Veteran actor Martin Donovan on the impetus behind his directorial debut film, Collaborator.
After putting an impressive Hollywood acting career under his belt—most notably working extensively with Hal Hartley throughout the late ’80s and ’90s—Martin Donovan felt a profound need to write. The seed for the script of the film Collaborator grew for many years before Mr. Donovan actualized it in written form, and from there the project took shape. The film deals with the playwright Robert Longfellow—played by Donovan—who, having had his most recent work panned, returns home to California to regroup and reconnect with his past. While on his way to see old flame and Hollywood star Emma Stiles (Olivia Williams), Longfellow is amiably accosted by his next-door neighbor Gus (David Morse), who is still living at home with his mother. The two share some drinks and talk of their childhood, but Robert soon discovers that Gus’s motive for this reconnection might not be altogether casual, and their encounter transforms into a dangerous, violent, and fascinating meetings of minds.
Donovan is the first to admit that directing was a learning experience. And while his perspective on film and its possibilities has undoubtedly grown, the experience also confirmed his own artistic instincts on both sides of the camera. With a manner that is calming yet deceptively sharp, Martin Donovan speaks of the power of language, the creative act and its innate cathartic quality, as well as the uncanny experience of returning home.
Alec Meacham I guess my first thought was—obviously there’s a little bit of coinciding biographical info between your character and the main character, living in New York and California—did any of it come out of any kind of personal experience? Hopefully you weren’t held hostage or anything.
Martin Donovan (laughter) No, never held hostage. Yeah sure, you know I had sort of the quintessential bi-coastal life for most of my adult life, having grown up in L.A. and [then] living in New York for 18 years, and going back and forth a lot once I was working in New York. I think I’ve got that whole cliché pretty well down in my head. I’m in showbiz, so I’ve worked with—and some of my friends are, famous people—so you know I do have that experience going home to gatherings or whatever and people asking me what Nicole Kidman is really like. It’s kind of a fun thing. Also, Gus was based on a guy whom I knew when I was growing up.
AM Oh, interesting.
MD Well Gus is a mix of those kinds of guys that I knew growing up in L.A. The guy I knew—the inspiration for him—actually died in a SWAT team standoff when he was younger. This was after I’d left home and moved away. But the guy, the neighbor across the street’s kid, he actually ended up OD’ing on drugs. There was a SWAT team standoff and the whole neighborhood was evacuated. This was a long time ago, before [they started using] the Navy SEALS that they call out now. I’m sure this was just a lot of cops. Anyway, they finally went in there and he was dead; he’d OD’d. And then the rest of it is all my . . . all the stuff that’s sort of been brewing as a young Boomer, you know, being a young kid in the ’60s and having an older sibling who was really going through the ’60s—I was too young for it. And ever since I’ve been trying to make sense of the world. I’ve come to realize that what I’m fascinated with is the nature of power, and where the personal and political intersect. Or, if in fact the political and personal ever diverge, which . . . I’ve come to the conclusion that they don’t.
AM I know you talked about how it was a very personal experience writing this—what was that process like? Had this story been in your mind forever and it was just something you wrote down? What was the creative aspect of it like?
MD It was the lifelong—desire doesn’t really speak to it—it was a deep need to write and it just took me a long time to organize my thinking around an actual screenplay, a coherent story. But this need, this desperate need to express myself, in making a film, like the acting, feels very much like an act of survival. It does not feel like a choice. It really felt like if I didn’t make a film I would die in some very profound spiritual way. So, it just had to happen.
AM That’s very similar to what your character in the film, Longfellow, says about writing. It’s almost those exact same words, interestingly, that are in the movie, when he says [that] if he didn’t write he would lose his mind, he had to get it out of there.
MD Yes, exactly right. That’s absolutely true. That stuff is all woven in and out. It is a mixture of memory and personal stuff and then imagination. And so the actual process of writing—well, this is an odd thing: I feel like my writing actually started to develop with the advent of word processing in the ’90s. For me, because I couldn’t write with a pen or a pencil, [writing] was impossible, or the old, clunky typewriters—but I remember, I started writing emails, and I would write more and more long form emails to friends. And we would exchange [them]—just the way that letter writing used to be an art form. I’m not saying that my emails were art, but I’m just saying that people took it seriously and I used to take letters seriously, so I started to take emails seriously. I don’t know what the relationship of that is to writing a screenplay; but there is some kind of connection there, because it helped me clarify my thinking. I think writing anything is a good exercise, whatever the format. So it was about early 2003 when I actually sat down and started writing this screenplay, then put it away for a year. [I] had several drafts, and by about 2007, Ted Hope and I had the draft that we started sending people.
AM It’s interesting that you’re describing this long process of creating the script, which is totally understandable, but then in the film, you have the conversations between Gus and Robert, doing their little improv games, where the creativity seems to just sort of flow out so naturally. Maybe it’s not really like that in real life?
MD No, no. I mean, I have to preface everything I’m saying with the fact that I’m a beginner, but in my experience, obviously there are good days and bad days. Like any writer will tell you, it flows some days and other days you sweat bullets and nothing comes. And I don’t have the kind of regimented discipline that some writers do that you hear about. I don’t work that way. Although I did really try to force myself to work when I didn’t want to work. But I’ve heard screenwriters say that dialogue can be the easy part. It’s really coming up with structure and character and stories and movement that is the really difficult part. So what Gus and Robert are doing is sort of the easy part.
AM In the film there is a kind of separation between the screen and the stage, and I know you’ve had experience acting on stage as well as a long career acting in films. Do you see the creative process as being different in those two mediums?
