I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Me & Veronica, Don Scardino’s directoral feature film debut played the Venice Film Festival to standing 0’s all around. Before the press conference Don and I got giddy with the possibility of me answering each question put to Don: he’d whisper in my ear and I would say in my best bad Italian accent, “Don Scardino, he says the film, she speaks for herself.” This is one of Don’s fascinating contradictions. At moments of import, he will find something hysterically inappropriate and begin riffing on it. He’s 44, looks 25 and behaves alternately with the wisdom of a sage and the irrepressibility of a teenager behind the wheel of his first car. Besides his career as a film and television director/producer, he has just taken over as Artistic Director of Playwrights Horizons, making the Protestant work ethic pale as an ideal and seeming more like the name of a band he could play in during his yearly 15 minute vacation. We have recently completed two projects together, the film and the national tour of A Few Good Men. It’s clear that after 20 years in the business, Don has arrived in a very big way, and I can’t think of anyone I’d rather see it happen to except me, of course. Don says, “The interview, she speaks for herself.”
Michael O’Keefe Did you ever in your wildest of dreams expect that we’d be here at the Venice Film Festival with this film?
Don Scardino I had this flash yesterday, you on one side, Elizabeth across from me, the beach behind us … For the first time in my life, reviews are out and I can’t read them. (laughter) It’s liberating!
MO At the time you were editing the film you took over as the director of Playwrights Horizons. How do you balance running a non-profit theater with being a film director?
DS I don’t know. (laughter) The Playwrights Horizons job is everyday. If we’re running a play, there are performances on the weekend. If it’s in previews, I’ll stop in to see those performances because we’re still working on the piece … When I first got to Playwrights, I worked ‘til 9:30, 10 o’clock every night trying to get the day’s stuff cleared away. Finally, someone in the office said, “Forget it. None of us can finish our work every day. You just have to sort of let it go.” But on the weekends I have to take home the work I couldn’t get to during the week. It’s just short of an impossible task. Not only is there the day to day running of the theater but all the funders want to meet me. Now that Andre Bishop has gone to Lincoln Center, they want to know who they’re giving their money to; they want to hear what my vision is. I told them, 20/20. (laughter) It’s really been a rough period in some sense. But on the other hand, I’m doing my thing to the utmost, I guess life’s like that: feast or famine. It’s presented this incredible opportunity to me.
MO Are you more of a producer there than you are a director?
DS So far, but in three weeks time I go into rehearsal—my first play directing and producing.
MO Who are some of the playwrights?
DS On the Bum by Neal Bell, won an Obie Award this year for sustained excellence in the theater.
MO That doesn’t have anything to do with sexual prowess, does it?
DS (laughter) I won that award. (laughter) For sustained sexual proclivity. I don’t know about prowess, but … It’s a play about a theater artist in the midst of the depression. It’s parallel to today: art and funding and how the tail is wagging the dog.
The second play is The Heliotrope Bouquet by Scott Joplin and Louis Chauvin, by Eric Overmyer. It’s about black musical artists just after the turn of the century—Joplin’s life, in particular, which was about loss. Here was this incredible genius who took rag time music and created a classical form out of it orchestrally. But his white publisher wouldn’t handle it because he wanted him to be a colored man at the piano, a piano parlor guy. So Joplin wrote this incredible music which was not recognized during his lifetime.
The third play, by Peter Parnell, is called An Imaginary Life. It’s about a writer who may or may not have a fatal illness and tries to write his way out of his dilemma. The play is constructed in such a way that you never quite know whether you’re viewing his life or his written version of his life. And every time you think you have a handle on his life he pulls the rug out from under, and you realize this is his construct. This is the play within the play. Actually, it’s a play within a play within a play within a play. Ultimately, it’s about embracing one’s life through one’s art.
MO What’s it like, trying to get actors to come into Playwrights and do work? Can you get actors, do you feel satisfied with their level of quality? Many actors are spending more time in LA: buying houses, accruing mortgages, and putting themselves in a position where to make 200 bucks a week on 42nd street ain’t part of the picture any more.
DS That’s true. In fact, frequently, actors whom we thought up until this moment were New York actors have sublet their apartments in New York and are in LA. Can we fly them in for a reading; can we put them up if they come in to do a production? This is a non-profit theater, we’re not budgeted for that. So it’s a real problem. It’s tough right now.
