loader image

Confessions

  • “We had Satan on speed-dial”: An Oral History of Drugstore Cowboy

    CONFESSIONS

    “We had Satan on speed-dial”: An Oral History of Drugstore Cowboy

    America: the mid to late 1980s. We’re deep into Nancy Reagan’s Just Say No campaign, and the American government’s war against drugs has seen the rise of mass incarceration of marginalised communities at an unprecedented level. Meanwhile, Gus Van Sant, an up-and-coming director in his early thirties, is preparing to shoot his game-changing second feature Drugstore Cowboy (1989). His premise? A gang of heroin addicts in Portland get their fix by robbing drug stores. 

    Van Sant was hot, having just released his DIY filmmaking indie masterpiece Mala Noche in 1986, which he wrote, produced, edited and directed with a micro-budget of $25,000. It was the breath of fresh air that the American film industry didn’t know it needed. Adapted from the story of the same name by Walt Curtis, the film told of a 30 year old queer American man who becomes infatuated with a 16 year-old Mexican migrant. “I had no idea if it was going to be watchable or even artistically whether it would capture people’s imagination,” Gus Van Sant tells me. “But I worked really hard on it.” As we speak over Zoom, the director leans back in his desk chair at a 120 degree angle (there’s a reason they call him the mellowest man in Hollywood), clasping his hands in reflection. 

    Mala Noche was something new and exhilarating, a relief from the big box office blockbusters that audiences had grown addicted to. It shone a cinematic lens on subcultures and minorities that weren’t commonly represented at the time, and it did so with a radical sensibility. It was gritty, grainy and unpolished—and it looked all the better for it. “We were told that there was no audience for black stories, queer stories, female stories, foreign language, and no audience for anything non-white,” explains Laurie Parker, production executive of Drugstore Cowboy. “There was one kind of thing you could make. Mala Noche was a sign that a transgressive new wave was on the horizon.” 

    But the best was yet to come, and in retrospect Mala Noche served as an exciting prelude to a new wave of American independent cinema pioneered by young and bold filmmakers like Van Sant, Steven Soderbergh (who would release his classic Sex, Lies and Videotape the same year as Drugstore Cowboy) and Todd Haynes. 

    In the meantime, all eyes were on Van Sant. Avenue Entertainment had taken a chance on his screenplay for Drugstore Cowboy, which notably refused to take any moral stance on drug use, a controversial angle considering the era. “You had never seen people putting needles into their veins and experiencing that rush before,” says Matt Dillon, who plays Bob, the leader of the titular Drugstore Cowboys. “That’s one of the best things about cinema—it can reward risk-taking. And Drugstore Cowboy was one of those films that dared to risk it all.”

    THE ORIGINAL DRUGSTORE COWBOY

    The first seeds of Drugstore Cowboy were planted when screenwriter Dan Yost (credited as cowriter of the film) handed Gus a few manuscripts by James Fogle, a prisoner of Walla Walla State Penitentiary and one of the original real-life Drugstore Cowboys. During his sentence Fogle penned fictionalised stories about his life, two of which ended up in front of Van Sant: one was Drugstore Cowboy, and the other was a novel called Satan’s Sandbox. “Drugstore Cowboy is his life out of prison, and then he wrote this other one, which was his life in prison, which was also very good. It was actually my favourite one of those two projects.” Van Sant liked the idea of Satan’s Sandbox so much that he wrote a rough draft of a screenplay that he pitched to studios alongside Drugstore Cowboy. It’s an interesting thought: that in an alternate timeline there’s a screenplay for an unmade film called Drugstore Cowboy tucked away in a drawer somewhere. Would Satan’s Sandbox have made the same splash had it been developed as Van Sant’s breakout feature? We’ll never know, though the director admits that he still blows the dust off the screenplay every now and again. “Maybe one day I’ll make it. Things just keep getting in the way,” he says.

    Drugstore Cowboy
    Matt Dillon in Drugstore Cowboy (1989)

    “Fogle’s stories were really funny, and they were authentic. They spoke from experience,” Van Sant tells me. Authentic was the word that would come to define Drugstore Cowboy’s appeal. These characters weren’t your typical stereotypes of sniffling, uninspired drug addicts—they were larger than life, charismatic, and ambitious. Yost, who remained a life-time friend of Fogle, describes Fogle’s novel as autobiographical. In his eyes, the inmate writer behind the film was: “Someone who was loved by everybody that knew him. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t a criminal.” During my conversation with Parker, she mentions that some of the most interesting screenplays she’s ever read were by prisoners. By this metric, Fogle was a shining example, a man who lived adventurously and had stories to tell. In Yost’s account, Fogle “used prison as his office. It was the only place he could write.” Van Sant and Matt Dillon (who had signed on to play the film’s lead) were all ears. They would visit the penitentiary together to pick Fogle’s brain, both of them characterising the visitation room in Walla Walla by the paintings that hung on its interior. “The decorations in the room were pictures of all the famous walls of the world, like the Berlin Wall,” Van Sant laughs. “Because the town is called Walla Walla.” Dillon adds, “I thought, that’s a strange place to put a framed painting of The Great Wall of China. Some sort of subliminal message to the inmates that you’re never getting out of here.”

    These early meetings with Fogle formed the backbone for what was about to become Drugstore Cowboy. His stories went beyond his novels, with Gus recalling a particular anecdote that always stuck with him: “He had first gone into prison at 13 in Wyoming—it was the 50s, they didn’t care, they just threw young people in the slammer— and during his sentence he had escaped in the middle of the night from this Wyoming prison. They were running across the desert in pitch black, being chased by a convoy of guards and dogs, and they had a pretty good lead. Then all of a sudden, a bright light lit up the whole desert and exposed them. And the convoy just drove into the middle of the desert and picked them up and brought them back. They didn’t understand what the light was until the next day, where they read in the papers that it was one of the first nuclear tests. They had been exposed by a nuclear bomb.”

    Though Fogle had robbed his fair share of drugstores, contrary to popular belief, the Drugstore Cowboy’s protagonist Bob was actually inspired by a friend of his—Brian Ward, the most notorious of the Drugstore Cowboys. “Fogle told me that the character was based on a guy who looked just like me,” Dillon said, after admitting that there was initial concern that he was too young to play the role. “He came from an Irish-American family, and [Fogle] said “as bad as I was, this guy robbed 200 drugstores more than I did.” Ward was Fogle’s original inspiration for Bob’s unhealthy obsession with superstition in the story, namely the now-iconic hat-on-the-bed scene. “He inherited that paranoia from his mother,” Dillon says. “After playing Bob I became obsessed too. I still freak out if I accidentally put a hat on the bed. I’m not saying I believe it, but I don’t mess with fate, either.”

    GETTIN’ THE GANG TOGETHER

    It’s hard to imagine anyone playing Bob better than Dillon, who brings an astounding amount of heart to a character that, by and large, should be impossible to empathise with. Van Sant’s original choice for the role was musician Tom Waits while others rumoured to be in line to were Jack Nicholson (who apparently declined the role in a heartbeat), Sean Penn, and Bob Dylan (Gus disputes this, but says he wishes he came up with the idea at the time). Waits had already accepted the role, but the studio wanted a lead who could win an Oscar, and Dillon fit the bill, having already expressed interest in working with Gus after he saw Mala Noche. Once Dillon was cast, Gus had free reign to cast whomever fit his vision for the film. He famously took polaroids of every actor who came to audition, from Heather Graham—who plays Nadine in the film—to James Le Gros—who plays Rick—both members of Bob’s crew of drugstore thrifters. ‘It was a Warhol-type thing,” says Nick Wechsler, Gus’ one-time manager and a producer on the film. “He would pin them up on the wall, and the energy they were giving him helped him decide who to cast in the movie. When Heather Graham pulled up—her polaroid just popped.”

    matt dillon gus van sant
    Polaroid of Matt Dillon. 1987. By Gus Van Sant.
    heather graham gas van sant
    Polaroid of Heather Graham. 1987. By Gus Van Sant.

    Kelly Lynch, on the other hand, didn’t need a polaroid to know that she was born to play the role of Janet, Bob’s lover and partner-in-crime in the film, and the moment she saw the title hanging on a wall in her manager’s office, she knew it would be hers. The problem? Lynch was a gorgeous blonde and the character called for a junkie brunette—a rough, Patti Smith type. “What experience do you have with that?” Kelly recalls her manager asking. “Here’s the thing,” she replies, zooming me from her California home. “In 1981 I was hit in a head-on collision—the other driver went the wrong way on a freeway and hit me head on, and I was in a hospital for a year…I saw these lights coming at me and  I went “Fuck!” and went through the windshield, the steering wheel came down and snapped my legs in two, and then the dashboard accordioned my thighs. They almost had to amputate my legs.” At the hospital, the doctor would inject a shot of demerol into her hips every four hours. Then they gave her Percodan. Then Talwin. Percocets. Morphine. As Kelly puts it, she became a complete, 100% junkie. “Instead of stepping me down, they completely took me off of them, and I went through a screaming withdrawal that lasted about three days—it was like going into the bowels of hell. So I told my agent that I did know what being a junkie was like, and I’m absolutely right for this part. I went into the audition and got the part the very same day.“

    “I went through a screaming withdrawal that lasted about three days—it was like going into the bowels of hell.”

    Kelly Lynch on Drugstore Cowboy
    Kelly Lynch drugstore cowboy
    Kelly Lynch on the set of Drugstore Cowboy (1989)

    Dillon would also use his brushes with drug culture to inform how he approached the role. Though he never used himself, he spoke to friends from back home in New York who knew addiction intimately. Characters like Railroad Johnny: an energetic addict working on a railroad in Harlem who Dillon claims would throw down his tools and walk four blocks to the shooting gallery to blow some holes in the wall. “He would take me through his routines,” Dillon explains. “He would tell me about his life, getting high, getting in trouble. He was an angry guy, but he wasn’t that picture of a passive, feeling sorry for himself type of addict.” Then there was a friend of Dillon’s who actually went to jail for robbing drugstores. “He was a lifelong Manhattan guy,” Dillon laughs. “So he couldn’t even drive a car. He’d rob a drugstore then jump in a cab.” He also kept a correspondence with Brian Ward, who had become a running enthusiast while he was in prison. “He was Mr. Healthy and Clean, a fitness freak when he was incarcerated. Of course, he got out and a short time later he died of a drug overdose, as you might expect.”

    With the four central ‘cowboys’—Bob (Dillon), Janet (Lynch), Nadine (Graham) and Rick (Le Gros)—finally assembled, rehearsals for the film could finally begin. But this wasn’t your average table read. Instead, the actors and Gus would drive around Portland for hours, in character, staking out drug stores and shooting the shit. Gus even refers to a small car accident they experienced during one of the rehearsals which led to them driving back to set in a near-totaled station wagon (he mentions immediately after that he hasn’t rehearsed this way since). “What Gus wanted from those rehearsals was for us to become a family, so that when we got to shooting 19 year-old Heather Graham wouldn’t be starstruck around Matt Dillon.” Says Lynch. “We had gotten over those things, and we became a coven of actors who were hanging out and saying these lines and playing around together. That I thought was genius.”

    drugstore cowboy cast
    The cast of Drugstore Cowboy (1989)

    Like Mala Noche before it, and My Own Private Idaho after it, Drugstore Cowboy would be set in Portland, Oregon, a place that had somewhat adopted the Kentucky-born, LA-based Van Sant as its own. Portland had a certain magnetism that pulled the director into its orbit, and it remains a home for him to this day. The city was a bohemian enclave. It was the home of writer John Reed, and it was Portland’s Reed College that Kerouac wrote of in The Dharma Bums. The city had as much to bring to the story as the cast inhabiting it. “There was always this side of Portland that attracted and encouraged Bohemia,” he says. “It was a comfortable place to go if you didn’t have enough money to live in your city. You could always find cheap places in Portland.” In other words, a perfect home for Drugstore Cowboy’s merry band of criminal outcasts.

    THE KING OF THE BEATS

    Then there was William Burroughs, who appears in the film as ‘Tom the Priest’, an older ex-drug addict who councils Bob during his attempt to get clean in Drugstore Cowboy’s final third. Although, in the original script, he was just ‘Old Tom’. “This guy doesn’t have much going for him,” Burroughs had told Van Sant. “How ‘bout we call him Tom the Priest?” That wasn’t the only thing he changed about the role, Van Sant tells me. He basically re-wrote his entire part, which Van Sant was more than happy to oblige, more relieved than anything that Burroughs had accepted the role. The director had admired Burroughs for years, along with the likes of Andy Warhol, Tom Robbins, Tom Wolfe, and Ken Kecey. “These were his avant-garde heroes.” Parker says. “He wanted to be around them, and so he would offer them roles.”