MD I would say that the creative process all comes from the same place, whether you’re working in oil on canvas or sculpture or a short story or a novel. Stage and screen acting seem to me like different modes, which require different kinds of tools and forms of structure, and different materials perhaps. But it’s all coming from the same place, I think. The creative act is coming from the same place. I’ve been reading a lot of—and trying to understand—Chomsky’s work on the language faculty. And how all of our creativity, what distinguishes us from the rest of living things on this planet, sort of begins with that language faculty. I’m just fascinated by that subject. After food and shelter, it seems to me, the next thing we want is to fully realize ourselves as human beings, through the creative act. And that can be parenting, or working—there’s no line of work that it’s restricted to.
AM That’s an interesting connection, and something I wanted to ask you about, with language. One of the things I loved in the relationship between Gus and Robert was the way that their language kind of regressed, especially in comparison with the rest of the film. Most of the time they’re like two teenagers shooting the shit, and I thought it was a really interesting aspect of Robert’s homecoming and his being brought back to his youth.
MD Yeah, I liked that. I had fun with it, on a more superficial level as opposed to what I was talking about with the language faculty. I was talking to David Morse about this when we were doing some press. We’re both experienced actors, and once you’ve been doing this a while—he and I together have probably read 5,000 scripts or something in our lives—you immediately can get a sense of the writer’s command of language, not only “does it feel like something someone would say?” but also musically, and this is a very subtle thing. There are writers who write dialogue and it just goes “clunk-clunk-ka-clunk.” This [type of] writer does not know how to dance, you know what I mean? There’s a rhythm that good scripts have in the writing and the spoken word. Regarding Gus and Robert, I actually had a lot fun with each of them—you know, when Robert starts to descend into valley-boy-speak in places and Gus occasionally rises up to match Longfellow’s erudition. Like in the last improv, where he tries to pull off the Wall Street air of education. So yes, I was very conscious of the language. I was very conscious of the profanity and the valley version, that kind of “dude” stuff, and [of] Robert’s having distanced himself from that, but absolutely falling into it.
AM I’m really curious what the experience is like of writing a script and then both acting in and directing the film yourself. It must be kind of strange feeling. What did you see on the two different sides of the camera?
MD Well, it has been a long time coming. I don’t have the ability to really pull it apart that way. I see it as all of a package. I have friends who are writers and musical performers—PJ Harvey is a friend of mine, and I met her on Hal Hartley’s Book of Life, and we became friends, and she’s a huge inspiration to me. She’s a brilliant artist, and she writes and directs and performs all of her work. She’s been doing it for her whole life. There are lots of performers like that, both in music and performance art—Ann Magnuson is a friend of mine who comes to mind. So whenever I got doubtful about it, I would turn to those folks and say, Hey, it can be done.
As far as the actual mechanics of it, there were simple things, like I didn’t want to spend a lot of time looking at playback of my takes. So, I had to sort of find that balance—I had to be confident that I’d gotten it because I didn’t want to have to play back every single thing; I didn’t want to waste that kind of time. That again comes from my having done this for so long and the part that I wrote, I just felt like I knew where the zone was. I also had my DP, Julie Kirkwood, whom I trusted, and I would just look up at her and she would just give me a subtle nod. There was nonverbal communication there, and I could just feel it in the room, like, Yeah, I’d better go again. I just had to have faith—I had to trust it.
AM Going forward, do you think having worked on this project and having written and directed—do you think that’s going to influence, to a large extent, the way that you go about projects from now on?
MD No, not really. I’ve worked since we shot the film, many times. What it has given me is a better understanding—I know things that I didn’t know before making the film. I now watch with kind of a smile when a DP and director talk about a particular scene. The director will say, Let’s put the camera here, and even before the DP answers, I’m in my head, going, Yeah, yeah, he can put it there, you’re going to have to light that whole back end of the room but he’s not going to want to do that. And of course the DP says, Sure, we can shoot that, but it’s going to take another twenty minutes to light. Hopefully I will continue to learn more, and that’s one thing about making the film and being an actor: I do see the set differently, how it’s run. And so, as a result, I think I will now know what to look for in ways that I didn’t before.
AM You said something that I loved, which was that you didn’t realize how much the director’s job was going to be just sort of managing people, dealing with quarrels and things like that.
MD Yeah, that was a real surprise. I don’t know why I didn’t anticipate that one, but I didn’t. I guess mainly because, as an actor, unless it breaks out right in front of you, you don’t know about it. You don’t know about all the stuff that goes on behind the scenes on a production. And every production has its dramas. And some of them are very intense. And thankfully we didn’t have anything out of control on ours. It was a good set. But, there were clashes, personality clashes, and differences and I hadn’t anticipated that I’d have to act, direct, watch the other actors, do all that stuff, set up my shots, and deal with the emotional content of this person’s battle with that person.
AM So now that you’ve gotten this first project out of the way—one that you’ve been thinking about for a long time and spent a lot of time on—do you have any ideas in mind for future projects?
MD Yeah, I have a draft of a screenplay and I’m working on it. I don’t know which way it’s going to go, but I know that this project only made me want to make more films. It only increased my desire to work and get better and make films and get clearer on my thinking. I love the process. For all of the slings and arrows that you suffer trying to get a film made, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. If this is all I have to complain about in life—how difficult it is to get a film made—you know, I’ll take it.
I remember hearing this from some writer, decades ago, that he started writing because he was driving his friends nuts. That’s really kind of it, you know. The person who wants to write might very well start off by talking too much. You’ve got all these ideas, and you want to figure it all out and you want to confront this fucking life. You want to take it on. It’s too much, and you want to make sense of it and sort it out, and put a plot to it, and organize it. And I have a lot of stuff in there and I do need to express it in a coherent way or I’ll go crazy.
Alec Meacham is a writer and critic living in Manhattan and Baltimore.