MO That’s got to be frustrating. What’s going on with the film program at Playwrights? I know that’s a new venue you’re bringing in.
DS We’re trying to get the nuts and bolts of the idea in place. Initially, the board of Playwrights Horizons freaked out when I started talking about this film company. They thought that we’d be looking at plays only with an eye to produce them for film and television, and therefore we’d compromise our aesthetic or the way we choose plays, Playwrights primarily being a developmental theater. And they also thought that since they didn’t know me, it was some personal agenda that I was chasing, that I was interested in Playwrights as a springboard to film production. The real plan is that because the theater community in New York has shrunk, we’ve lost so many theater artists, not only actors and directors but designers, composers and all the rest—is to make a film company that deals with theater artists and playwrights; to create work in New York for actors and directors and designers that makes it easier to live in New York. If we can get our ball rolling and get our production company going then more production will come. There’s a Silver Screen Partners building, 12 stages, and a back lot on the 23rd Street Pier. One of my ideas is to interest them in coming in as a partner, a financial partner, thereby guaranteeing that their stages will always be employed.
MO Do you see the commercial pressures of that effecting the theater? Do you see the film and theater as two separate entities that can work in conjunction or have nothing to do with each other—except that the same people crossover?
DS It can work hand-in-hand: a play we produce can become a film we produce. Or we can take a play that we like that we may not be able to do on our stage—it may be too big a project.
MO So, you see the profits from the film company going back into the theater?
DS Yes, Playwrights Horizons’ share goes right back to Playwrights Horizons for the development of a play. As the country goes deeper and deeper into recession, the funding picture changes. We’ve got to find other ways to generate earned income—revenue.
MO Why did you make the transition from an actor to a director? What happened?
DS I always had this fantasy about film directing but I was an actor and I was headed for acting goals. But I was frustrated by my career because I did not age. I have this Dorian Gray thing. I was heading for my 40’s and I was playing 25 year-olds. Literally. It was driving me nuts! And people younger than me were coming along playing fathers, playing adults with mid-life crisis and I’m playing, (in falsetto) “Dad? Keys to the car?” It was really screwing me up. And, quite by coincidence I did this play, How I Got That Story at the West Side Arts, and after it closed the playwright recommended me to direct a production of it at the Manitoba Theater Centre in Canada. Talk about off-Broadway. I was bowled over that he thought I could direct this play, that I understood the play that well. So I said, “Well sure, why not? I’ll go up there and basically do the New York production and nobody will know,” you know? I’ll steal the staging. I went up there to prep this and found myself creating a brand new production—in terms of its physicality, its emphasis, and point of view. I had the strangest experience: I’d gone from being the kid to Daddy overnight. Suddenly, I was in a room full of people who were looking to me for guidance. I was the leader and it was so refreshing and gratifying. It’s interesting, although I always worked my acting career, always felt like scaling a mountain, trying to climb this impossible ladder. And directing work just came to me. I didn’t even solicit it. As people found out I was directing, they became interested. One project after another, and before I knew it, it was my work. And I made a conscious decision to not act anymore. Directing was much more exciting and satisfying. So I stuck with it. And then that dropped me into television.
MO So you went from those off-Broadway plays to doing soap operas?
DS Yeah, actually I had one more acting job offered to me which I turned down, repeatedly. It was on a soap opera. And they kept coming after me with more money and more money and I was living on a farm in New Jersey and finally they said, “We will come pick you up at your door every morning—” which is 60 miles away from the studio—”drive you to work; drive you home.” And I thought, well, I need the dough. I’m working off-Broadway so I’ll take this. It’s a soap opera. The theater community won’t even know. But my stipulation was that at the end of the first year, they’d let me direct an episode. Just about near the end of the year; the producer John Whitesel, calls me in and says, “I know how old you really are. You’ve been playing this 25 year-old kid on this soap opera, and frankly it’s boring the shit out of me. I have to let you go. And I said, “Well, I have a deal to direct one.” He said, “Hey, that’s pay or play.”
Okay, so I slink home. Two days later, I get nominated in the under 25 category for best actor on a soap opera. (laughter) I get a call back from the producer’s office and I go, “Ah, sure, I got the Emmy nod here, and so you want to keep me on the show right?”