    At the time, Burroughs was already a counterculture superstar, and a genuine celebrity. He became a legend of the Beat Generation with novels like Queer, Junkie and his quintessential 1959 Naked Lunch, but by the late 1980s, Burroughs’ mythology was being embraced by new subcultures. “He wasn’t willingly the leader of the Beats, but he was made their leader by Berg [Allen Ginsberg] and Kerouac,” Van Sant says, still a little starry eyed. “And then he moved to New York, and would perform in punk clubs. He would read his poetry before the Ramones went on. And so he became king of the punk rockers, too.” Strangely, recruiting Burroughs for the movie went smoothly, owing to a previous interaction between Van Sant and the writer in the 70s in which he adapted one of his stories into a short film. “He was in New York, and his name was in the phone book, so I thought the best way was to really go and visit him and ask permission to adapt his story. Because he was famous in the Jack Kerouac books—they were always visiting Burroughs.” 

    An infamous junkie himself, Burroughs was a perfect fit for Tom Murphy—a fallen angel with a poet’s tongue, referred to by Dillon’s character as “Benevolent Father Murphy, the most notorious dope fiend on the coast”. Some of the most prophetic lines of dialogue in the movie belong to Burroughs’s Father Murphy:“I predict in the near future right-wingers will use drug hysteria as a pretext to set up an international police apparatus.” Burroughs performed all of his scenes on strong doses of marijuana, which the director had to hunt down himself. According to Van Sant, he claimed it was the only way he could remember his lines, which the director, ever the Beat aficionado, points out was antithetical to most of his writing. “He was always saying that he never smoked marijuana, and he hated it. It gave him the fear. He would always talk like that. I guess by this time, when he was around 78, he learnt to smoke. Though you could never really tell with him if he was high or not.” 

    William Burroughs Gus Van Sant
    Polaroid of William Burroughs. 1987. By Gus Van Sant.

    Ask any of the cast and crew of Drugstore Cowboy about Burroughs and they’ll probably have a story for you. Laurie tells me about the time she and novelist Tom Robbins were tasked with scoring for him while doing press for the movie. “Burroughs was ill one day,” she says. “He was sick, and he had to get well. And ‘getting well’ meant that you needed some heroin or methadone or whatever. We had Satan on speed dial. He was a drug dealer with a hell’s angels kind of vibe, and we would drop by his house and score from him.” Robbins, an iconic writer in his own right, reportedly had such a good time that he penned Triplets in dedication to that day. In the poem, he writes: I stopped by Satan’s house / I just happened to be in the neighbourhood / Satan came downstairs in a Raiders jacket / His aura was like burnt rubber ‘ but his grin could paint a sunrise / on a coal shed wall. / “I see you’ve met Desire / and Fulfilment,” he said, / polishing his monocle with a blood-flecked rag. / “Regret is in the kitchen making coffee.” 

    “We had Satan on speed-dial”

    Laurie Parker on Drugstore Cowboy

    As far as Matt Dillon was concerned, Burroughs was stone-cold sober during shooting. His memories of the poet don’t involve driving around town on side-quests in search of leather-clad drug devils and a score, but he remembers Burroughs having a particular affinity for “lethal things.” Guns, poisonous snakes, explosive devices.. “Bill was a jaded guy,” Dillon recollects,“but he had a lot of curiosities. He once sat there and told me about a snake that rolled around on its ribs and growled like a dog. He would say ‘the snake growled like a dog and, brother, if you got bit by that snake you got a problem.’” Dillon, who had already become acquainted with Burroughs during a prior movie shoot in Kansas, was one of the few on the set to see a warmer side to the Beat King. “He would have a martini at the end of his day. How funny is that?” Dillon laughs, before proudly recalling how for years after Drugstore Cowboy he would receive annual Christmas cards from Burroughs. “And it was in his handwriting so I knew it was legit,” he says, just in case I don’t believe him. “He had a distinctive penmanship.”

    William Burroughs
    William Burroughs and Matt Dillon in Drugstore Cowboy (1987)

    THE AMERICAN INDEPENDENT

    Talking to the cast and crew about the production of a film that came out almost three and a half decades ago, there’s naturally going to be a rashomon-esque conflict of memory. I hear the same story four times with four different endings. One thing everyone can agree on, though, is that Gus Van Sant is a genius. It’s an easy statement to make from this vantage point, with a varied career and an independent cinema movement to put under the magnifying glass, but not everyone believed it at the time. Until the screenplay landed at Avenue Entertainment, where the newly hired Laurie Parker got her hands on it, Drugstore Cowboy received rejection after rejection. “We were coming out of Nancy Reagan’s anti-drug campaign, and people were rejecting this script because of that.” Dillon explains. “I spoke to actors who were telling me ‘I can’t believe you’re making this movie’, people who thought it was immoral to tell a story that humanised the drug user. It speaks to the times we were in.” 

    It’s no surprise that so many actors and studios wouldn’t touch Drugstore Cowboy with a ten-foot pole. Here’s a screenplay written during the height of the Just Say No era that actively depicts the euphoria of shooting up, the adventures drug addicts went on just to acquire the drugs, and the rush they experienced in doing so—and not only that, but it did it all with a wry humour that pointed out the absurdity of it all. “When we were doing the movie people were saying ‘Oh, it’s so sad, it’s so difficult, the life of a junkie’ and we were all laughing for most of the movie.” Lynch says. “We had a great time making it. Because for the most part, this kind of junkie doesn’t wallow in their pain—it’s one caper after another. And sometimes people die, and things happen, but you’re so medicated that the truths of the hardships of life don’t penetrate your soul in the same way.”

    Gus Van Sant contact sheet
    Gus Van Sant, on rooftop. Portland, Oregon, 1992. By Eric Edwards.

    Moreover, Van Sant brought an independent filmmaker’s sensibility to the studio feature, and a radically different energy to the filmmaking process that financiers and even some members of the crew weren’t ready for. “When the director is new and they have yet to prove themselves,” Parker says, “all the ways that they want to innovate are seen as breaking the rules. And all those breaking of the rules are seen as ignorance and poor training.” Van Sant remembers there being whispers on the lot about whether he had it in him to complete the feature. To some, he was too young, too laidback, and too DIY. In fact, Van Sant admits that the three million dollar budget was more a hindrance on him than anything. The large crew afforded to him by the studio only made the day less productive; on his four person crew on Mala Noche, he could get 90 setups in a day. On Drugstore, with an 80 person crew, it was more like 13 setups. “Everything that we did, there was a hold-up,” he sighs. “I was getting in trouble too because we were falling behind on schedule.” The shorter, high-intensity days brought on by the sheer scale of production rendered Van Sant’s typical storyboarding useless. He had to change the way he worked to keep up. ”I’d read about Kubrick doing it: You rehearse first, then when you have everything blocked, then you decide where the camera can be and what the camera can do. So I devised this little trick where I realised that if I moved the camera into 10 different positions during the shot, it still only took 30 minutes to light. So I could get a close-up, a medi shot, a wide shot in one scene at the same time it would usually take to light just one close-up. That changed my perception of filmmaking. I haven’t gone back to storyboards since.” This new, fluid way of working became a mode of artistic liberation for Van Sant and the actors, who were now open to improvising and moving freely within the scene. He encouraged kinetic filmmaking. “It was his idea for us to shoot the home movie that bookends Drugstore,” Dillon remembers. “He put the camera in our hands—mine, Kelly and Jim. The best directors are always open to what falls in front of them. I’ve seen it with Francis Ford Coppola on The Outsiders, I saw it with Lars Von Trier on The House That Jack Built, and I saw it with Gus with Drugstore Cowboy.” Like the rest of the crew, Dillon speaks of Van Sant with reverence, calling him the genuine article, a real artist, and that while the director seemed laidback, there was never any doubt that it was his movie.

    Gus Van Sant polaroids
    Gus Van Sant, on rooftop. Portland, Oregon, 1992. By Eric Edwards.

    Van Sant himself keeps an admirable modesty about his work throughout our entire discussion. I mention that Premier Magazine once named Drugstore Cowboy one of the most daring films of all time for the way it handles its subject matter, and he’s quick to point out that Charles Dickens was telling stories about the streets of London a century earlier. When I ask Lynch to describe what she admired the most about Van Sant’s sensibilities as a filmmaker, she said: “Gus looks at disenfranchised people with a dignity meeting gritty reality, and that’s a tough tightrope to walk. You’re either being preached to or you’re being told that these are bad people. But Gus allows things to live. The humour, the sadness, the horror, the weird coincidences of life. Putting all those elements together is pure Gus Van Sant.”

    Once Drugstore Cowboy was released in 1989 it brought an enormous amount of vindication for Van Sant. It earned him a blank cheque to do whatever he wanted to do next, and his third feature My Own Private Idaho was a film that took bigger risks and reaped bigger rewards than anything he had done before. A story with heavily queer themes, it contributed to the blooming New Queer Cinema movement that included Todd Haynes, Gregg Araki and Van Sant, who was openly gay himself. Parker, who also produced My Own Private Idaho, recalls a conversation with Van Sant that tells you everything you need to know about the filmmaker. “When I asked him why he wanted to make that movie, he said he really wanted to fail. He wanted to do something risky, and hard, that he could fail big at. And I thought, that’s badass, that’s where I wanna be, exactly in that realm. Things aren’t worth doing unless you can really fail big.”

    My Own Private Idaho may be the most complete, defined product of where Van Sant’s interests lay in his early career, and Mala Noche may be the most purely electrifying (call me a sucker for first features), but Drugstore Cowboy’s legacy remains undeniable. “It helped herald in this independent film movement that came after Jaws and all these blockbusters of the 80s. It barely got made at the time, and it would not get made now,” Lynch says. “Unless you had Tilda Swinton playing my part and Timothee Chalamet playing Bob. You’d have to cast these ‘great indie superstar actors.’ You couldn’t just discover a Heather Graham or a James Le Gros, or me, or a Gus Van Sant.” When Dillon talks about starring in the movie, he describes it as one of the proudest contributions of his career. “It’s hard to see yourself in those early movies. Sometimes you look at old movies and it feels like seeing a picture of yourself as a kid, you’re almost unrecognisable. With Drugstore Cowboy, I still see myself. That was a moment for me.”

    Van Sant is surprised when I tell him about the multitudes of Letterboxd users that have Drugstore Cowboy in their Top 4s, though it only takes a moment of quiet introspection before he summarises exactly why he thinks the film still has a place in youth consciousness, despite it being so of its time and place. “I keep remembering that, yes, it’s about drug addicts, but it’s also really just about people that have uncertain futures. Bob has all these theories of how to live with an uncertain future. If somebody talks about dogs too much, then you got to lie low because then you brought a hex onto the group. And so, they have to chill out for 30 days until the hex is gone. He had the philosophies of a person that had to figure out their own system of survival. And I think that applies to a lot of young people, still. It’s always been about survival.”

  • Viggo Mortensen on why filmmaking is like publishing: “You have to remove parts unemotionally”

    CONFESSIONS

    Viggo Mortensen on why filmmaking is like publishing: “You have to remove parts unemotionally”

    The Dead Don’t Hurt plays with the concepts of gender in the Western. It takes place in the 1860s, and the central character is a woman. I tried to make a classic style Western in many ways, but what hopefully makes it unique and somewhat subversive is that there’s a point at which the male figure goes away to war, for a much longer time than the audience expects, and instead of going with him, which is what we typically see in movies, we remain with her. The story clearly becomes about her experience: that of a quietly stubborn, independent person. That’s what interested me.

    I don’t approach making movies or stories in a conceptual way, it’s more instinctive. The Dead Don’t Hurt (2024) is the second movie I’ve directed. The first was Falling, which was released during the Covid-19 Pandemic in 2020. I was reading a variety of books and watching a lot of older movies, including Westerns, as many did during the pandemic lockdown in 2020, and doing a fair amount of writing. An image of a girl with a rich imagination, running around in a forest, came to me. I was thinking about my mother and things I knew about her childhood, the landscape she lived in as a girl. But that was only a starting point; I wanted to understand this character I was writing about, so I began the screenplay at a moment that was important and final, the last moments of the character’s life as an adult, and then deconstructed, returning to her childhood. When something significant or difficult happens to us, we’re inclined to think about how and why we arrived at that point. We’re not always in the present, we think back a lot. You can see a face or hear a sound or recall a scent and suddenly you’re 12 years-old or 20 again. I know it’s more common for novels to jump back and forth in time, but movies and TV stories are now doing that a lot too. It’s an approach I like personally. Falling had a similar non-linear approach. The next story I’ll try to tell may unfold in linear fashion, however.

