably have the only footage on record of Mike Tyson behaving like a rational, intelligent human being and he seemed to open up a bit while you were around. Have you given any thought to approaching him about making the definitive documentary on the Iron Mike of boxing?

NICHOLAS: I think Mike could make for the subject of 10 movies. He's incredibly charismatic, surprisingly intelligent, and very frightening. I think he is one of our most interesting cultural icons and it was a pleasure to spend time with him and be able to capture some of who he is. I think he comes across clearer in THE OUTSIDER than I've ever seen him before (all self-praise aside). Iron Mike is the man.

The label of "documentary" has come under scrutiny in recent years with filmmakers like Michael Moore being accused of making op-ed pieces instead of the traditional definition. Do you feel its unfair to criticize a documentary for having a point-of-view rather than just being an objective reporter?

NICHOLAS: By definitiion a documentary has a subjective bias. It's made by a human being, and we can't help but be subjective. The lines are all getting blurred now, and I think that's a good thing. As long as you're honest with your audience about what you are doing, make whatever kind of movie you want; all that matters is that it is interesting. There are no rules.

If you had the chance to greenlight any documentary about a living filmmaker or the making of any particular film, what would that be?

NICHOLAS: I think the making of Sorcerer would be high up there. Friedkin built a $1 Million set 5 times because the rain kept eroding it. This was in the 70s, so that's like $20 mil on one set. The movie went three years over schedule and (in today's dollars) $150 Million over budget and grossed like two bucks. But it is one of the best movies ever made.

If a studio said ‘we love this, we love you, you can remake anything in our back catalogue for $40m’ – what film, if any, would you want to remake?

NICHOLAS: Remakes are tricky. When a film is really good I'm not sure I see the point. Would you rewrite Crime and Punishment? Or Lolita? I saw a play on Broadway recently, Glengarry Glen Ross. It's very good, but the film is so incredible that it almost feels like whatever anyone now does with the script, no matter how good, won't measure up to what is perfect. Sorcerer is a remake of Wages of Fear, but Friedkin completely rewrote the script and made a different film. Something like the remake of Psycho, shot for shot, confounds me. What a boring thing to do.

Toback invites Robert Towne to a private screening of When Will I Be Loved and reveals on camera how he is interested in his reaction to all of his work, in a way seeking his approval. If you were looking to seek approval from your own heroes in the film world, whether narrative or documentarians, about The Outsider – who would it be?

NICHOLAS: I had enormous mentorship and guidance during the making of THE OUTSIDER from people I really admire: Warren Beatty, Barry Levinson, Wes Craven, Karen Schmeer, Chris Franklin. I love showing my work to other filmmakers. It doesn't matter if they like it, just that they react one way or the other. I think the worst reaction is passivity -- then you know you've failed.

How about critics? :)

NICHOLAS: Let's see, Erik Childress... :) A lot of critics have responded positively so far: John Anderson, Gene Seymour, Owen Gleiberman, Elvis Mitchell, Nelson from the Voice. It seems to be a "festival favorite." But I'm waiting for that pejorative, devastating review that will make me pull my hair out -- honestly I try not to take it all too seriously.

At what point will you be able to say, "Yes! I've made it!"

NICHOLAS: It depends on your definition of success. All I ever wanted to do was make movies and I'm making them. Will they gross a lot of money, have big exposure, get great reviews, win awards, make me a gazillionaire? Is that why you do what you do? Who validates the artist, the artist or the public? I have no idea. I just want to do the work.

A film is made by many people, including the director (of course), but you'll often see movies that open with a credit that says “a film by…” – Did you use that credit in your film? If so, defend yourself! If not, what do you think of those who do?

NICHOLAS: I use it. I don't think it requires defense. Film is a director's medium. The director is the ultimate decision maker for what you see on the screen. He depends on many others, but it's his triumph or failure and he is the one judged.

With the amount of in-depth research and analysis of Toback's history and acquaintances, does it bother you that some members in the field of entertainment journalism can't be troubled to take two minutes to do their research? In other words, was Burt Reynolds right when he slapped that CBS producer on the red carpet who couldn't even be bothered to know what The Longest Yard was about?

NICHOLAS: There are people who are dilligent and people who are lazy in every field from criminal to CEO (perhaps that is a looser distinction these days). I don't know that it's "right" to slap anyone, but Burt is a great actor so maybe we can cut him some slack.


The Outsider (directed by Nicholas Jarecki) - featuring Woody Allen, Robert Downey Jr., Mike Tyson, Harvey Keitel, Neve Campbell, Norman Mailer, Brooke Shields, Barry Levinson, Jim Brown, Robert Towne, Brett Ratner, Roger Ebert, Bridget Hall, Damon Dash, Woody Harrelson, Bijou Phillips, Jeff Berg, Dominic Chianese and Power from Wu-Tang Clan will screen at the 2005 CineVegas Film Festival on Sunday, June 12 at 4:00 PM.

Visit The Outsider Website and watch the TRAILER

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originally posted: 06/06/05 11:56:56
last updated: 06/06/05 11:59:33
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