And he says, “No, no, no. I still feel the same way. But I’ve been thinking about the directing thing; I know you’ve been directing theater; I was checking around in the last day or two …” So in six weeks, I’m directing; I’m in the control room, three hours behind schedule, my hair is standing on end, my face in blotches, “Give me camera two!” (laughter) The producer walks in and says, “I’m putting you on a contract. You’re going to be my Ace.” He put me on a contract for two years. For most of the last year, I was what they call the Ace of the show—I directed two a week. And because it was a soap opera and because he was pretty advanced in his creative thinking—we did a lot of single camera stuff; we did a lot of different genres. So I had the greatest training program I could have. Then, Blair Brown calls me up and says, “Can you come out here to direct my show?” On my nickel, I went out to California. Strictly on a hunch, strictly on a whim from the producer, I directed the first Molly Dodd. It was on time, on budget; it was good. And a year later, I was the supervising producer of Molly Dodd. I produced 26 episodes and directed, probably, 15 of them.
MO There’s a certain type of destiny involved in all of this—it sounds like once you made the commitment to say, “no more,” you closed one door and another door immediately opened. In A Few Good Men, once again, you were in a position where you had never directed a Broadway play. One of the capacities that you have as a director is understanding what it’s like for an actor to internally create a performance. You know what we’re going through. How do you approach actors?
DS I find that the methodology I employed as an actor to create a role: arc of a character, personal history, are the same rules that apply to directing. I go about directing in the same exact way I prepared a part. Except that now I prepare the entire piece. I’m thinking like an actor all the time, I’m just thinking about it in terms of the whole story. I try to find out how actors work because every actor works differently, find out what they need to make it work. Michael Moriarty needs things like, “Tell me what the music is; tell me what the tempo is.” Other actors just want to give the line reading and there are actors who say, “Let’s talk about the character’s past,” like you and I did, for Me & Veronica. The interesting thing is to take a big ensemble like A Few Good Men, realizing that all actors work differently and to find a way to affect each one. And I do that by letting them alone—we’ll talk about the characters in general terms—and watching them work. See how they’re going, see what frustrates them, and what turns them on. By observing their work I begin to understand what they need.
MO How would you describe the difference between directing for film and directing for stage?
DS Internally, it’s no different. A lot of film and television directors work from the shot. They figure out their visual plan and then try to make the action or the actor’s performance fit—which, I think, is backwards. It’s really about how the emotional life gives rise to the physicality. In the stage, emotional life gives rise to blocking. In simplest terms, if I’m emotionally dodging you on stage, I’ll move away, or I’ll turn my back, or I’ll try to avoid you physically. So on film, to get the blocking, I’ll get the emotional life and then adapt the camera to that. This strikes terror in the hearts of directors. But I like to see where the actors are going and find a shot. That’s more exciting—that’s like acting. I feel like I’m a participant, and I’m jamming with you as an actor. So, in terms of staging and getting the performance to play, it’s no different. As a kid I studied painting. And this is finding composition that reflects the emotional terrain.
MO How do you pick your fights? Where do you draw the line? Let’s say you have four issues you’re bringing to the producer about problems that you’re having with the way he’s envisioning the film. How do you set yourself up? Is it instinctual or do you have a game plan?
DS It’s both, I guess. Basically, I said to the producers, “This is a quick shoot. You’re going to have to trust me. And you’re going to have to stay out of my way.” It wasn’t until we got into the edit where the producers could see the film as a tangible object that they began to want to put their finger prints on it. You have to fight them pretty hard when you are in disagreement with them. It’s like a chink in the dam—once you open it up too far, there’s no stopping them. You understand why directors become assholes because at a certain point everyone wants my job and that dilutes what I’m trying to achieve.
MO Have you ever had to say, “My way or I’m out of here?”
DS Mm-hmm. I did on Me & Veronica. I felt very strongly about a couple of issues and when I realized that the producers were going to continue to press their advantage—and in truth, they had the final cut—I said, “If this goes in the film, my name’s no longer on the film, and my participation in finishing the film is stopping right now.” And although, legally, I didn’t have a leg to stand on—artistically, I did. I knew that they knew that deep down inside, so even though on a couple of issues they were angry with me, they realized that they couldn’t fight it. We are all friends, and basically, these were healthy arguments.
MO Me & Veronica could be called a woman’s film. The perspective is decidedly feminine. Did you see yourself as the counterbalance?
