Hoffman savors the satisfaction of getting it right
By Bill Goodykoontz
Published: Sunday, Feb. 3, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
The reputation the actor carries around is that he's a perfectionist on set. Then again, he's won two Oscars and appeared in a slew of great movies, while being great in them. So, maybe he's onto something.
In a phone interview, Hoffman, 75, was actually quite charming, laughing a lot and telling lots of tales. He's directed his first film, “Quartet,” which is in theaters. It's the story of a home for retired musicians; the balance is upset when a big star with personal connections to several of the residents checks in.
Hoffman talked about getting behind the camera and a lot of other things.
Question: What took you so long to direct a movie?
Answer: Only the people who know me and myself know the answer. (Laughs.) I've directed plays. I started to direct a film called “Straight Time” years and years ago, and I fired myself, which was a mistake. The truth is that, since then, I've been developing material with a lot of people in my profession. And then a film comes along and you decide what you're developing. By the time you come back to it, you've got another idea. It happens that way. I always feel a little bit reassured when I read that someone like Clint Eastwood took 17 years to get “Unforgiven” on the screen.
Q: Alexander Payne (“The Descendants”) answered the question of what takes him so long between films by saying, basically, (stuff) happens.
A: I think I'll steal that.
Q: How much acting experience do you bring to directing?
A: Well, the truth is that most directors who have been actors find it an easier transition. Some of our great directors were actors. I think Ben Affleck has become a wonderful director, and he started out as an actor. The same with Elia Kazan and Martin Ritt. It goes on and on. Even Mike Nichols, who directed me (in “The Graduate”).
Q: Was it what you expected?
A: What I find to be surprising, which I didn't realize, is the constancy of mishaps that take place on a daily basis, that actors are kind of protected from even knowing about. When you come to work each day as an actor you have your scene or scenes that you're going to do. That's all that's in your head. The director greets you many times with half a smile because he or she found out they just lost the location or they lost an actor they thought they had or they were getting some props or the crane they thought they were supposed to have for a shot didn't come.
Q: You're known as an uncompromising actor. Did you bring that to directing, too?
A: Yes, but what you do is you kind of live down your mythology. You can't fight city hall, and you can't change the public image of yourself. Warren Beatty, of my generation, was the great womanizer; yet, we knew stars that got more action than he did. (Laughs.) (Jack) Nicholson was known as the recreational drug user, and there were also people who did a lot more than he did. They had him doing so much I don't think he could have lived to be 75. And I was the difficult one.
And I guess the argument I have is that my first director was Mike Nichols, and my second director was John Schlesinger. And both of those directors I guess were known as perfectionists. They did the unheard-of thing, which was demanding rehearsal — Nichols the first month before we started shooting, and I think Schlesinger the same. I was so aware when I worked for those directors that they did not leave a scene till they tapped every ounce of believability they could get out of it. I guess I thought that's the way to work.
Q: You seem OK with it.
A: I've always been kind of bemused by the fact that the people behind the camera are fired immediately if they're not perfectionists. Can you imagine someone with a camera getting a focus wrong? “Oh, you know, I'm not a perfectionist.” It demands it. It's kind of like surgery. You either get it right or you don't. Somehow, we in front of the camera are taught to be more laissez-faire.
Q: Is nailing a scene as a director as satisfying as being an actor?
A: Yes, it is. But it's satisfying all-around. I always think a bit of magic takes place on a film set, because things go wrong constantly. The dolly was late or early, and you have to go again because of that, or you blew a light, or the light changed and a cloud came over. And, then, there are times when all of that stuff goes right, and the actors just stand there, paralyzed. What makes it magical is when everyone gets it right at the same time, and you, somehow, know that's happening while you're making it. It might be only a minute long, but everyone gets it right. Everyone joins forces, and there it is. It's one of the great feelings for everyone.
Q: I have to ask, what's your favorite film that you've been in?
A: I don't really have one, eh, boy, if you want the honest answer. ... There's a film that was unsuccessful that I felt like I got very, very close to what I wanted to do, a film called “Straight Time.” Actually, I did start out directing it. It's about an ex-convict. It's about recidivism. We tried to go into the sociopathy about the individuals who unfortunately make a living carrying guns, and who are also without empathy. I think that film told that story as well as I could, in terms of doing a couple of years of research with it.
Q: Any others?
A: I think with “Rain Man” I did the same thing. I researched it for a couple of years before we shot it. After we finished it, the director, Barry Levinson, had a screening for specialists in the field of autism. It was 1988, so people didn't really know the word. And we asked them afterward, we can make changes, just tell us what we got incorrect. We were in a parking lot. They all looked at each other and said, “No, you got it accurately.” That was a profoundly moving moment for me. Awards are great and everything, but nothing is better than hitting the group you're talking about accurately.
Q: That must be satisfying.
A: I recently bumped into Itzhak Perlman. He had recently seen “Quartet.” He said that's the first time I've ever seen a film about musicians that's accurate. That was a great feeling.
Q: No doubt. Do others come to mind?
A: I think that “Tootsie” was a profound experience for me. I was guilty of what every other man was guilty about, certainly of my generation, that we judged women by their exterior. In a sense we were attracted to women closely representing the cover of fashion magazines or whatever, and women were invisible who did not fit those exterior requirements. Even though it was a comedy, that was the serious subtext of it, that men, unfortunately through their own, I think, narcissism, pick women the way they would pick cars. Some men learned their lesson later on in life.
“All the President's Men” was the same thing. We hung out at the Washington Post for three months before we started shooting it. And to have journalists say that's close. ... Not today, of course. In those days, you needed at least two sources; today you don't need anything. You can call yourself a gossip columnist and people will take what you say as the truth. It's a difference of time, God knows.
Bill Goodykoontz of The Arizona Republic is the chief film critic for Gannett.
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