    Good writing allows space for the reader to construct the story for themselves. Well before starting to participate in movie-storytelling, when I was writing poetry and short stories, I tended to focus on taking away non-essential material from the finished pieces. How much can you take from a poem and still understand it? How much can you take out of a movie story? You do this as you’re writing, then as you’re shooting and finally editing the material you have. It often depends on how proficient the performers are, how much they are able to transmit without words. Certainly when you’re editing a movie, you have to be cold about the process—especially if you wrote it. There will be entire scenes or moments that are beautiful but if the rhythm is wrong, they must go. You have to remove these parts unemotionally. I don’t have a problem with that. Maybe because I’ve been editing books for a long time. In the end, it has to work. Nobody’s going to care that you have this profound scene in the middle if you’re bored by the time you get to it. When you’ve finished the movie and present it to the public, it becomes their movie. If they are engaged, they will follow the story and add their own views on what happens in it, filling in details in their own way, according to their personal experiences and tastes.

    I learned a lot from Lisandro Alonso [the director of Jauja and Eureka]. What I like about him as a filmmaker, and why I’ve returned to work with him, is that when he tells a story, it is as though he is telling it to himself. He’s making it for an audience of one. That’s not selfish or reckless, that’s being an artist. And that’s what I admire about him.

    Vicky Krieps in The Dead Don’t Hurt. By Marcel Zyskind. Courtesy of Viggo Mortensen.

    Both of my collaborations with Alonso were written by Fabián Casas, a great Argentine poet. What Lisandro appreciated in him I also value: his unique voice as a writer, but also his particular, dry sense of humour. You can certainly see and hear this in Jauja. Lisandro and I connected with what Fabián was trying to say. The awkwardness of the character I played, especially in his relationship with his daughter… it’s very much in the Casas spirit. I am drawn to the way Lisandro Alonso collaborates. He has unpretentiously and easily made a family with the people he has told stories with over the past twenty years, and Fabián and I quickly became additions to that family. When you work with directors, you always hope you will understand each other in a profound as well as practical way, but it doesn’t always happen. With Lisandro it certainly did.

    I’ve played characters who are racist and violent. I don’t believe in imposing my personal values on any role I play. If I accept a role, I commit to being fully inside it, without judgement. If I am playing a character who is violent, or full of misogyny, I’m doing it for a reason—because it is essential to the story. Some actors will play a villain and hope the audience likes their character regardless of what is done and said. I’m not a fan of playing to or for the audience. I’d prefer they see my characters for who they really are, inasmuch as the director and I can get that across.

    My approach in filmmaking or acting resembles what I do as a book publisher. At Perceval Press, the small independent publishing house we founded in 2002, we look for stories that are interesting to us, artists and work that I have learned something from and want to share with others, stories that might otherwise not be published. It’s not necessarily the most commercially-effective way to do things, but I believe we end up producing books in a way that makes the process and end result equally enriching. We take a similar approach to selecting the movie stories that Perceval Pictures has a hand in producing.

    Filmmaking is a collective enterprise. That’s what I like about movies. It’s a complete universe in terms of art, design, visuals, music, acting and movement—there are so many elements that go into it.

    Making movies is about solving new obstacles every day. From writing, to shooting and then editing, I seem to always be asking myself, ‘how do I solve this problem?’ Sometimes I think it’s going to be a simple day, and then something doesn’t align. But the process is about overcoming these situations against a running clock, and the best way is to pull together as a group. Filmmaking is a collective enterprise. That’s what I like about movies. It’s a complete universe in terms of art, design, visuals, music, acting and movement—there are so many elements that go into it. But a movie is also only as good as the compromises made by the individuals who create it together. It’s not about one person. When I direct, I want as much participation as possible.

    The Lord of the Rings, on a practical level, was a long, rich film education. Like any collaborative experience, you get out of it what you put in. To be on that long, long shoot with a local crew that, for the most part, had little experience up to that point but who more than made up for that with tremendous enthusiasm, provided a beautiful learning experience for all of us. By the end, everyone was in sync and very proficient, inspired by a director who was exploring new ways of telling a big movie story. It was fascinating to watch all of the departments work. We were all free to observe people building sets, making costumes and props, devising all manner of approaches to daily film- making obstacles. There was constant access to the ongoing creative process. I learned a great deal on that shoot. It was obvious that Peter Jackson and his team were creating something special, and it won’t ever happen quite that way again, because of how technology in cinema has evolved. The practical challenges met to build that epic movie story, and the grass-roots approach to shooting for so many months—years, in the end—is now much less common. In terms of acting in that story, it’s akin to being in a play that goes on for an extended period, where you continue working on that one character and their interrelationships month after month. ‘Aragorn’ became second-nature to me. That’s a great experience to have had. While some may find it boring to work on a character for so long, I cherished the experience and felt I’d been given the time to truly inhabit the role and contribute as much as possible to what Peter Jackson was trying to accomplish.

  • Why Richard Linklater is “always thinking in the eternal”

    CONFESSIONS

    Why Richard Linklater is “always thinking in the eternal”

    Richard Linklater is making himself comfortable, sliding so far down the back cushion of the hotel sofa where I am interviewing him that his chin is virtually resting on his chest. Allowing himself a satisfying lion’s yawn, he settles his hands just above his stomach and begins steepling his fingers, playfully, like a Bond villain. “I flew into London yesterday and it’s all starting to hit me, so I’m assuming a more relaxed posture” he explains with a Cheshire cat-like grin, before adding, “but I assure you my brain’s working fine.”

    None of this strikes me as the slightest bit impolite or off-putting. If anything, the multi-award winning director’s nonchalance puts me at total ease, so much so that I start to feel like I’m talking, not to one of America’s great living filmmakers (which he is), but instead, a character from one of his movies, like SubUrbia (1996), Everybody Wants Some (2016) or Dazed and Confused (his 1993 breakthrough sophomore feature)—all classic “hangout movies”, a sub-genre that Linklater more or less pioneered and has since become intrinsically tied to his cinema. 

    Tied to, but not defined by: One of the shining characteristics of Linklater’s auteurism is that his work is malleable. In other words: there’s not just one kind of Richard Linklater film, but you can be damn sure that every film of his is going to feel like it was made by Richard Linklater, be it a studio comedy (School of Rock), an arthouse experiment (The Before Trilogy (1995-2013), Slacker (1990), Boyhood (2014)), or a rotoscoped dreamscape (Waking Life (2001), A Scanner Darkly (2006).

    Malleability is at the core of Hit Man, an ingenious fusion of noir and screwball comedy that treats identity as something to be continuously moulded like playdough rather than something determined at birth. It’s also the sexiest film of the year, tied perhaps with Rose Glass’ thriller Love Lies Bleeding. Based on a true story, Hit Man follows Gary Johnson (Glen Powell, also co-writer), a mild-mannered philosophy professor whose passion for life is long lost to the mundanity of his daily routine. On the side, Gary hustles as a tech guy for the New Orleans Police, assisting in sting operations, but is promoted to undercover hitman after accidentally discovering he has a talent for character creation. His new role, though providing newfound confidence, takes a complicated turn when he gets involved with the beautiful Maddy (Adria Arjona), who had previously attempted to hire him to murder her abusive husband. 

    To celebrate the film’s release in cinemas and on streaming, Richard Linklater joined A Rabbit’s Foot to discuss the sex-appeal of Hit Man, identity as a fluid concept, his perception of failure and legacy, and how to make films that last.

    Luke Georgiades: Seeing Hit Man at LFF last year was probably the most I’ve laughed in a cinema since the pandemic.

    Richard Linklater: Oh, good! That happened at the Venice Film Festival, and I had never had that before. They showed it about halfway through the festival, which is pretty smart, because the films up until then had been important and heavy and sometimes … .you know….bummer subjects, the world’s falling apart, stuff like that. But after we premiered everyone came up to me like “hey, thank you, that was fun!” and I was like “oh, okay, you’re welcome!” It was all “thank you, I actually had a good time at the theatre.”

    LG: But it also has this philosophical backbone to it too.

    RL: Yeah, it’s definitely musing about other things. But shouldn’t all films be doing that? Shouldn’t they all have some kind of layer of adult-themed complexity?

    LG: Can you tell me about some of the conversations you and Glen were having while you were writing the film in terms of the philosophical themes you were trying to explore?

    RL: The film explores this optimistic notion of identity: that there’s always an opportunity to become a different person, or at the very least there’s an opportunity to choose. That determinism thing of where you’re born, and here are your set points, and here’s who you are…as if you’re cast as yourself in your life, and then you play the role of “the self” for the rest of your life. And it’s like, well, wait a second, if you break down why you do everything you do, it becomes a bit more complex. I was encouraged to do this thing because I got approval to do it when I was 10 years old. Is it that simple? It’s one of those eternal questions that always fascinates me. 

    Richard Linklater.

    LG: It makes me curious about how your own perception of the idea of growth and identity has changed over the years. Because there’s nuggets of those themes in your movies from the very beginning.

    RL: I see it in myself over the years. I’ve definitely changed. I was a set point guy, like, ok, I guess I’m just stuck with myself. But later I realised you can change. And that’s something the younger generation has picked up on which is kind of cool. Even the whole concept of fluid gender identity—what a great road to freedom. They believe that you can be whoever you want, and that’s pretty radical. Screw it. Don’t tell me who I am, or who I have to be. Don’t tell me I’m determined. Fuck you. I’ll be whatever I want. If you look at that in an empowering way, I just think that’s wonderful. I don’t know why people are threatened by it. I don’t know. It’s that thing again: we’re encouraged to be unique on a fundamental level then are subsequently discouraged. 

    LG: You released Apollo 10 ½ only a few years ago which is one of your most autobiographical, nostalgic films. Why make that film at this stage of your life?

    RL: I started working on that at the time in the hopes of being ready for the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, as a kind of motivator, and of course we blew past that day, so I had it in my head for a while. It’s hard to say what motivates why you want to tell a particular story. Something just gets in you and you feel like there’s something wanting to be birthed out of you. It’s as simple as that. 

    LG: I was surprised at how steamy Hit Man is. Is that a quality you were trying to push because it’s something you feel has been missing from cinema as of late?

    RL: I wasn’t so much trying to compensate for trends we’re seeing in cinema right now. But I knew that if this story was going to work, then sex would have to be a big part of Gary’s trajectory. It can get you killed. For Gary, It’s like “be careful what you wish for.” But that’s the growth of his character. He’s putting himself out there in a vulnerable position by declaring himself through passion, instead of sitting at home on his own where he knows nothing bad can ever happen to him. It’s like the Tin Man—he gets a heart, but then his heart gets broken. That’s the trade-off.

    I knew that if this story was going to work, then sex would have to be a big part of Gary’s trajectory. He’s putting himself out there in a vulnerable position by declaring himself through passion, instead of sitting at home on his own where he knows nothing bad can ever happen to him. It’s like the Tin Man—he gets a heart, but then his heart gets broken. That’s the trade-off.

    Richard Linklater

    LG: What do you think of the recent debate around Gen-Z supposedly wanting to see less sex on screen in movies? Where do you think that’s coming from in youth consciousness?

    RL: I can’t even believe that, that’s the only reason I went to see films as a kid, to hopefully see some sex. I don’t know. I’ve heard that too, but I can’t even fathom it. Not that we’re oversexualised or anything, it’s just…unless you’re at a kid-level, which I don’t believe either…but the only time you remove sex is when you remove the adult. Anything prepubescent shouldn’t include sex. But anything after that, anything exploring the complexity of adult life should often include sex. Maybe there’s a plot to make the world prepubescent. Keep the subject matter simple. There’s no genitalia in superhero movies. That’s not the motivator for any human behaviour in those films. 

    Hit Man (2024). Dir. Richard Linklater. Image Courtesy Netflix.

    LG: This film is set in New Orleans but it’s originally a Houston set-story. I know Bernie was adapted from a story in Texas Monthly, just as Hit Man was. What do you think you continuously find interesting about the kinds of stories and people you may find in the South, because you’ve really kept your connection to those roots in a way.

    RL: I guess I just have access to it, I wholly understand it. The people in Bernie or Hit Man…I know those people. But I’m interested in stories from other places for sure. We all kind of know each other, there’s just that extra layer of confidence in the South, maybe. But I never considered myself a Southern artist. I consider myself a citizen of the world. 