DS Initially, I asked the producers why they didn’t hire a woman director. Leslie Urdang said they were worried about it being a feminist tract, that they wanted some sort of balance. And in fact, there were decidedly feminine issues which they wanted out—they were either embarrassed by them or thought them too sentimental—and I pushed to keep them in.
MO Like what?
DS The woman in the laundry saying, “I grew up in a house with six women and a mother; that’s seven women, and I never had a woman friend. But the more I think about it, the more this friend thing means to me.” I thought that was pivotal both to the character, Fanny, who was at odds with her sister, and about women in our society. Men are taught to bond; women are taught to compete. In terms of a feminine perspective, I never thought about that while making the movie. I was always trying to tell the movie from Fanny’s point of view; I always saw it as Fanny’s story. And I relied on the actresses to guide me if I was unsure. The best compliment that I had after a screening in New York was, “You know, I really thought it was directed by a woman. Because it seemed so correct to the woman’s emotional point of view.”
MO Do you have a vision now as a filmmaker? Do you know what types of movies you want to make and who you want to work with?
DS It’s weird, like my season; I’m an artist in transition. All my plays this season are about the artist in transition. I made a commitment to the theater because I grew up in the theater, the theater is really where I live in a way. Everything I have as a movie-maker is derived from the fact that I’m a theater artist. Not least important, certainly, would be the respect for the written word which is opposite to the way it works in film. I made this commitment because I thought I must continue to ground myself. I’ve had offers to direct every television show on the air; and I could easily, because the money is great, and it’s fun to do. But I made a choice to anchor myself to the theater—limit my availability to the commercial world and continue my work. The movie industry depresses me. I worked for a year and a half for Disney and it continually depressed me: what I would call art, they view as product. I thought, I don’t know if there is a place for me in this commercial enterprise. Perhaps, the only thing to do is to form my own company, and, like John Sayles or Woody Allen or the European filmmakers, my goal for myself and for my community of friends and artists that I work with is really to create a contained entity that we run, that we control so that our aesthetic can prevail and it’s not so driven by commercial concerns …
MO Is New York more of a guerilla situation, a war, you against the city?
DS Getting around is tough, making company moves is tough, fighting the crowds is hard. But like everything else in New York, it also feeds you this incredible dynamic and vitality of life that you want to capture. I walk around New York—I don’t know how you feel—but working in the theaters, now I walk by those theaters and I say, “Yeah, this is my theater. I’ve lived in this theater for a while.” My emotional guts are in this theater and it begins to feel like mine. And it’s the same when I shoot. When I pass those places later, I say, “Yeah, that park over there, I shot there.” And you begin to feel that the city is yours, that you’ve given it an emotional characteristic in the films.
MO Now that you’ve done Me & Veronica, would you make a conscious choice to do a film that was 180 degrees in opposition to it, artistically. Instead of doing a small, sensitive story about the intimacy of sisters and the nature of death and how it effects someone’s realization as a person—would you try to go in another direction?
DS A flat out comedy?
MO Yeah, guys with pies in their faces, to vary the approach for yourself?
DS In a funny way, you don’t choose as a director; it seems like work chooses you.
MO Do you think directors get type-cast like actors do?
DS Certainly by the commercial industry, they do.
MO The real focus of this festival is on the director. Every once in a while, you’ll see someone like Jay Leno have a director on their talk show. But in America directors are not regarded with the same kind of respect or given the auteurism that you sense in Europe.
DS I’m so used to what’s going on in America. But the truth is, the Europeans have it right. The dismaying thing about trying to work in the Hollywood system—they’ve always regarded the author, like you said, a notch above or below the caterer—but the director has become that kind of entity to the Hollywood producers to a certain degree. They regard them as a functionary: someone to get the shooting done, and then they’ll cut it. And the Europeans have it right, the director is the author of the film.
MO Do you hold that 95% of making a movie or directing a play is casting?
DS Yeah. Definitely, definitely. And also, trusting the actors, to let the actors lead you. As an actor I was always fighting for that trust. I was always wanting to say to directors, “Let me puck around. Let me try this out. Don’t get nervous. I was here yesterday; I’m 180 degrees today, but this is all a process of whittling down to where I have to be.” That’s a great joy. The great joy is that I get it back from the actors all the time. I’ll finish a play or I’ll finish a job and the actors will say, “This is the greatest time I’ve ever had.”
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee