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
I first met directors Neal Jimenez and Mike Steinberg (absent from this piece because he’s prepping his next film Bodies Rest In Motion) at a rather upscale Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles. We were meeting to talk about The Waterdance, one of the best scripts I’d read in years. Whether or not I’d do the film was contingent upon a meeting, to see if we all had the same vision for the film and more importantly, to see if we got along with each other.
We talked for a while about recent films we’d seen—and disagreed quite a bit, causing me to wonder who’d get stuck with the bill.
First meetings are always a bit strained—but thankfully, Neal has a wonderfully sharp and biting wit. He made a few jokes. Unfortunately, they weren’t funny, but I’d read several of his scripts (River’s Edge, It Only Rains At Night) and knew him to be one of the most talented up and coming young writers around.
As the dinner progressed, we loosened up and finally hit it off—leading to one of the most productive and gratifying work experiences I’ve had. And yes, I was stuck with the dinner bill.
Being first time directors, Mike Steinberg and I saw every piece of film on Eric Stoltz (Mask, Memphis Belle, Some Kind of Wonderful, Manifesto, etc.) even though we had already met and hired him. It goes without saying—though Eric requires I do—that we knew we were working with a great actor. But one who had not yet quite played an adult on screen. The Waterdance afforded him this chance, and Mike and I were both overjoyed at his performance. He came to the editing room constantly, to bug us and give us suggestions. We owe him a debt. $85.47, to be exact. He is an actor of great sensitivity, passion, and dedication, and I’m sure we’ll stay in touch for the years to come. Or until he gets his money.
Neal Jimenez What I was talking about before we turned on the tape recorder is that a lot of people want to take the safe route and start a movie earlier than it should start, before the structure of the story begins. Creators think they have to over-explain things. River’s Edge starts after the murder of the young girl. You might think it would be necessary to show the murder right away. Or to show the girl before her death. But the film wasn’t about the murder, but how these kids react to the murder. The same thing with The Waterdance. Waterdance is about a man who has to deal with …
Eric Stoltz I am always hesitant about trying to describe what the film’s about. So don’t do it.
NJ Okay …
ES (laughter) I’m going to censor you.
NJ But, there are guys in wheelchairs in the movie and somebody has an accident that puts him in a wheelchair. And on some level he’s gotta deal with it. A lot of people questioned whether we should show the main character before the accident. I didn’t feel it was necessary because I’ve seen that done in movies and it doesn’t tell me anything. So we start with what I consider to be the moment that Joel first fathoms his situation, and that’s when the person most important in his life sees him for the first time in what is going to become his new life.
ES The Sweet Hereafter is the next film you’re going to be writing and directing?
NJ That’s the film I’m solo directing. The Sweet Hereafter is about a small town and a tragedy that happens in the small town and how the townspeople deal with it.
ES What is it with you and tragedies?
NJ I always do the light side of the dark world.
ES What were the benefits of having a co-director on Waterdance? I get asked all the time, “What’s the deal with the two directors?”
NJ Tell me this. What was it like working with two directors?
ES It was strange, but it was great. It made the film much more of a collaboration.
NJ Between the actors and the whole group or …
ES I don’t know if it was just the attitude on the set that you guys cultivated or because it was your first time directing … A lot of people were allowed to voice opinions, and in a studio film, it wouldn’t happen that way.
NJ Yeah, we had what we called the “aloha take”—after we had what we needed on film to make the scene, we would let the actors go off the script. We never used any of that shit. (laughter)
ES I beg to differ. Not only were the aloha takes a lot of fun, but some of them ended up in the film.
NJ Some of them ended up in the film.
ES It gave the film a loose spontaneity that you couldn’t script.
NJ Also, hopefully, and you tell me if this is wrong, it made it easier for the actor to go against his will during the regular takes because he knew he had a plum at the end.
ES Exactly. As actors we felt: Okay, I’ll do it your way and then I’ll get to do it my way, and then we’ll seeon the screen which actually works.
NJ I have to credit a lot of that feeling of spontaneity on the set to Mike because, having written the script and lived 15 percent of it, I was less willing to go off the script. Sometimes, off-screen the dialogue would continue. So we would let the camera run and, in the case of Grace and Bill, some of their best stuff was improvisation. Grace [Zabriskie] and Bill [Forsythe], playing mother and son, had this immediate rapport that translated well into film. It was very funny and moving and touching given Bill’s character is a hard-assed biker. You and Helen, having known each other, already had a rapport.
ES Yeah, we were sick of each other before we started filming. (laughter)
NJ Well, I think Helen was very exasperated with what she knew to expect of you. And you were delighted at the opportunity to needle her at every possible moment.
