Friday, March 19, 2010

Interview with TWWW Director Dan Ireland

The SunBreak | 3.19.10

Founder Returns, The Whole Wide World in Tow, for SIFF Movie Marathon

In an age when even the most idiosyncratic film directors allow their visions to be diluted by the tsunami that is corporate-sponsored modern cinema, Dan Ireland has defiantly crafted subtle, engrossing, and fiercely-independent character studies for fifteen years.

Ireland studied directing at the figurative feet of masters as co-founder (with Darryl MacDonald) of the Seattle International Film Festival, purchased and renovated Seattle's beloved Egyptian Theater, and segued into film production with Vestron Pictures in the mid-1980s before taking the director's chair on The Whole Wide World in 1996. With that kind of trajectory, it's no surprise that Dan Ireland's rife with great stories about every phase of his journey to date.

Informed by the arthouse features he championed at SIFF as a programmer, Ireland's own films cover a wide swath of subject matter--from a romantic triangle involving a bisexual porn star, a male hustler, and a waitress (The Velocity of Gary), to a vividly-observed portrayal of Massachusetts-based Portugese-Americans (Passionada), to a bravura showcase for the legendary Joan Plowright (Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont), to his award-winning E.L. Doctorow adaptation Jolene. The trademarks of his style: an emphasis on characterization and a unique eye for spotting up-and-coming actors, as well as bringing out the best in already-established ones.

SIFF's prodigal father returns to Seattle on Sunday to present a director's cut of The Whole Wide World, his affecting drama detailing the relationship between pulp author Robert E. Howard (Vincent D'Onofrio) and schoolteacher Novalyne Price (Renee Zellweger, in her film debut). It's a perfect opening film for SIFF Cinema's Twelve-Hour Movie Marathon, an innovative fundraiser showcasing a stellar lineup of films significant to SIFF's history. The movie stands, in its own quiet way, as one of the best films of the '90s, and one of the Fest's most cherished progeny.

Ireland talked to The SunBreak in detail about the many hats he's worn over the years (stay tuned for part two of this interview next week). But the first portion of our conversation orbited around his acclaimed first feature, its impact on his life and career, and how the director's cut of The Whole Wide World differs from the original theatrical release.

What gravitated you back for this marathon?

Well, I got invited...I guess that was the gravitation. And [The Whole Wide World] hasn't been on a screen, in a theater, in--I don't know--twelve or thirteen years. And I just happened to have a print that has never been seen. It was the original cut of the film...And the one that I prefer, actually. It's about eight minutes longer, and it's a shameless opportunity to show my film! [laughs]

So what can fans expect to see in this director's cut that they didn't see in the original version?

I think what I really focused on...was a subplot involving Bob [Howard]'s mother thinking that she had Indian blood in her, which at that point in time was a prejudice, being in Texas in the Panhandle days. Mrs. Howard's family had travelled across the plains, and many members of them had been massacred by Indians, so Bob was brought up to have a natural prejudice against Indians.

Mrs. Howard managed to get in her digs on Novalyne. Novalyne had dark features, and because she had dark features she immediately became suspect of having Indian blood. So I had this entire subtext that I shot. Some of the best stuff that I've ever done in my life, I had to take and leave on the floor. It came down to shortening the film, and the only way I could shorten it was by taking out that subplot, because it really didn't pay off. But you can still see remnants of it there [in the original cut]. The scene up on the cliff, when he goes to kiss her? He says, "I'll have this full-blooded Indian girl," and she says, "Thank you!" [laughs], even though she's not Indian.

It's a beautiful scene, and it really stands out. It's interesting to hear the context.

There's a scene where they have a picnic, and Bob comes right out and tells her, "My mother saw you over the holidays, and she looked at you and thought that maybe you had a drop of Indian blood in you," and Novalyne says, "Well, I wonder why she'd think that?" knowing how the apron strings are sort of tied around Bob by his mother. That was the biggest thing. I actually also did a switch from Reel 3 to Reel 4 because the continuity didn't work without it.

I really like this version. I only wish it was available on DVD as such...

I was going to ask you if this was a version that would see the light of day on DVD someday.