    LG: I read somewhere that you hadn’t seen any of Glen’s disguises until he would show up on set, so did you really just leave that in his court to come up with these other characters?

    RL: I hadn’t seen them fully realised, but we had names for all the characters, we had wigs. We had these facsimiles of Glen’s face with the different wigs on, and there were glasses on this guy etcetera. But the final dial in was on the day, it was Glen’s little reveal moment. He definitely went off on the deep end. 

    LG: Which was your favourite of those characters?

    RL: When Tara [Cooper], our hair and makeup person, added the freckles to the face of the orange-haired guy, that was the beautiful final step. I thought that was brilliant, getting those details. 

    LG: What kind of movies are you giving as homework to your cast or crew while making a movie like Hit Man

    RL: So few.The film is such a mashup of different genres. I talked a lot about film noir and screwball. But I more just assumed that the cast had seen Double Indemnity (1944). God, I hope they’ve seen Body Heat (1981). Body Heat is such a good reimagining of Double Indemnity, 40 years later, and I guess now we’re 40 years on from that.. Then you get Screwball, one of the great timeless genres, even though they can be a little embarrassing in their immediacy, because they depict a world that’s so contained in a certain moment. Like Preston Sturges films are timeless in one way but also really dated in how he depicts his world. But the dialogue, the relationships, the humour are all very sophisticated.

    LG: Is there a single film whose traces could be found in any of your films?

    RL: Isn’t everything post-1939 based a little bit on Wizard of Oz (1939)? Isn’t that someone’s theory? Which I would agree with. I just referenced Tin Man, so…

    LG: You’re constantly taking big swings with the kinds of movies you make. Have you ever made a film that you’ve looked back on and considered a miss? Tell me a bit about how that idea of failure, or the possibility of it, fits within your approach to filmmaking.

    RL: As a former baseball player, who really did take swings and misses… There’s a game where you didn’t get a home run but you hit the ball hard three times and you figured out the pitcher, and you come away going “nah, I got a little better”, even though the official record says you lost.

    Something that looks like a success can sometimes make you feel like you did less good than how people are telling you you did. That’s what it is to have a high standard for yourself. You stop buying into other people’s notion of success or failure. No film was still-born to me, no matter what anyone said. Every film that I’ve made worked the way I wanted it to work. What the athlete in me wouldn’t be able to live with is “I didn’t try hard enough during that game.”

    Before Sunrise (1995). Dir. Richard Linklater.

    LG: Yeah, and then again, what does a film “doing well” really mean?

    RL: Our industry’s not set up for consistency in that way. Even when you do have a film that’s “doing well” you have people around who are just unsatisfied. It’s almost even worse. Success only agitates people. “Well, maybe it’s not that good….” Even from a business standpoint, in the indie world it’s not the failures that depress you, it’s the successes. If you wanna get disgruntled, make a big success. 

    LG: Do you look back at the body of work you’re going to leave behind, the way a filmmaker like Tarantino does, or are you always looking forward to the next one?

    RL: You can’t not be aware of it, you put your life into it, but I don’t really care how it’s perceived. I don’t think you can sum it up or make sense of it the way other filmmakers will try to do. You look back on other bodies of work, from writers, musicians, and even with someone you like a lot, there’s that one album or book or film you haven’t jumped into yet because you haven’t heard great things about it. But maybe that’s their best work. Maybe it’s their personal favourite. You just don’t know. The world can have a very different view from you. That’s the beauty of it. This work is sitting there for all time. You can go back and check it out whenever you want. Or not—let it fall into complete obscurity. What’s that thing? You jump ahead somewhere between a minute ago and a hundred years and “there’ll be a day you’ll have your last reader” [laughs]. Think of a graveyard. Yeah, people gather round, but at some point there’s going to be no one alive who ever knew this person. Time will certainly humble everyone. So what does it fucking matter? We’re all in some little continuum here.

    Even from a business standpoint, in the indie world it’s not the failures that depress you, it’s the successes. If you wanna get disgruntled, make a big success.

    Richard Linklater

    LG: Merrily We Roll Along is going to be filmed over 20 years. In Boyhood there was a very practical reason for the method, because you can’t just use prosthetics to make a 7 year old an 18 year old. But with Paul Mescal, you could probably get away with using prosthetics to age him. So where has that itch come from this time to stretch out that filming process over many years?

    RL: I just don’t think you could get away with it. Sure, you could do the hair and the makeup, but it wouldn’t be true, because the actor hasn’t lived that life. We’ve started on this train together and for it to work by the end they would need to have lived a life. It’s character based. You can fake the surface, but even then, the special effects show themselves pretty quickly, within a few years sometimes, because it just gets better, and so it gets worse in a way. I don’t really trust it because of that. But that’s the story I’m interested in telling. I want to work with Paul Mescal in his 40s, whatever that looks like. Neither of us can conceive of that now. I have some idea, but until we get there, we won’t know. 

    LG: So many of your films have found longevity in the cultural consciousness, especially with young people. School of Rock is the perfect example of that. Have you been surprised over the years to see how well that movie, and the Before trilogy for that matter, has continued to find new life generation after generation? 

    RL: It’s satisfying. I never wanted the Before Trilogy to be topical or fancy, I was always thinking in the eternal. Like there’s a certain level of a concept being so clever that it only works once, and that ages it and stops it from resonating. With some art, you’re making it from the future. You’re seeing it with longevity even at the moment of conception, as if it’s not something that belongs to any specific moment at all, and therefore every moment. Then at that point, you’re just reaching out to people, not only everywhere, but across time too. It’s not arrogant to think that way, you’re trying to deepen the work in a way that works beyond the superficial culture of the moment. You forgive School of Rock for its age because it’s really about these people, the personality, the situation. It is wild to meet people who weren’t born when that film was made who now love it. It’s always a surprise, and it’s always cool. 

  • Agnieszka Holland: “We are changing Europe into some kind of fortress”

    CONFESSIONS

    Agnieszka Holland: “We are changing Europe into some kind of fortress”

    Agnieszka Holland wants you to listen. After beginning her career as an assistant to key figures of the Polish Film School, Krzysztof Zanussi and Andrzej Wajda, Holland marked out a cinematic career of her own. While she may be best known to a mainstream audience for her beautiful 1993 adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, it is a distraction from the political consciousness which has driven much of her work. 

    The two films which made her name were 1985’s Angry Harvest, nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and 1990’s Europa, Europa, which also earned her a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. Both films tackled aspects of the Holocaust which had not been seen in cinema before. Her international recognition led to a more mainstream mode of filmmaking, including work on several major television series including The Wire and House of Cards.

    In 2011 Holland returned to her earlier political motivations, directing In Darkness about the German occupation of Poland. Her 2017 film Spoor adapted Nobel Prize-winner Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead as an ecological drama protesting the hunting of wild animals, while 2019’s Mr Jones brought new attention to the Holodomor, the Ukrainian famine engineered by Stalin in the 1930s. 

    Her latest film, Green Border, is perhaps Holland’s most controversial film to date. It dramatises the migration crisis on the Belarus-European Union border, staged from the perspective of refugees and border guards. It has been condemned by the Polish government. Minister of Justice Zbigniew Ziobro wrote on X (formerly Twitter), “In the Third Reich, the Germans produced propaganda films showing Poles as bandits and murderers. Today they have Agnieszka Holland for that.” A Rabbit’s Foot talks to Holland about her true intentions behind the film.

    Lillian Crawford: Why did you decide to make this film?

    Agnieszka Holland: I decided to do it because it’s going on. It’s happening. It’s the situation which is on the Polish-Belarusian border, but which is on all borders of the rich world. It’s one of the most important issues of the contemporary world, migration and how we respond. We are changing Europe into some kind of fortress and we believe that we will reach security if we create walls around our safe world. But at the same time we see that we become susceptible to blackmail and provocation coming from outside dictators and regimes. We are forgetting the achievements in the second half of the twentieth century when we believe that crimes against humanity and nationalism and racism belong to the past, at least in Europe. 

    I’m interested in the human side of that. The choices that people have to make. That’s why I decided to show the triple perspective—the refugees, but also the activists, local people, and the border guards who received the order to act in a way which is practically illegal. But they believe that they are serving their country. 

    Agnieszka Holland. Image courtesy of Margaret.

    LC: How did you go about researching those different perspectives? 

    AH: When the crisis was provoked by Lukashenko and Putin, they decided that they could take political advantage of the migration situation on the Polish border for their elections, as they had done in 2015. They did it before and they won the election in 2015, spreading fear of invasion of migrants from Syria. Here they’ve been using similar tools, but they decided also to control the narration, to lock the zone around the border and make an emergency state there. Which was practically illegal, but they did it and very few people protested. It was difficult to have access to the most dramatic or brutal actions of the military forces. 

    That’s when I decided to make the film, because I understood that the government is afraid of the images and believes in the strength and power of images, and I believe in it too. The images I created were based on all available documentary sources. I was talking to many activists and one of my screenwriters went with them for two weeks to the actions in the forest. I spoke to several refugees, but mostly I was watching the tapes recorded by the activists. I also spoke to some of the border guards, which was the most difficult, of course, because they’ve been afraid to talk due to the possible consequences. So we had hours and hours of recordings and pages of material. It was probably the best documented film I’ve ever made. 

    LC: Why did you decide to turn it into a narrative feature then, rather than a documentary? 

    AH: It was impossible to access with a camera the places where the most important things have been going on. Several documentaries from Poland are coming out about those events, but they are mostly very intimate stories of one Polish family or one refugee family and they are unable to show the mechanism of that. Also my medium is fiction. If I want to show it in some totality, it has to be fiction. 

    LC: What power does fiction film have over documentary for you? 

    AH: It’s just that I know how to make fiction. But also I think that it can reach wider. It can reach a much bigger amount of people and in a way which is—I don’t want to say more emotional, documentary can be very emotional, but somehow it’s easier to make it more universal. To show the global impact of that, to have that kind of ethical dimension. 

    Green Border (dir. Agnieszka Holland), 2024

    LC: I suppose there is something quite literary about it, particularly in the structuring and the different perspectives. You’ve worked with Olga Tokarczuk on Spoor, and I was thinking about Polish literature in the way that you frame the narrative. Does literature inspire you in the way that you create films? 

    AH: Yes, it’s true. In films, even if I’m basing it on actual events or real characters, I give myself a lot of freedom to open up my imagination. Here it was probably more limited. I felt a responsibility because I touched a very controversial and sensitive political subject. For example, when I showed some drastic facts, I wanted it to be documented at least from two sources. I was inventing less than in my other movies. 

    LC: Which is true of previous films you have made. Do those experiences steel you to the controversy that you have had with Green Border? Does it make it easier for you to say what you want to say?

    AH: I didn’t want to give arguments to the hateful propaganda when they can catch me on some exaggeration or some invention. Of course, they’ve still been doing that but they didn’t have the proof. I had proof to the opposite. So it was a different situation than with films I have made in the past. I had to be more careful. 

    LC: Do you think there are limits to what you’re able to do? This is a conversation that occurs around Holocaust cinema, films like Europa Europa or Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest. Is there an approach you believe that one should have when deciding how to show real evil in fiction film? Are there limits to what you are able to show? 

    AH: When I was doing my first films about the Holocaust, Angry Harvest and Europa Europa, they were not the first films about the Holocaust. So I needed to renew the message or renew the story. You need to find different points of view and different forms of narration. But when I was doing Green Border it was the first film about those events, so it was much more raw. So I was not afraid to show what is happening in a very realistic way. Whereas in Son of Saul or The Zone of Interest the filmmakers have been looking for a perspective which is completely new to tell the story. We all know the story of the Auschwitz Commandant Rudolf Höss and what he was doing in Auschwitz. We know the Treblinka situation. But it was never shown from such a perspective and suddenly he is much more relevant today. We become used to a certain imaginary, and it is very difficult to change that. Those two films succeed with that.

    When I was doing Holocaust movies or other movies like Mr Jones, I was doing it not only to honour the victims but because I felt that it can become relevant now. I had the feeling that the Second World War did not really end, that it was just put to sleep.

    Agnieszka Holland

    When I was doing Holocaust movies or other movies like Mr Jones, I was doing it not only to honour the victims but because I felt that it can become relevant now. I had the feeling that the Second World War did not really end, that it was just put to sleep. Its consequences, which first have been positive because humanity woke up and they said that it is impossible to come back to the situation which provoked Holocaust and other crimes against humanity. The European Union is a fruit of that attempt to fight the nationalists and racism. It was like a vaccination which has since evaporated. For about twenty I feel that it is coming back. That we are not immune anymore against that kind of situation. The migration challenge is one which very easily can trigger again the danger of such a massive evil. I feel that the world again is starting to be run by monsters. And that we have very weak tools to fight it. 