ES I was just embracing what I felt was a basic misogynistic attitude towards women that I find a recurrent theme in your scripts.
NJ Oh, is that right? Okay …
ES River’s Edge?
NJ You think River’s Edge is misogynistic?
ES It certainly could be interpreted that way.
NJ I think it reflects misogynism.
ES I don’t know many women who were thrilled at the premise. “It’s about this girl that gets murdered and these guys that decide to protect the guy who did it.”
NJ But the film comments on that, the girls who are part of the peer group realize that it’s true, they are powerless within this group. And one of the decisions that the main female character makes is to go against the group and call the cops. A small, basic decision. But yeah, it reflects, and I’m not saying that it’s right, how women are at the mercy of men. What starts the film is a very violent, misogynistic act against a woman. This teenager, obviously has a problem with women. He killed her partly because she was female. Although it’s never said in the film. One character does question, “Why did John do it?” And another kid answers, “Because she was talking shit about his dead mom.”
ES In The Waterdance, the women’s roles, Helen Hunt’s and Elizabeth Peña’s and Fay Houser’s, are the healthiest emotionally. They may be secondary characters …
NJ Yeah. I wish. I have a script planned that I wanna write with a strict female protagonist. But then you run into the danger of being accused of writing something that you don’t … How can you possibly know this? How can you know a woman’s point of view? But if I do it and I do it successfully it will be a good, strong, complete lead role for an actress.
ES (laughter) Well, I don’t know how I feel about that Neal.
NJ (laughter) You can have one of the supporting roles.
ES One of the thankless roles?
NJ Yeah, the plastic surgeon boyfriend. Anyway it’s very much in the planning stages.
ES Now, what’s the deal? Do you have a stack of scripts that you’ve written ready for a studio head to bless with eight million dollars?
NJ I’ve written 12 scripts and of those 12, five have been made.
ES You’ve had five scripts shot!?
NJ Let me think, there’s Where the River Runs Black … But few have been successful. But five have been made. That’s not bad. I’m just doing this for myself, River’s Edge, Dark Wind, For the Boys, and The Waterdance. So …
ES That’s impressive. How old are you?
NJ (grinning) Twenty-two.
ES Gee, that’s funny, you look 32.
NJ I will be 32 in May.
ES Dark Wind, has that come out yet?
NJ Dark Wind is STV, straight to video. Errol Morris directed it. It’s an adaptation of a Tony Hillerman novel. A Navajo detective, who-dunnit film. I wanted to try to do a very densely structured murder mystery set in the Navajo reservation. But as soon as I finished writing it, the director took over. The same thing happened in For the Boys. The director took over and it became his film.
ES In the future, will you hire yourself out less as a writer? Now that you’ve had the experience of directing?
NJ I’m hoping now, that everything I write, I will be expected to direct. I have no interest in directing a large scale, logistically difficult film like For the Boys, even though it was very challenging to write it.
ES So you see yourself directing more intimate …
NJ Films set in one place …
ES Films set in small rooms.
NJ (laughter) That’s it, in rooms. I mean The Sweet Hereafter is set in a small town. But the point I was gonna make about this film, For The Boys, is that it takes place in ten–15 cities, and has 75–100 different locations to shoot and that’s not what I would want to do with my next film. I want to do something more contained, and learn more about filmmaking and working with actors before taking on some big job where logistics will overpower the filmmaking process.
ES You’ve touched on something we should talk about, and that’s working with actors.
ES (laughter) There was a rather disparate group of actors on Waterdance. You were an ideal first-time director because you had a Zen-like acceptance. I remember you saying, “I don’t really know how to work with actors so let’s do this together.” Which immediately made us feel comfortable. Will how you work with actors change in your next film?
NJ No, it won’t change. It has informed how Mike and I are going to work with actors in the future. There were difficult times. But we had the luxury of having a good cop/bad cop situation. If there was a momentary problem with an actor, all of the director’s efforts wouldn’t have to go into dealing with that problem, because one director could deal with it, and the other could set up the shot. I remember one time everybody on the set being completely at a loss as to what informed Helen’s moment, what was motivating her. And it was funny, cause we had two directors and an actress and another actor in the scene and nobody could figure out how to get the desired performance. Helen gets all the credit, she pulled off the scene. The problem in that situation, and this was very educational to me, was that the scene was underwritten. The scene was lousy. What I’ve learned in working with actors is that you’ve got to write and rewrite and totally know what your scene is about. Mike is very exacting about whether lines really work. He’d ask, “Do we really need to end the scene with these two lines?” He put the script under a very fine microscope. And then we’d get on the set and throw it all out anyway. (laughter)
ES When we first started rehearsing, we all gathered here in your humble abode and read through the script. Just hearing it out loud, made things clearer for me as an actor, in terms of where I needed to do the work and where I thought the scene did not work. Hearing it out loud, did you want to do any rewrites?
NJ Writers tend to cringe whenever they hear their words spoken. Sometimes, when you’re writing and you wanna test it out, you say a line to yourself and then you cringe more than you’ve ever cringed in your life, because writers are rarely very good actors. That might make you throw out a line that might be good. It’s a fine line to walk when you’re writing, but in the case of The Waterdance, before moving into one of the initial polishes we had a reading that you were not involved in. Helen was involved in it. We got a group of actors together and read the script so that we could hear the rhythm of the dialogue and how certain speeches sounded. I was fearful of it but it was very useful and at the same time very rewarding because it told me that the script was a lot closer to being finished and flowed a lot more than I thought.
ES Did you record it?
NJ Yeah, we recorded it. I never did go back and listen to the tapes. And I don’t know if it was anything calculated, and I say calculated in a positive way, about Helen coming to do the reading, but it didn’t hurt. She got the role pretty much based on that reading.
ES When you heard us rehearsing: myself and Wesley Snipes and Bill Forsythe, did you find yourself readjusting the script to suit our strong points and to hide the weak points? Or did you just leave it alone and hope that we could do it?
NJ Well, I readjusted it in Bill’s case. I remember looking over his shoulder at his copy of the script and seeing that half my lines had been crossed out and changed anyway. So I had to readjust it back. What worried me about Wesley’s role was that it was written in black southern dialect, you know, using d’s instead of th’s and …
ES The danger of the stereotype.
NJ Yeah, I was worried about the danger of the stereotype. I was worried that any black actor would feel offended by the way that it was written. In Wesley’s case I almost ran into the opposite situation, he amplified the character on the page. So I immediately changed the grammar and did away with the dialect so that Wesley wouldn’t …
ES I remember endless discussions in the editing room about which take of Wesley’s to use because he, out of all of us, tended to do one way out take and one more realistic take.
NJ Our editor, Jeff Freeman, always liked the take that was more emotionally naked but both Mike and I were worried about the film being too sentimental because by definition, it’s a situation that lends itself to sentimentality. So we would always pull back and use the more subtle take. Wesley gave us a lot to work with and he was very, very funny, but in the editing room, we pulled him back and modulated his performance.
ES One of the surprises is how much people laugh during the film. When you describe the premise of the film … People having to overcome this obstacle of being in wheelchairs. Immediately people go, “Oh my God, it sounds really depressing.” While you were directing us, did you want to emphasize the dark humor in it?
NJ On the set we created an atmosphere where it was okay to joke and we didn’t demand that the actors stay in character in their wheelchairs. We were very much aware that for this film to work, and Bill Forsythe was very vocal about this, that we needed to see the guys breaking out of the place. Going out and partying and being together. At some point, the movie had to take flight and the characters had to be having a good time. Bill, as a character, wanted to be the instigator, the guy that got everybody outta the place and took them to the strip club.
ES He’s also that guy in real life, he naturally gravitates towards that.
NJ That was the right instinct. You were very good at keeping our spirits up through your caustic wit.
NJ When you were off camera, you would go ridiculously off the script just to get a reaction from the person on camera.
ES That’s a technique.
NJ You and Helen had a prior relationship, I don’t think you ever were lovers but I think you had sex quite often, in the past.
ES I think you are grossly mistaken.
NJ Anyway, you and Helen were friends and that definitely translated onto the screen. When it was Helen’s close-up you would very pointedly go off the script to get a reaction out of her.
ES Right, ’cause I knew where to go in her life to get her embarrassed or angry—it was helpful.
NJ Exactly, and Bill did that often, he’d goad. Now I’m interested to know this about you. There’s a scene where you and Bill are in conflict. It’s the one scene where he calls your character, Joel, on his bullshit. It appeared to Mike and me that there was something going on, not only between your characters, but something that you and Bill had to prove in that scene. Is that accurate?
ES I think it is, yeah.
NJ What was it?
ES I’m not telling. (laughter) I’m not about to talk about that. From the first day of rehearsals, Bill and I were in each other’s face, with a certain amount of respect. But knowing that we weren’t gonna put up with each other’s bullshit as much as we would other people’s. And it worked. It came across on screen.
NJ Yeah, it definitely did. Bill’s character, Bloss, of the three, from screenplay to screen, went through the biggest change because of Bill’s interpretation of him. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the conflict that Bill automatically brought to the set elevated everybody else, put everybody else on their toes.
ES Oh yeah, it was exhausting but beneficial. We always knew when his scene was coming up because you could hear him bellowing down the corridor, yelling something or other. (pause) Bill.
NJ William Forsythe.