You know what? Strangely, I got to do it for the laserdisc, so it exists on laserdisc, but not on DVD and not on film.

The cast of The Whole Wide World's pretty incredible...

Incredible! I mean, how lucky was I on my first film, that I got to work with...Vincent D'Onofrio, and found Renee...AND was able to pull in Ann Wedgeworth. Thank God Vinnie had worked with her on a television film. He loved her. And I'd seen her in Citizen's Band...

The Jonathan Demme film...

Yeah, then there was Harve [Presnell]...I knew Harve from the days of Paint Your Wagon: [singing in exaggerated baritone] "Where I'm goin', I don't know!" In fact, I looked at my casting director--I saw Harve's name on the sheet, and in between the actors coming in for the audition, I'd turn around and sing her a bar from The Unsinkable Molly Brown, or something from Paint Your Wagon [laughs]. I was expecting this big, blonde, strapping god to come walking in. So Harve walks in, and my jaw drops. By the end of the reading I was just completely in awe. He was so much Vincent D'Onofrio's father.

That's really true. You've got a bit of a physical resemblance there...

Plus, they both have this ability to become these intense people. Yeah, you can really see the father-son resemblance. If you can get a touch of reality happening in any of your characters, it just takes the film to another level. When I look for an actor, it might not be somebody that you normally think of. I love being open in my casting. My casting director on this film, Laurel Smith, taught me that, to be open. I don't care what an actor's done: If I can look in their work and find even a moment of clarity and honesty; all you have to do is find one moment, and you know they can do it. And then you have to believe in them and they have to believe in you.

That film was my film school; it was my changing of the guard; it was my changing of my life. It was the end of a relationship I was going through, and it was the beginning of a new time for me. It was so huge, in retrospect...I saw the movie again about three years ago--I was screening it for Jessica Chastain, the young actress from Jolene, and it was so weird just looking at it, seeing things that I'd never seen before.

You kind of have to hate your films for awhile. The ones that stick will come back to you, and the ones that don't, don't. You have to let it go, and let it sort of survive as its own being. They become their own creatures, like your children. You can father a child, but that doesn't mean that the child is you. It's a part of you. But there's a million other people who're involved in it...There's a mother, there's a sister, and an aunt and an uncle...When I looked at the film three years ago, it wasn't like I even directed it. It was something I was watching, and I was able to let go. It was the first time I'd ever been able to do that. Sure, I saw a couple of things where I thought, "Where was my head when I shot that?" [laughs] But seeing it again really moved me.

Well, you've got thirteen years as a director now, so I'd imagine that sort of analysis is bound to come up.

A director once told me that your first film should be your most energetic and your most fearless. When I look back at [The Whole Wide World], the guts it took me to make it...It was only through inexperience [laughs]!

So what kind of training did you have in directing prior to The Whole Wide World?

I'd never directed anything before in my life.

How did you prepare for your first time in the director's chair?

Well, I worked for five years on the script, and I worked with Vincent privately for about a year before we started shooting anything. We knew each other incredibly well, and we started working on the character [of Robert E. Howard] long before we got to the camera. I'd had a good, fair deal of experience as a producer; but suddenly you're there. You're in the middle of an entire crew, and you're the captain. And they want to know what they're doing next. And you're the one who has to tell them. Honestly, for some of it, I was flying by the seat of my pants: [laughs] On the first day of shooting I was completely petrified. But by the eleventh hour that day, I went into high gear and I never got out of it until the end of the film.

The Whole Wide World was really well-received critically on its initial release. That must've been gratifying.

It was, but I was in a strange space at the time. I'd just split with a relationship I'd been in for six years, and so emotionally I was kind of devastated, so [the acclaim] never, ever went to my head. I felt touched, blessed, honored, and it kind of got me through a really rough time. Whenever I'd make an appearance or go to a festival, I'd be at the back of the theater, and I'd watch the end of the film because that was such a tough thing to shoot. I was in a very fragile time at that point. So I was almost a little distanced from all of the praise. It was lovely, but I never took it seriously.

I was proud of the film, even though I knew the mistakes in it. But just having that relationship with Vincent and Renee was extraordinary, and it defined who I was as a director when I continued. It all became about working with the actor. And that really stemmed from working with Vincent. He's the guy that taught me all. He taught me every single thing I know about working with actors. Whenever I'm stuck--even today--on something, if I want to remember how to get through, I just remember working with him and what we did. And it always comes to me; always.

He was my teacher...It wasn't like, "Dan, you have to do this!" It wasn't like that. He was generous above and beyond the call of duty. I was his brother, and he looked after me. If he saw a performance that he didn't think was right, he'd come up and he'd whisper in my ear. He'd give me a suggestion, like, "What do you think of going to that actor and approaching him like this? Give him this suggestion..."

You're really known as an actor's director, so hearing how you honed that skill is interesting.

Oh, I'm proud to tell anyone how I got there [laughs]! It was Vincent. God bless Vincent D'Onofrio. He's the bomb. I loved him, and I truly hope I get to work with him again. And with Renee, I was so honored to work with her. She really fell into our world so suddenly. She was not the first choice, and it was just because I didn't know her. But once the movie started happening, life took over, and it was like God looked down on us and said, "You know what? The girl you got is not a Texan. You are gonna get a REAL Texas girl." And lo and behold, Renee Z. came right into my life, and changed it. To this day she's one of my dearest friends. Our work together was so beautiful. We were both in the same position. Vincent helped her as much as he helped me, and we all helped each other.

**Visit our Filmography section for more on "The Whole Wide World". View clips of TWWW.


Judy said...

Everyone please take the time to read the full article. What a nice tribute to Vincent from Dan Ireland. He loves the guy!


Lizzie said...

Someone please tell Dan the picnic scene is in the cut of the movie that the UK got.

Lizzie :)

val said...

Loving Vincent is not hard to do. I don't understand why it isn;t common to everyone in The Whole Wide World ;)

mauigirl said...

WOW, this is an awesome interview. Dan really does love Vincent! Reading this makes me wish I could be there for the screening.

SnarkAngel said...

So nice to see an honest appraisal of working with Vincent. I really hope they DO get to work together again in the not too distant future!

[Browse Amazon]


List of films in production.

"In Dubious Battle" [2016]

"In Dubious Battle" [2016]
An activist gets caught up in the labor movement for farm workers in California during the 1930s. Vincent....Al Anderson


A story about the early life of Tennessee Williams

Directed by James Franco
Vincent D'Onofrio, Jacob Loeb

"American Falls" - [TBA]

In a rural town in Southern Idaho, the Suzukis, a Japanese American family, run a small motel. One night they get a strange visitor who sports ‘city’ clothes who turns out to be the first African-American man that Toru Suzuki’s children have ever seen. Yoshiko takes it upon herself to solve the mystery about this man, especially when 2 police officers come knocking on their door.

Short film produced by Erika Hampson.
Vincent D'Onofrio as Detective Foster.

'Purgatory' [TBA]

'Purgatory' [TBA]
Tagline: In the Wild West a lot of blood was spilled... but it didn't go to waste. Vincent....Dallas Stoudenmire

"A Fall From Grace" [TBA]

Detective Michael Tabb knows the city of St. Louis inside and out. He has felt its true heart, as much as its dark underbelly: but he does not know who, in both the dark and light - is taking the lives of young girls.

Director: Jennifer Lynch
Producer/Writer ...Eric Wilkinson

Vincent D'Onofrio ....George Lawson (GRACE's father)
Tim Roth.......Detective Tabb

Filming in St Louis - TBA

"Supreme Ruler" [TBA]

A man campaigns to become the leader of the Buffalo lodge.

Vincent D'Onofrio as Hank Dory
Ron Livingston as Steve
Marcia Gay Harden as Nancy

"The Monster Next Door" [TBA]

"The Monster Next Door" - Comedy Horror

Executive Produced by Dennis Johnson, Melanie Mohlman Produced by Eric Wilkinson, David Michaels
Written by Jim Robbins
Directed by Jennifer Lynch

Cast: Vincent D'Onofrio, Bill Pullman, French Stewart, Bill Moseley

'Down & Dirty Pictures' - [in Production - Filming TBA]

'Down & Dirty Pictures' - [in Production - Filming TBA]
Vincent......Harvey Weinstein

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