    Green Border (dir. Agnieszka Holland), 2024

    LC: Your tool has been cinema. How useful do you think that is?

    AH: I thank that cinema has deserted that area of politics and difficult, painful questions, except for very few filmmakers. But now when the danger is so imminent, I think that at least some of them are waking up. I know that I am unable to change the world with my film, but I can at least change the minds and souls of some people. We are trying to bring this message to those who can be decisive, politically speaking. We’ve been showing the film in the European Parliament, in the European Court of Justice. We want to reach those politicians who can at least make little changes. It is difficult, it’s not very successful, but still we are knocking on those doors.

    LC: What can a regular audience do after they have seen your film?

    AH: On a practical level, you can do a lot. You can support those organisations and those people who are giving practical help to suffering people. Of course it will not make a huge difference, but it can make a real difference for the lives of some people. When I’m making a film for me the specific human being is more important than humanity. We need specific empathetic imagination. We grow accustomed to the most terrible crimes. The war in Ukraine goes on for two years and people don’t even want to listen about it. The massacre in Gaza created incredible outrage, but after a few months it’s no longer being talked about. That is the sin we are all committing, the sin of indifference. And as long as we are indifferent, the world will go in the most terrible direction. I think that a few things like corruption of the media, laziness and cowardice of politicians, and the indifference of society make the bed ready for the most terrible crimes. 

  • “We had Satan on speed-dial”: An Oral History of Drugstore Cowboy

    CONFESSIONS

    “We had Satan on speed-dial”: An Oral History of Drugstore Cowboy

    America: the mid to late 1980s. We’re deep into Nancy Reagan’s Just Say No campaign, and the American government’s war against drugs has seen the rise of mass incarceration of marginalised communities at an unprecedented level. Meanwhile, Gus Van Sant, an up-and-coming director in his early thirties, is preparing to shoot his game-changing second feature Drugstore Cowboy (1989). His premise? A gang of heroin addicts in Portland get their fix by robbing drug stores. 

    Van Sant was hot, having just released his DIY filmmaking indie masterpiece Mala Noche in 1986, which he wrote, produced, edited and directed with a micro-budget of $25,000. It was the breath of fresh air that the American film industry didn’t know it needed. Adapted from the story of the same name by Walt Curtis, the film told of a 30 year old queer American man who becomes infatuated with a 16 year-old Mexican migrant. “I had no idea if it was going to be watchable or even artistically whether it would capture people’s imagination,” Gus Van Sant tells me. “But I worked really hard on it.” As we speak over Zoom, the director leans back in his desk chair at a 120 degree angle (there’s a reason they call him the mellowest man in Hollywood), clasping his hands in reflection. 

    Mala Noche was something new and exhilarating, a relief from the big box office blockbusters that audiences had grown addicted to. It shone a cinematic lens on subcultures and minorities that weren’t commonly represented at the time, and it did so with a radical sensibility. It was gritty, grainy and unpolished—and it looked all the better for it. “We were told that there was no audience for black stories, queer stories, female stories, foreign language, and no audience for anything non-white,” explains Laurie Parker, production executive of Drugstore Cowboy. “There was one kind of thing you could make. Mala Noche was a sign that a transgressive new wave was on the horizon.” 

    But the best was yet to come, and in retrospect Mala Noche served as an exciting prelude to a new wave of American independent cinema pioneered by young and bold filmmakers like Van Sant, Steven Soderbergh (who would release his classic Sex, Lies and Videotape the same year as Drugstore Cowboy) and Todd Haynes. 

    In the meantime, all eyes were on Van Sant. Avenue Entertainment had taken a chance on his screenplay for Drugstore Cowboy, which notably refused to take any moral stance on drug use, a controversial angle considering the era. “You had never seen people putting needles into their veins and experiencing that rush before,” says Matt Dillon, who plays Bob, the leader of the titular Drugstore Cowboys. “That’s one of the best things about cinema—it can reward risk-taking. And Drugstore Cowboy was one of those films that dared to risk it all.”

    THE ORIGINAL DRUGSTORE COWBOY

    The first seeds of Drugstore Cowboy were planted when screenwriter Dan Yost (credited as cowriter of the film) handed Gus a few manuscripts by James Fogle, a prisoner of Walla Walla State Penitentiary and one of the original real-life Drugstore Cowboys. During his sentence Fogle penned fictionalised stories about his life, two of which ended up in front of Van Sant: one was Drugstore Cowboy, and the other was a novel called Satan’s Sandbox. “Drugstore Cowboy is his life out of prison, and then he wrote this other one, which was his life in prison, which was also very good. It was actually my favourite one of those two projects.” Van Sant liked the idea of Satan’s Sandbox so much that he wrote a rough draft of a screenplay that he pitched to studios alongside Drugstore Cowboy. It’s an interesting thought: that in an alternate timeline there’s a screenplay for an unmade film called Drugstore Cowboy tucked away in a drawer somewhere. Would Satan’s Sandbox have made the same splash had it been developed as Van Sant’s breakout feature? We’ll never know, though the director admits that he still blows the dust off the screenplay every now and again. “Maybe one day I’ll make it. Things just keep getting in the way,” he says.

    Drugstore Cowboy
    Matt Dillon in Drugstore Cowboy (1989)

    “Fogle’s stories were really funny, and they were authentic. They spoke from experience,” Van Sant tells me. Authentic was the word that would come to define Drugstore Cowboy’s appeal. These characters weren’t your typical stereotypes of sniffling, uninspired drug addicts—they were larger than life, charismatic, and ambitious. Yost, who remained a life-time friend of Fogle, describes Fogle’s novel as autobiographical. In his eyes, the inmate writer behind the film was: “Someone who was loved by everybody that knew him. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t a criminal.” During my conversation with Parker, she mentions that some of the most interesting screenplays she’s ever read were by prisoners. By this metric, Fogle was a shining example, a man who lived adventurously and had stories to tell. In Yost’s account, Fogle “used prison as his office. It was the only place he could write.” Van Sant and Matt Dillon (who had signed on to play the film’s lead) were all ears. They would visit the penitentiary together to pick Fogle’s brain, both of them characterising the visitation room in Walla Walla by the paintings that hung on its interior. “The decorations in the room were pictures of all the famous walls of the world, like the Berlin Wall,” Van Sant laughs. “Because the town is called Walla Walla.” Dillon adds, “I thought, that’s a strange place to put a framed painting of The Great Wall of China. Some sort of subliminal message to the inmates that you’re never getting out of here.”

    These early meetings with Fogle formed the backbone for what was about to become Drugstore Cowboy. His stories went beyond his novels, with Gus recalling a particular anecdote that always stuck with him: “He had first gone into prison at 13 in Wyoming—it was the 50s, they didn’t care, they just threw young people in the slammer— and during his sentence he had escaped in the middle of the night from this Wyoming prison. They were running across the desert in pitch black, being chased by a convoy of guards and dogs, and they had a pretty good lead. Then all of a sudden, a bright light lit up the whole desert and exposed them. And the convoy just drove into the middle of the desert and picked them up and brought them back. They didn’t understand what the light was until the next day, where they read in the papers that it was one of the first nuclear tests. They had been exposed by a nuclear bomb.”

    Though Fogle had robbed his fair share of drugstores, contrary to popular belief, the Drugstore Cowboy’s protagonist Bob was actually inspired by a friend of his—Brian Ward, the most notorious of the Drugstore Cowboys. “Fogle told me that the character was based on a guy who looked just like me,” Dillon said, after admitting that there was initial concern that he was too young to play the role. “He came from an Irish-American family, and [Fogle] said “as bad as I was, this guy robbed 200 drugstores more than I did.” Ward was Fogle’s original inspiration for Bob’s unhealthy obsession with superstition in the story, namely the now-iconic hat-on-the-bed scene. “He inherited that paranoia from his mother,” Dillon says. “After playing Bob I became obsessed too. I still freak out if I accidentally put a hat on the bed. I’m not saying I believe it, but I don’t mess with fate, either.”

    GETTIN’ THE GANG TOGETHER

    It’s hard to imagine anyone playing Bob better than Dillon, who brings an astounding amount of heart to a character that, by and large, should be impossible to empathise with. Van Sant’s original choice for the role was musician Tom Waits while others rumoured to be in line to were Jack Nicholson (who apparently declined the role in a heartbeat), Sean Penn, and Bob Dylan (Gus disputes this, but says he wishes he came up with the idea at the time). Waits had already accepted the role, but the studio wanted a lead who could win an Oscar, and Dillon fit the bill, having already expressed interest in working with Gus after he saw Mala Noche. Once Dillon was cast, Gus had free reign to cast whomever fit his vision for the film. He famously took polaroids of every actor who came to audition, from Heather Graham—who plays Nadine in the film—to James Le Gros—who plays Rick—both members of Bob’s crew of drugstore thrifters. ‘It was a Warhol-type thing,” says Nick Wechsler, Gus’ one-time manager and a producer on the film. “He would pin them up on the wall, and the energy they were giving him helped him decide who to cast in the movie. When Heather Graham pulled up—her polaroid just popped.”

    matt dillon gus van sant
    Polaroid of Matt Dillon. 1987. By Gus Van Sant.
    heather graham gas van sant
    Polaroid of Heather Graham. 1987. By Gus Van Sant.

    Kelly Lynch, on the other hand, didn’t need a polaroid to know that she was born to play the role of Janet, Bob’s lover and partner-in-crime in the film, and the moment she saw the title hanging on a wall in her manager’s office, she knew it would be hers. The problem? Lynch was a gorgeous blonde and the character called for a junkie brunette—a rough, Patti Smith type. “What experience do you have with that?” Kelly recalls her manager asking. “Here’s the thing,” she replies, zooming me from her California home. “In 1981 I was hit in a head-on collision—the other driver went the wrong way on a freeway and hit me head on, and I was in a hospital for a year…I saw these lights coming at me and  I went “Fuck!” and went through the windshield, the steering wheel came down and snapped my legs in two, and then the dashboard accordioned my thighs. They almost had to amputate my legs.” At the hospital, the doctor would inject a shot of demerol into her hips every four hours. Then they gave her Percodan. Then Talwin. Percocets. Morphine. As Kelly puts it, she became a complete, 100% junkie. “Instead of stepping me down, they completely took me off of them, and I went through a screaming withdrawal that lasted about three days—it was like going into the bowels of hell. So I told my agent that I did know what being a junkie was like, and I’m absolutely right for this part. I went into the audition and got the part the very same day.“

    “I went through a screaming withdrawal that lasted about three days—it was like going into the bowels of hell.”

    Kelly Lynch on Drugstore Cowboy
    Kelly Lynch drugstore cowboy
    Kelly Lynch on the set of Drugstore Cowboy (1989)

    Dillon would also use his brushes with drug culture to inform how he approached the role. Though he never used himself, he spoke to friends from back home in New York who knew addiction intimately. Characters like Railroad Johnny: an energetic addict working on a railroad in Harlem who Dillon claims would throw down his tools and walk four blocks to the shooting gallery to blow some holes in the wall. “He would take me through his routines,” Dillon explains. “He would tell me about his life, getting high, getting in trouble. He was an angry guy, but he wasn’t that picture of a passive, feeling sorry for himself type of addict.” Then there was a friend of Dillon’s who actually went to jail for robbing drugstores. “He was a lifelong Manhattan guy,” Dillon laughs. “So he couldn’t even drive a car. He’d rob a drugstore then jump in a cab.” He also kept a correspondence with Brian Ward, who had become a running enthusiast while he was in prison. “He was Mr. Healthy and Clean, a fitness freak when he was incarcerated. Of course, he got out and a short time later he died of a drug overdose, as you might expect.”

    With the four central ‘cowboys’—Bob (Dillon), Janet (Lynch), Nadine (Graham) and Rick (Le Gros)—finally assembled, rehearsals for the film could finally begin. But this wasn’t your average table read. Instead, the actors and Gus would drive around Portland for hours, in character, staking out drug stores and shooting the shit. Gus even refers to a small car accident they experienced during one of the rehearsals which led to them driving back to set in a near-totaled station wagon (he mentions immediately after that he hasn’t rehearsed this way since). “What Gus wanted from those rehearsals was for us to become a family, so that when we got to shooting 19 year-old Heather Graham wouldn’t be starstruck around Matt Dillon.” Says Lynch. “We had gotten over those things, and we became a coven of actors who were hanging out and saying these lines and playing around together. That I thought was genius.”

    drugstore cowboy cast
    The cast of Drugstore Cowboy (1989)

    Like Mala Noche before it, and My Own Private Idaho after it, Drugstore Cowboy would be set in Portland, Oregon, a place that had somewhat adopted the Kentucky-born, LA-based Van Sant as its own. Portland had a certain magnetism that pulled the director into its orbit, and it remains a home for him to this day. The city was a bohemian enclave. It was the home of writer John Reed, and it was Portland’s Reed College that Kerouac wrote of in The Dharma Bums. The city had as much to bring to the story as the cast inhabiting it. “There was always this side of Portland that attracted and encouraged Bohemia,” he says. “It was a comfortable place to go if you didn’t have enough money to live in your city. You could always find cheap places in Portland.” In other words, a perfect home for Drugstore Cowboy’s merry band of criminal outcasts.

    THE KING OF THE BEATS

    Then there was William Burroughs, who appears in the film as ‘Tom the Priest’, an older ex-drug addict who councils Bob during his attempt to get clean in Drugstore Cowboy’s final third. Although, in the original script, he was just ‘Old Tom’. “This guy doesn’t have much going for him,” Burroughs had told Van Sant. “How ‘bout we call him Tom the Priest?” That wasn’t the only thing he changed about the role, Van Sant tells me. He basically re-wrote his entire part, which Van Sant was more than happy to oblige, more relieved than anything that Burroughs had accepted the role. The director had admired Burroughs for years, along with the likes of Andy Warhol, Tom Robbins, Tom Wolfe, and Ken Kecey. “These were his avant-garde heroes.” Parker says. “He wanted to be around them, and so he would offer them roles.”

    At the time, Burroughs was already a counterculture superstar, and a genuine celebrity. He became a legend of the Beat Generation with novels like Queer, Junkie and his quintessential 1959 Naked Lunch, but by the late 1980s, Burroughs’ mythology was being embraced by new subcultures. “He wasn’t willingly the leader of the Beats, but he was made their leader by Berg [Allen Ginsberg] and Kerouac,” Van Sant says, still a little starry eyed. “And then he moved to New York, and would perform in punk clubs. He would read his poetry before the Ramones went on. And so he became king of the punk rockers, too.” Strangely, recruiting Burroughs for the movie went smoothly, owing to a previous interaction between Van Sant and the writer in the 70s in which he adapted one of his stories into a short film. “He was in New York, and his name was in the phone book, so I thought the best way was to really go and visit him and ask permission to adapt his story. Because he was famous in the Jack Kerouac books—they were always visiting Burroughs.” 

    An infamous junkie himself, Burroughs was a perfect fit for Tom Murphy—a fallen angel with a poet’s tongue, referred to by Dillon’s character as “Benevolent Father Murphy, the most notorious dope fiend on the coast”. Some of the most prophetic lines of dialogue in the movie belong to Burroughs’s Father Murphy:“I predict in the near future right-wingers will use drug hysteria as a pretext to set up an international police apparatus.” Burroughs performed all of his scenes on strong doses of marijuana, which the director had to hunt down himself. According to Van Sant, he claimed it was the only way he could remember his lines, which the director, ever the Beat aficionado, points out was antithetical to most of his writing. “He was always saying that he never smoked marijuana, and he hated it. It gave him the fear. He would always talk like that. I guess by this time, when he was around 78, he learnt to smoke. Though you could never really tell with him if he was high or not.” 

    William Burroughs Gus Van Sant
    Polaroid of William Burroughs. 1987. By Gus Van Sant.

    Ask any of the cast and crew of Drugstore Cowboy about Burroughs and they’ll probably have a story for you. Laurie tells me about the time she and novelist Tom Robbins were tasked with scoring for him while doing press for the movie. “Burroughs was ill one day,” she says. “He was sick, and he had to get well. And ‘getting well’ meant that you needed some heroin or methadone or whatever. We had Satan on speed dial. He was a drug dealer with a hell’s angels kind of vibe, and we would drop by his house and score from him.” Robbins, an iconic writer in his own right, reportedly had such a good time that he penned Triplets in dedication to that day. In the poem, he writes: I stopped by Satan’s house / I just happened to be in the neighbourhood / Satan came downstairs in a Raiders jacket / His aura was like burnt rubber ‘ but his grin could paint a sunrise / on a coal shed wall. / “I see you’ve met Desire / and Fulfilment,” he said, / polishing his monocle with a blood-flecked rag. / “Regret is in the kitchen making coffee.” 

    “We had Satan on speed-dial”

    Laurie Parker on Drugstore Cowboy

    As far as Matt Dillon was concerned, Burroughs was stone-cold sober during shooting. His memories of the poet don’t involve driving around town on side-quests in search of leather-clad drug devils and a score, but he remembers Burroughs having a particular affinity for “lethal things.” Guns, poisonous snakes, explosive devices.. “Bill was a jaded guy,” Dillon recollects,“but he had a lot of curiosities. He once sat there and told me about a snake that rolled around on its ribs and growled like a dog. He would say ‘the snake growled like a dog and, brother, if you got bit by that snake you got a problem.’” Dillon, who had already become acquainted with Burroughs during a prior movie shoot in Kansas, was one of the few on the set to see a warmer side to the Beat King. “He would have a martini at the end of his day. How funny is that?” Dillon laughs, before proudly recalling how for years after Drugstore Cowboy he would receive annual Christmas cards from Burroughs. “And it was in his handwriting so I knew it was legit,” he says, just in case I don’t believe him. “He had a distinctive penmanship.”

    William Burroughs
    William Burroughs and Matt Dillon in Drugstore Cowboy (1987)

    THE AMERICAN INDEPENDENT

    Talking to the cast and crew about the production of a film that came out almost three and a half decades ago, there’s naturally going to be a rashomon-esque conflict of memory. I hear the same story four times with four different endings. One thing everyone can agree on, though, is that Gus Van Sant is a genius. It’s an easy statement to make from this vantage point, with a varied career and an independent cinema movement to put under the magnifying glass, but not everyone believed it at the time. Until the screenplay landed at Avenue Entertainment, where the newly hired Laurie Parker got her hands on it, Drugstore Cowboy received rejection after rejection. “We were coming out of Nancy Reagan’s anti-drug campaign, and people were rejecting this script because of that.” Dillon explains. “I spoke to actors who were telling me ‘I can’t believe you’re making this movie’, people who thought it was immoral to tell a story that humanised the drug user. It speaks to the times we were in.” 

    It’s no surprise that so many actors and studios wouldn’t touch Drugstore Cowboy with a ten-foot pole. Here’s a screenplay written during the height of the Just Say No era that actively depicts the euphoria of shooting up, the adventures drug addicts went on just to acquire the drugs, and the rush they experienced in doing so—and not only that, but it did it all with a wry humour that pointed out the absurdity of it all. “When we were doing the movie people were saying ‘Oh, it’s so sad, it’s so difficult, the life of a junkie’ and we were all laughing for most of the movie.” Lynch says. “We had a great time making it. Because for the most part, this kind of junkie doesn’t wallow in their pain—it’s one caper after another. And sometimes people die, and things happen, but you’re so medicated that the truths of the hardships of life don’t penetrate your soul in the same way.”

    Gus Van Sant contact sheet
    Gus Van Sant, on rooftop. Portland, Oregon, 1992. By Eric Edwards.

    Moreover, Van Sant brought an independent filmmaker’s sensibility to the studio feature, and a radically different energy to the filmmaking process that financiers and even some members of the crew weren’t ready for. “When the director is new and they have yet to prove themselves,” Parker says, “all the ways that they want to innovate are seen as breaking the rules. And all those breaking of the rules are seen as ignorance and poor training.” Van Sant remembers there being whispers on the lot about whether he had it in him to complete the feature. To some, he was too young, too laidback, and too DIY. In fact, Van Sant admits that the three million dollar budget was more a hindrance on him than anything. The large crew afforded to him by the studio only made the day less productive; on his four person crew on Mala Noche, he could get 90 setups in a day. On Drugstore, with an 80 person crew, it was more like 13 setups. “Everything that we did, there was a hold-up,” he sighs. “I was getting in trouble too because we were falling behind on schedule.” The shorter, high-intensity days brought on by the sheer scale of production rendered Van Sant’s typical storyboarding useless. He had to change the way he worked to keep up. ”I’d read about Kubrick doing it: You rehearse first, then when you have everything blocked, then you decide where the camera can be and what the camera can do. So I devised this little trick where I realised that if I moved the camera into 10 different positions during the shot, it still only took 30 minutes to light. So I could get a close-up, a medi shot, a wide shot in one scene at the same time it would usually take to light just one close-up. That changed my perception of filmmaking. I haven’t gone back to storyboards since.” This new, fluid way of working became a mode of artistic liberation for Van Sant and the actors, who were now open to improvising and moving freely within the scene. He encouraged kinetic filmmaking. “It was his idea for us to shoot the home movie that bookends Drugstore,” Dillon remembers. “He put the camera in our hands—mine, Kelly and Jim. The best directors are always open to what falls in front of them. I’ve seen it with Francis Ford Coppola on The Outsiders, I saw it with Lars Von Trier on The House That Jack Built, and I saw it with Gus with Drugstore Cowboy.” Like the rest of the crew, Dillon speaks of Van Sant with reverence, calling him the genuine article, a real artist, and that while the director seemed laidback, there was never any doubt that it was his movie.

    Gus Van Sant polaroids
    Gus Van Sant, on rooftop. Portland, Oregon, 1992. By Eric Edwards.

    Van Sant himself keeps an admirable modesty about his work throughout our entire discussion. I mention that Premier Magazine once named Drugstore Cowboy one of the most daring films of all time for the way it handles its subject matter, and he’s quick to point out that Charles Dickens was telling stories about the streets of London a century earlier. When I ask Lynch to describe what she admired the most about Van Sant’s sensibilities as a filmmaker, she said: “Gus looks at disenfranchised people with a dignity meeting gritty reality, and that’s a tough tightrope to walk. You’re either being preached to or you’re being told that these are bad people. But Gus allows things to live. The humour, the sadness, the horror, the weird coincidences of life. Putting all those elements together is pure Gus Van Sant.”

    Once Drugstore Cowboy was released in 1989 it brought an enormous amount of vindication for Van Sant. It earned him a blank cheque to do whatever he wanted to do next, and his third feature My Own Private Idaho was a film that took bigger risks and reaped bigger rewards than anything he had done before. A story with heavily queer themes, it contributed to the blooming New Queer Cinema movement that included Todd Haynes, Gregg Araki and Van Sant, who was openly gay himself. Parker, who also produced My Own Private Idaho, recalls a conversation with Van Sant that tells you everything you need to know about the filmmaker. “When I asked him why he wanted to make that movie, he said he really wanted to fail. He wanted to do something risky, and hard, that he could fail big at. And I thought, that’s badass, that’s where I wanna be, exactly in that realm. Things aren’t worth doing unless you can really fail big.”

    My Own Private Idaho may be the most complete, defined product of where Van Sant’s interests lay in his early career, and Mala Noche may be the most purely electrifying (call me a sucker for first features), but Drugstore Cowboy’s legacy remains undeniable. “It helped herald in this independent film movement that came after Jaws and all these blockbusters of the 80s. It barely got made at the time, and it would not get made now,” Lynch says. “Unless you had Tilda Swinton playing my part and Timothee Chalamet playing Bob. You’d have to cast these ‘great indie superstar actors.’ You couldn’t just discover a Heather Graham or a James Le Gros, or me, or a Gus Van Sant.” When Dillon talks about starring in the movie, he describes it as one of the proudest contributions of his career. “It’s hard to see yourself in those early movies. Sometimes you look at old movies and it feels like seeing a picture of yourself as a kid, you’re almost unrecognisable. With Drugstore Cowboy, I still see myself. That was a moment for me.”

    Van Sant is surprised when I tell him about the multitudes of Letterboxd users that have Drugstore Cowboy in their Top 4s, though it only takes a moment of quiet introspection before he summarises exactly why he thinks the film still has a place in youth consciousness, despite it being so of its time and place. “I keep remembering that, yes, it’s about drug addicts, but it’s also really just about people that have uncertain futures. Bob has all these theories of how to live with an uncertain future. If somebody talks about dogs too much, then you got to lie low because then you brought a hex onto the group. And so, they have to chill out for 30 days until the hex is gone. He had the philosophies of a person that had to figure out their own system of survival. And I think that applies to a lot of young people, still. It’s always been about survival.”

  • 11 books film lovers should read this summer

    CONFESSIONS

    11 books film lovers should read this summer

    How Directors Dress (A24) 

    “The clothing worn by a director is so personal and holds such an intimate physical space, that it has a great deal to tell us, if we let the clothes themselves do the talking,” writes Charlie Porter, in his introduction to How Directors Dress. A compendium of writing on the sartorial choices of filmmakers, from Sofia Coppola’s Charvet shirts to David Lynch’s suits, the book includes a foreword by Joanna Hogg and an afterword by Yohji Yamamoto. 

    Spreads from Kim Kardashian, Selfish. (New York, Rizzoli: 2015)

    Philippa Snow, Trophy Lives (MACK) 

    “Jude Law is looking at art. I am looking at Jude Law.” This quotation from Alex Jung’s Variety interview with Jude Law opens Philippa Snow’s Trophy Lives, a series of essays examining celebrities as artworks and artists as celebrities. Discussing figures such as Paris Hilton and Leonardo DiCaprio, Jeff Koons and Marina Abramovic, Snow’s high-low criticism explores how celebrity intersects with themes of beauty, time and death. 

    Eleanor Coppola, Notes: The Making of Apocalypse Now (Faber) 

    In the Spring of 1976, Eleanor Coppola and her family left their home in California and headed to the Philippines, where her husband, Francis, would go on to shoot Apocalypse Now. Coppola wrote about this experience, its demands and insights in a memoir, beloved by film fans. “I hear there are some real cadavers in body bags at the Kurtz Compound set,” writes Eleanor Coppola, who passed away earlier this year. 

    Françoise Sagan, Bonjour Tristesse

    A sensation when it was published in 1954, Bonjour Tristesse is a sun-drenched tale of female sexuality set on the French Riviera. 17 year-old Cécile holidays with her father and his new girlfriend, a liaison which she gets mixed up in. Formerly adapted for screen in 1958 by Otto Premiger and starring Jean Seberg, another remake—starring Chloë Sevigny, Claes Bang and rising star Lily McInerny in the role of Cécile—has just finished shooting.

    ‘Grace Jones, Studio 54’ by Ming Smith

    Ed. Shanay Jhaveri, Night Fever: Art and Film After Dark (Cornerhouse) 

    Darkness is illuminating material for artists and filmmakers, as explored in a new book, Night Fever: Art and Film After Dark which combines writing by over 40 writers, critics and academics, edited by Barbican Head of Visual Arts Shanay Jhaveri. Derek Jarman, Chris Marker, Chantal Akerman, Gaspar Noé and Apichatpong Weerasethakul are among the exhaustive list of creatives examined, with themes including dance, queerness, cosmology, work, sleep, revolt and rest. 

    Chris Cotonou, Columbia Pictures (Assouline) 

    To celebrate its 100th anniversary, Columbia Pictures have released a commemorative book to highlight 100 iconic moments in the studio’s history. From David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia and Frank Capra’s 1934 classic It Happened One Night to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, Chris Cotonou’s texts guide readers through film history, whilst Hollywood historian Sam Wasson and Sony SEO Tom Rothman also provide insights. 

    Amy Liptrott, The Outrun, (Canongate) 

    Starring Saoirse Ronan in the lead role, the much anticipated adaptation of Amy Liptrott’s bestselling memoir, The Outrun, is due to premiere at Edinburgh Film Festival later this summer, where it will also open the festival. Telling the story of her recovery from alcoholism in the Scottish Islands of Orkney, Liptrott’s writing is bruising but poetic, steeped in the mythology and magic of the natural world. 

    Anna Bogutskaya, Feeding the Monster (Faber) 

    Anna Bogutskaya is a canny voice in contemporary film criticism, with writing and broadcasting that covers everything from mainstream movies and television (she co-hosted a Succession podcast) to nicher titles and trends (the return of VHS tapes, anyone?). One of Bogutskaya’s key interests is horror and her latest book, a follow up to 2023’s Unlikeable Female Characters, Feeding the Monster, explores the rise and rise of the horror genre, and why we love to look at things that scare us. (Out in August).

    Albert Serra (trans. Matthew Tree), A Toast to St Martirià (Divided Publishing) 

    A Toast to St Martirià is named after an improvised speech given by the subversive Catalan filmmaker Albert Serra at the St Martirià fiesta in Banyoles, the town of his birth. A Toast is a journey through the director’s formative years—partying and relationships—as well as his musings on acting, reading and provocation. “Cinema should be this, making perception of time and space more intense,” he writes. 

    Shiguéhiko Hasumi (trans. Ryan Cook) Directed by Yasujiro Ozu (University of California Press) 

    Acclaimed critic and academic Shiguéhiko Hasumi’s Directed by Yasujiro Ozu is a foundational work on the slow cinema pioneer Ozu—famous for titles such as Tokyo Story, Late Spring and Autumn Afternoon. Newly translated into English by Ryan Cook, chapters titles are all verbs, thematic actions in Ozu’s films: ‘Eating,’ ‘Changing Clothes,’ ‘Getting Angry,’ ‘Laughing’ and ‘Being Surprised.’ 

    William S. Burroughs, Queer 

    Luca Guadagnino will follow up to raunchy tennis drama Challengers will be Queer, an adaptation of William S. Burrough’s short novel. Originally an extension of Junkie (1953), set in Mexico City, it tells the more sober story of Lee, a drug addict who pursues Allerton, a discharged serviceman. Daniel Craig is set to star in the lead role, whilst Drew Starkey will play Allerton. 

  • Jeanne Moreau and the new Femme Fatale

    CONFESSIONS

    Jeanne Moreau and the new Femme Fatale

    The opening shot of Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows (Ascenseur Pour L’Échafaud, 1958) is an extreme close-up of Jeanne Moreau’s face. At first she is cast in darkness, her closed eyes lit with a triangle of light. Like the beginning of a play, the lights come on, revealing the rest of her features. Tilted stage right, this cinematic close-up allows us to see every pore. A smear of a tear sits under her eye, echoing the shine above her rouged lips. We hear the grain of her breath as she inhales and opens her eyes, glittering with the reflection of a spotlight. “I’m the one who can’t take it any more,” she says. “I love you, I love you.” As the camera zooms out, we realise she is talking to her lover, Julien, whom she has persuaded to kill her husband. “Without your voice, I’d be lost in a land of silence,” he responds, frantically. Their plan is thwarted when he is trapped overnight in a lift, during which time he is framed for another murder he didn’t commit.

    The term femme fatale can feel like an empty signifier. It is bandied around, much like other French expressions (faux pas, raison d’être, déjà vu) in a way that feels generic. A beautiful woman with the ability to destroy and bewitch men, she is an archetype in the Jungian sense, located in our collective consciousness, descended from Eve, Salomé, and Lady Macbeth. She is sexual and symbolic, a plot device to bring out the hero’s destruction and reflect male fears and desires. 

    Jeanne Moreau and Claude Mann in Bay of Angels (1962). By Jacques Demy.

    As Florence, however, Moreau’s femme fatale feels different. What is striking in these opening scenes is exactly how specified she feels, how fleshed out. The close-up of her face reveals an intimate psychology that has us immediately enthralled. Malle was inspired to cast Moreau in the role after seeing her in Tennesse Williams’s play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Up until then her success as a film actor had been limited. The daughter of a barman and a Folies Bergère dancer from Lancashire, Moreau had been cast as starlet types in commercial films (such as Jean Gabin’s 1954 crime thriller Touchez pas au grisbi), heavily made up to cover what she described as “the rings under my eyes and my asymmetrical face.” She fitted what film professor Ginette Vincendeau describes as, in her obituary of Moreau, Malle’s desire for “a more cerebral type of female eroticism, based on the face rather than the body.”

    In Ascenseur the beauty of Moreau’s ’imperfections’ are laid bare, complementing the depth of interiority that is afforded her, her thoughts in voiceover as she aimlessly wanders the streets of Paris. In 1985, Gilles Deleuze would go on to define the time-image—a regime of images in cinema that were no longer subordinate to action, allowing affect to come flooding in. In the most beautiful, central sequence of the film, it is night; Florence walks, an illuminated sign for Kronenbourg beer flashing at her, on and off, before the syncopated rhythms of Miles Davis’s trumpet starts. She moves past shop windows and bars, weaves through traffic imperfectibly. Dressed elegantly in two suits designed by Chanel (a uniform for the cosmopolitan French woman), her existential crisis is a forerunner to that of Corinne Marchand’s as Cléo Victoire in Agnès Varda’s Cleo de 5 à 7 (1962)—a deadly woman in a different sense. “What goes through her mind and her heart,” is “so powerful,” said Moreau of Florence in 2005, “that while she walks in the streets she looks like a madwoman, even speaking to herself.” Her virtual potential is only highlighted by the secondary plot—a young couple who steal Julien’s car and go on the run—living out a Hollywood-style adventure while Florence continues her street haunting, mourning her missing lover. 

    Jeanne Moreau in Elevator To The Gallows (1958). By Louis Malle. Image courtesy of CHANEL.
    Jeanne Moreau in a Chanel suit in Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1960). By Roger Vadim. Image courtesy of CHANEL.

    The film ends with Moreau’s meditation on love, death, and photography, as photos of the couple—evidence of their affair and proof of their crime—develop: “No more ageing, no more days… Here we are together…They can’t keep us apart.” Malle’s influential film is often celebrated as a precursor to the French New Wave and many others jumped at Moreau’s potential to be a new kind of femme fatale. In 1963, she took the lead role in Jacques Demy’s La Baie des Anges as Jackie, a divorcée with a gambling habit who seduces a young salari. called Jean. In contrast to Malle’s film, Demy opens with an image of Moreau walking along a beach promenade. Framing her with a circle as if viewed through a telescope, the camera moves into a quick backward travelling shot, zooming out until she is invisible.

    Whereas Malle was concerned with portraying Moreau’s interiority, Demy was concerned with emphasising her opacity. It is by far Demy’s darkest film, set in the casinos of the French Riviera, and Moreau has a glamorous appearance that seems designed to conceal: white suit, peroxide blonde hair, face powder, a pencilled beauty spot, fake eyelashes. Jean first sees Jackie from a distance, being kicked out of a casino for cheating, and throughout the film we never get beneath her surface (she keeps her heels on, even on the beach). While gambling quickly presents itself as a metaphor for love, the risks of romance, the highs and lows of passion, (“When I met you I’d lost everything,” Jackie tells Jean,) Jackie’s love for gambling doesn’t represent anything other than gambling. It is her one and only vocation: “The first time I was in a casino I felt like I was in a church,” she tells Jean, who she objectifies as a “horseshoe,” her good luck charm. While this might be read as a reductive character portrayal on the part of Demy, it is a brilliantly realistic representation of an addict’s psyche, the work it takes to keep up the lies, to fuel a vice, and how it shapes a whole world. When Moreau does reveal a sense of interior shame—“I am rotten on the inside, I dirty everything I touch”—it is more moving for how unlikely the admission feels.

    On the cusp of a sexual revolution, and over a decade after the release of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949), in 1960s France the femme fatale served to highlight new anxieties around emasculation and changing gender roles. Take Patricia in Jean-Luc Godard’s À Bout de Souffle (1960), who eventually betrays her lover, runaway criminal Michel. Her writerly ambitions and masculine-coded style (most notably the short cropped hair) jars with the machismo of Michel, who used to be an air steward for Air France and admits to liking the idea of being a gigolo. In Claude Clouzot’s La Vérité (1960), Brigitte Bardot plays Dominique, a Left Bank denizen who is put on trial for the murder of her former lover. While Dominique’s beauty is constantly referenced, the prosecutor makes reference to the fact that she smuggled de Beauvoir’s Les Mandarins (1954) into school as a sign of her moral perversity. The philosopher herself described Bardot as a liberated “locomotive of women’s history.” 

    On the cusp of a sexual revolution, and over a decade after the release of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949), in 1960s France the femme fatale served to highlight new anxieties around emasculation and changing gender roles.

    Jeanne Moreau

    It was in her role in François Truffaut’s Jules et Jim (1962) that Moreau joined this line-up of femme fatales for a new age. Perhaps enamoured by her performance in Elevator to the Gallows, Truffaut cast her in The 400 Blows (1959), in a cameo as a woman wandering the streets of Paris at night, having lost her dog. While the young Antoine Doinel tries to help, an older man, perceiving Moreau’s beauty, intervenes.

    Brigitte Bardot in The Truth (1960). By Henri-Georges Clouzot.

    Jules et Jim is a film that explores the possibilities of love beyond the marital contract. Moreau plays Catherine, a spirited woman who falls in love with the two titular friends (and they with her). The fin de siècle setting only emphasises the feeling that Catherine is some kind of alien from the future. In the film’s most reproduced sequence, Catherine dresses up in masculine clothing, draws on a moustache, and challenges Jules and Jim to a running race (which she wins). While the men attempt to contain her with language and metaphor (they compare her to an ancient sculpture, call her an “apparition”), Catherine’s on-screen vitality and velocity challenge any ossification. As a femme fatale there is a sense she is writing her own script. The song she sings to her lovers refers to the femme fatale in the third person: “She had eyes, eyes like opal / That fascinated me… The oval of her pale face / Of a femme fatale who was fatal to me.” Singing the masculine part while representing the feminine object, she is everything—everyone—at once. “In my opinion, it’s too good for them,” she quips. “But then we can’t choose our audience.” 

    Not every Moreau film presented her in such a nuanced way. As the title suggests, Joseph Losey’s Eva (1962) is a more on-the-nose depiction of the femme fatale archetype and literally opens with a passage from Genesis. Moreau’s taciturn title character is a reductive metaphor for the failed writing ambitions of Tyvian (played by Stanley Baker)—at one point she crawls on the carpet, pawing his books off his shelf. Of the film, Moreau only remembered Losey as a “strange man” and found filming in Venice freezing. Inspiring directors internationally—from Orson Welles to Michelangelo Antonioni—Moreau would continue to take on complex female fatale infused roles (she turned down the chance to play Mrs Robinson in The Graduate (1967)), such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Querelle (1982) where she plays a glamorous brothel madam. Women “worry so much about ageing,” she said in her seventies. “But I tell you, you look younger if you don’t worry about it. Because beyond the beauty, the sex, the titillation, the surface, there is a human being. And that has to emerge.”

  • Nadia Lee Cohen on tragedy, fiction and making her first film

    CONFESSIONS

    Nadia Lee Cohen on tragedy, fiction and making her first film

    Fatima Khan: How often do you give in to obsession? 

    Nadia Lee Cohen: Quite a lot. It could be a food I’ve discovered and won’t stop eating until I’m sick of it. Or an idea that I obsess over and can’t rest until it’s physically in existence. Or those Chaz Dean billboards around LA. In terms of “vices”—I have many, but perhaps the one that might get me into trouble is feeling entertained by drama or theatrics when I probably shouldn’t be. I saw Kanye West punch a man in the face at Chateau Marmont the other night. That was one of them.

    FK: What’s your relationship with Enrique Metinides’s work, and what initially drew you to him?

    NLC: I was on a deep dive in crime scene photography in college. For the most part the genre is shot in black and white, is highly analytical and quite disturbing. I found Metinides’s work and wasn’t troubled by it. Even though the subject matter was, of course, tragic, the photographs were staged and lit in such a way that I felt as though I was looking at a constructed film still as opposed to a documentary image. I read that he loved Hollywood gangster films and snuck off to the movies to watch them as a child. I imagine this cinematic influence affected his view on devastation and death and enabled him to look on such real life scenes objectively, sometimes even comedically, almost as though he was existing in the films he was drawn to. I heavily relate to that and tend to approach tragedy as fiction—hence the “vices” I mentioned.

    FK: I’m curious to know your definition of the femme fatale. How do you see that archetype evolving over the next handful of years?

    NLC: I feel like Lou Reed and Nico already covered this with The Velvet Underground. I don’t think my definition could be better described than theirs. I think a person being aware of their “essence” is inherent and permanent if it’s a trait they naturally possess. I do think it is something you are born with. I’m not sure it is something you can acquire, so I feel any “evolution” won’t necessarily be too drastic. It would need a new name if it was no longer the archetype.

    FK: I’d like to know your favourite example of film noir. How has the spirit of the genre found its way into your work?

    NLC: I can’t pick only one. It’s too hard, but for the sake of this interview I’ll say The Long Goodbye (1973). I love that it had a massive influence on The Big Lebowski (1998). It delves into kind of the same thing I was describing earlier about drama. Taking pessimism, fatalism and menace and putting a spotlight on it so it becomes easier to digest as a slice of life. Cinema tends to aid the way we deal with tragedy in our own lives. I talk with my friends about this in terms of relationships as we share the problem of creating a “movie character” of whoever we’re romantically invested in, which, to be honest, just ends up with us justifying bad behaviour as a charming characteristic, rather than just someone generally being a shitty person.

    Japanese poster for The Long Goodbye (1973). By Robert Altman. Courtesy of Posteritati.

    FK: You often become different characters in your self portraits. What is it about taking on those brief transformations that scratches an itch for you? Do you ever take the characters with you after the image is taken?

    NLC: I imagine it’s a similar feeling to that of an actor. Like why just be one version of yourself when you can have variety? I don’t know if I “take them with me” but, in the least pretentious way I can explain it, I feel like they were there to begin with. We’re all Frankensteins of the things we’ve seen or are interested in. Whether we physically dress up as them or not shouldn’t really make too much of a difference.

    FK: How has cinema influenced the way you see the world, especially through a lens?

    NLC: An appreciation of film, photography and art generally alters the perception of a person’s surroundings. For me, it assists in finding comedy in day-to-day life. It can make a crap or boring situation incredibly funny and entertaining. This has heightened my experience of living in Los Angeles for sure, but it’s definitely not limited to here. In the UK, it would be things like the cast of characters that pop in and out of the local newsagent or someone whizzing through the frame on a mobility scooter. In Paris, it’s a frowning old man walking along with a baguette in one hand, cigar in the other. I guess it just makes the world a little more fun. The more you see and understand film, the more you can dramatise the world that is moving around you.

    In the UK, [inspiration] would be things like the cast of characters that pop in and out of the local newsagent or someone whizzing through the frame on a mobility scooter. In Paris, it’s a frowning old man walking along with a baguette in one hand, cigar in the other. I guess it just makes the world a little more fun.

    Nadia Lee Cohen

    FK: Can you tell us about a formative experience you’ve had at the cinema?

    NLC: I remember driving down Beverly Boulevard one morning on the phone to my mum. She was telling me about this film she’d heard someone talking about on Radio 4 but she couldn’t remember the title, which was annoying the two of us. We were trying to work it out for about 20 minutes with the only clue being “Robert De Niro was in it”. I stopped at a traffic light in front of Tarantino’s cinema [The New Beverly] and saw De Niro looking back at me from a poster on the side of the building and HEAT in big letters on the marquee sign on top of the building. I asked “was it Heat?” and she replied “Yes”. It is probably the most serendipitous thing that’s ever happened to me. So I went and watched it that night.

    Sonder. By Nadia Lee Cohen for A Rabbit’s Foot. Los Angeles, 2024. Nadia Lee Cohen is wearing CHANEL Fine Jewellery. The image is a remake of Enrique Metinendes’s 1979 image of Adela Legarreta Rivas, a Mexican journalist who was killed on her way to a press conference.

    FK: Can we discuss your next steps into directing film? What can you tell us about your upcoming projects?

    NLC: Sonder wasn’t initially supposed to be a film and really came about by fate or accident. I met Charles [Finch] at the Beverly Hills Hotel for breakfast around the time of the Oscars. We sat speaking about me photographing this issue, which he explained had a lot to do with film noir, crime, villains, etc. Somehow we got onto Weegee, and I showed him my favourite photograph by Enrique Metinides [see page 44- 45] (often described as the Mexican Weegee) in which a beautiful woman elegantly dangles between a concrete block and two street poles having just been struck dead by a white Datsun in Mexico City, 1979. I have always loved this photograph and wondered what happened before the incident: the only information being that “Adela Legarreta was on her way to a press conference having just had her hair and nails done at the beauty parlour”. So that was how the film was born, I wanted to explore what I imagined happened around the accident and outside of the ’frame’. A three-minute lead up. A slice of life before catastrophe.

    FK: Who is the greatest villain of all time and why?

    NLC: In fiction: Jack Torrance, for his perfect blend of smile and death stare. In real life: Phil Spector, for his impressive array of court wigs.

    FK: In a film sense, do you identify with a villain or a victim?

    FK: What do you think?

    Nadia Lee Cohen is the cover star of Issue 8 of A Rabbit’s Foot.

  • Il Postino and the land of the capers

    CONFESSIONS

    Il Postino and the land of the capers

    For fans of Massimo Troisi’s 1994 film Il Postino, the dreamy landscape of the Aeolian islands will be familiar. The island of Salina, the second largest of this mystical cluster of seven volcanic rocks just north of Sicily, was the location of the unspecified island where Chilean poet Pablo Neruda strikes up a friendship with the postman during his exile in Italy. The Aeolians are not easy to get to, but their remoteness means they have been spared the onslaught of mass tourism and still retain an otherworldly feel. Salina in particular combines everything that is best about Sicily: laidback glamour, faded grandeur, pink-plastered churches, a vague aura of chaos and most importantly, delicious food. 

    It was May when I first visited in 2017, and the bougainvillea was in full blowsy bloom and there were no other tourists. I was blown away by the natural beauty as well as the eerie quiet so reminiscent of scenes from Il Postino. It was lunchtime and at the only bar that was open: Bar Malvasia, named after the sweet local wine—we ordered what turned out to be a perfect caponata. After lunch, as though the siesta was collectively timed, people began reappearing on the dot at 3.30pm, descending sleepily from their homes to crack on with the business of the afternoon. My nervousness at being stuck on this seemingly deserted island evaporated and was replaced by a profound tranquillity as I set about enjoying the flavours, scents and beauty of Salina.  

    © AMBER GUINNESS. FROM ITALIAN COASTAL: RECIPES AND STORIES FROM WHERE THE LAND MEETS THE SEA BY AMBER GUINNESS (THAMES & HUDSON)

    The food of the Aeolians is characterised—much like the people—by its insularity. Being so remote, inhabitants historically had to rely on what was available—vegetables and herbs that grew on the mountains as well as what the sea could provide. This is embodied in one of the humblest but most important ingredients of the Aeolians: capers. These plants are at the centre of life in the Aeolians and are cooked in antipasti, salads, pasta with fish, meat and even served simply on toast or candied for deserts. Caper plants have long tendril-like branches and neat round leaves, they appear in lots of surprising places throughout the Mediterranean and often self-plant in the nooks and crannies of many of Italy’s crumbling buildings, though on Salina they are planted very neatly in rows and tended with great care. Not many people realise that a caper is the plant’s flower still in bud. If left to mature rather than being harvested, it blooms into an elegant tropical looking pink and white flower. Outside many houses you will see hand written signs saying ‘Capers from my garden, €2’.

    Not many people realise that a caper is the plant’s flower still in bud. If left to mature rather than being harvested, it blooms into an elegant tropical looking pink and white flower. Outside many houses you will see hand written signs saying ‘Capers from my garden, €2′

    Amber Guinness

    Aside from this adhoc trade, there are also impressive enterprises based around this bud, such as Sapori Eoliane. This hundred year old caper farm sits just above the bay of Pollara on Salina’s north-west coast, the beach where local postman Enzo had his philosophical conversations with the poet Neruda in the film. Today, the farm is run by Maurizia, a descendant of the farm’s founder, who manages their four thousand caper plants. These are harvested at the height of summer and cooked and preserved in various ways to be sold in jars and shipped all round the world.

    A caper tasting at Sapori Eoliani quickly teaches you not to underestimate these little buds as they are a wonderful way to pep up any dish and to elevate the simplest meal into something sophisticated. Many of the recipes in my new book, Italian Coastal, take inspiration from Salina and its culture of making the simple sublime—like the perfect local dish Linguine ai capperi—pasta with a tomato sauce cooked down with onions and capers. This is the magic of Salina, the remoteness and beauty make you feel closer to nature. You learn to take pleasure in the simplest of things, which are in turn elevated to the sublime—a fitting spot to exile a poet. 

 

Proudly powered by DMH | © A Rabbit's Foot . All rights reserved. Use of this site constitutes acceptance of our User Agreement, Privacy & Cookies Policy and your rights under GDPR. The material on this site may not be reproduced, distributed or transmitted except with the prior written permission of A Rabbit's Foot. A Rabbit's Foot is owned and published by A Rabbit's Foot Ltd., 47-48 Piccadilly, London W1J 0DT, United Kingdom.