ES William Forsythe, who is in every new film coming out.
NJ American Me.
ES He’s in this huge poster for American Me. Bald. Skinny. Bill.
NJ Different guy.
ES Different man, terrific actor.
NJ So, what questions do I wanna ask you? Okay, traveling into autobiographical territory or the fact that you were playing a character that was loosely based on someone near and dear to myself.
ES Madonna? (laughter)
NJ How did that affect your preparation and performance?
ES Ohhh, I don’t know. I was nervous about it for months before we started filming and finally I remember coming up to you and saying, “Look man, is this weird for you? ’Cause I feel kinda strange about it.” And you put me at ease by saying, “It’s not me, it’s a character, don’t feel like you have to do me and we’ll be fine.” (pause) And then I went ahead and did you anyway.
NJ Was that a conscious decision?
ES Sometimes. I don’t know. There are little moments, little specific things I imitated that people can recognize if they know you.
NJ Like that goofy fucking smile on your face, that I didn’t recognize as my own.
ES That was one of the most gratifying moments on the set.
NJ Yeah. That was some fun. The short version of the story is that there was a long take that ended with Eric reacting to being caught having sex. At the end, he put on this stupid, goofy, silly, kicking grin and I said, “Eric, the take was great except for that stupid, kicking, silly, goofy grin on your face right at the end.”
ES And the whole crew started laughing and Michael turned to you and said, “Neal, that’s your stupid, goofy, silly grin.” So, what about that wacky sex scene, Neal?
NJ We were just a bunch of wacksters having a wacky time wacking off.
ES It did turn out sexy, actually. I’ve been told that it’s one of the first … How do you say this?
NJ Honest portrayals?
ES First time on film that a man has masturbated a woman to orgasm.
NJ I’ve seen … Oh! You mean in a non-X-rated film.
ES Not the kind of film you rent.
NJ I don’t rent, um, I own them.
ES Anyway, the women I’ve spoken to find that masturbation scene quite electrifying, as a matter of fact. Did you have any problems directing a sex scene?
NJ There are two scenes and one of them was a little touchier because it involved nudity.
ES You’re nervous just talking about it.
NJ I wasn’t nervous on the s-s-s-s-set. Basically, we had two directors and two actors, four people, three of whom were virgins in dealing with nudity on the screen.
ES Yeah, it was Helen’s first sex scene.
NJ So, we proceeded on the side of caution and at your and Helen’s suggestion, went to the location the weekend before the shoot and blocked out every intimate emotion that was going to happen. Nevertheless, when it finally came down to the day of shooting the second love scene …
ES Where we’re nude.
NJ Where you’re nude, where both of you are nude. The tension in that small hotel room was thick. Actresses are often faced with this in a room full of six men: actor, director, assistant director, camera man, sound man, camera assistant! So, Helen was more nervous than anybody, understandably so. So out of respect for your privacy and hers, I didn’t look at the two of you—I looked at the monitor instead.
ES I just assumed that you were watching us, because that’s what you’d always done.
NJ You were always teasing me about using the freaking monitor!
ES The “nipple” we called it on the set. That’s right, you guys were glued to the nipple throughout filming.
NJ This is one of the drawbacks of directing from a wheelchair, quite often I had to rely on the monitor. That’s one thing I’ve learned. I wouldn’t ban the monitor from the set, but next time around I would use it a lot less.
ES It’s the difference between seeing a play from the front row and seeing it on a four-inch screen.
NJ Yeah, yeah. You’re right.
ES You miss so many nuances of a performance. If it’s technically correct, you think, “Oh, it’s great. We’ve got it, let’s move on.” And it may not have been emotionally correct.
NJ No, you’re absolutely right I realized this throughout the filming that I would catch myself and all it would take was a head-turn to see the actors actually performing. But there were certain situations, one was that love scene …
NJ And the other was probably, as an actor, your most difficult scene.
ES Oh, right, right.
NJ There, it was part of my design to keep you in the room alone and let you do, basically, what turned out to be a soliloquy in an empty room. Because of your mood on that day, which I’m not saying anything negative about because you were so intense and serious about what had to be done, I wanted to respect that privacy. What happened was very successful, in my opinion, so it was the right thing to do. But there I watched the monitor.
NJ You are talking to another character but basically you’re talking to yourself. It’s a monologue that becomes a soliloquy. You don’t often see soliloquies in movies, but this is one. You start talking to this man, alone in the room with you, and your words become more and more private. Words to yourself: thoughts and feelings you’ve had throughout the film but have been denying, not giving voice to. The other man in the scene, in a way, disappears. You are talking to yourself.
NJ As I’ve noticed you do quite often anyway. So, I guess the scene was easier for you than I thought.
ES Your words, not mine.
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