Airing Monday night on HBO, "Seduced and Abandoned" is a meta-documentary in which actor Alec Baldwin and his filmmaker pal James Toback take a look at the arbitrary deal-making process behind today's movie business.
Toback and Baldwin roamed the Cannes Film Festival last year, documenting the arduous -- and crushing -- prices of getting a film financed and made. The likes of Roman Polanksi, Martin Scorcese, Ryan Gosling and others offer their commentary and reservations about the industry as Tobak, who directs and stars, and Baldwin, who stars, try to pitch a movie they dub "Last Tango in Tikrit," an Iraq War-set romance with much "exploratory sex."
Baldwin, whose movie career has mostly given way to TV, spoke with Show Tracker about the film last week just before taping the next installment of his new MSNBC talk show, which also got some talk time.
You're not on your way to Pilates class, are you? I feel like every time I have you on the phone, that's where you're going.
I’m at MSNBC, which is the opposite of Pilates class. Pilates strengthens you, empowers you, enriches you, it helps the life force to flow to the extremities of your body — are we recording this, I hope? It brings chi from your fingertips to your toes. MSNBC sucks the life out of you. It’s a digital vampire that’s killing me, inch by inch every day.
You know how to get quoted, Baldwin! I feel like I’m getting to know the Twitter you.
Mmm, yeah. It’s been tough. It’s been tough. It’s been tough.
Let’s look on the bright side: congrats on the baby!
Yeah, that’s been great. It’s been great. Really. It’s the greatest thing in the world. I just wish I was rich—
You’re not rich?
I mean really rich. There’s rich and then there’s effing rich.
I’m nowhere near either of those, so …
Well, but you’re rich in other ways. I can hear it in your voice. Look at how happy you sound. Listen to how half-dead I sound. And that’s from MSNBC.
Yeah, I don’t have a talk show … yet.
Consider yourself lucky, because it’s hard. All my complaining, by the way, is sarcasm, readers. I love MSNBC, particularly Phil Griffin, who runs MSNBC. I think the issue has been booking people. It’s really hard booking people.
Oh, you want to come do the show? You want to do a show about Pilates?
Let’s do it. But first, let’s talk about “Seduced and Abandoned.” What initially went through your mind when James told you his plan for this?
Well, he and I had talked about making a film. And we talked a lot. We met many, many times. Jimmy is a friend of mine. We talked a lot about a film we’d want to make. And we found out — as we ruminated and did some writing and very serious thinking about a film we wanted to do, the Cannes Film Festival came looming. And I just blurted out this idea to him: Why don’t we go and film the pitching of a movie. We don’t even have to have a script ready. We don’t even really have to have a movie to make. Let’s go and pretend we have a movie to make and pitch it at Cannes. We sold the idea to a bunch of investors, these three guys (Alan Helene, Larry Herbert, Neal Schneider), and they gave us the money needed. It was complicated because Cannes is a place — well, I don’t want to say it’s a place where people let their hair down. It’s not about behaving in any way with a mentality of “get that camera away from me.” It’s the opposite, there’s cameras on them all the time. It’s a big, big press event. But we went there. When they talk to you, they certainly don’t intend to let their guard down. They’re there for business and they want to speak very cautiously. To get them to speak more candidly about where the movie business is at, that’s tough to do. But we succeeded in getting many of the people we wanted to talk to us. Many obliged us. And many of them spoke rather candidly about the movie business — and some of them, very constructively. Like Scorsese, probably the greatest when he said, “We have to find ways to make movies around these people” — meaning the people who we felt were more kind of the merchant types, who are much more concerned about monetizing the whole thing.
You and James give your own thoughts on the industry's aim for blockbusters and franchises — and the films you do for yourself and the ones one must do for “them.” Talk about that.
I think any time you do a film and you haven't written or directed the film or produced it, it’s unavoidably one for them. It can't help but be anything other than one for them. There’s no way around it. And that’s OK. You’re not making the film. Warren Beatty once said to me, “Until you take ultimate responsibility for what you're doing and step up to do all those jobs, you are going to be frustrated to some degree. Just sometimes less than others.” Unless you decide to do the whole thing yourself, you’re going to have that problem.
I would say that most of the film I did — the biggest issue in the film business now is less, I think, about how tough it is to raise money. That’s been the case for a long, long time. The biggest issue is the shortage of good directors. The film industry has three main creative pistons — the writing, the directing and the acting. Obviously there are other people who make huge contributions creatively: sets, editing, costumes, cinematography, art design — those people are invaluable. But I’m just saying the immediately identifiable critical elements of a film are the script, the director and the cast. That’s really what the money is raised on. The fourth element being the money itself. Of those three creative elements — take away the money for a moment — the one that’s the most anemic right now is the directors unit, because there is an abundance of great actors out there. Tons of them. They might not be famous, they might not be the greatest at the box office, but there's a lot of great acting out there. There’s a lot of great scripts out there. A lot of great, unproduced scripts.
I think the industry conspires now to minimize … if movies are going to get made, it tends to be who is in the cast. If it's Tom Hanks, somebody who is incredibly talented and lucky — you really have to have both to get to that place in this business where you have great commercial success and great creative success — there’s enough great directors to take care of the likes of Tom Hanks.
For everybody else — it’s not like people have a script that, say, we’re going to get Tom Hanks or Tom Cruise or Javier Bardem or Orlando Bloom or Johnny Depp or we’re going to go home and we’re not going to do the movie. They go out and get Bob Hanks or Larry Bloom, they go get some other actor to do the movie because they want to make the movie — when you get down to that reality, where you’re not working with the greatest people, the directing things tend to be thin. There’s just not a big pool, a deep bench, of really, really good directors. The only reason I’m harping on this, and then I’ll let it go, is you cannot make a good movie without a good director. You just can’t. You can’t. If you’re starting the movie and the director is — everybody is always saying, ‘Let’s give the guy a try.’ And, yes, one out of 100 times or one out of 50 times or one out of 25 times, you’ll have lightning in a bottle and that person will go on to have a good career, but then there’s the other 24 times. And often those movies aren’t terrible movies, they’re just very ordinary. That’s the problem: Most movies that are made today are OK. They’re not terrible, they’re not awful, they’re just not very good. They’re just OK. It’s very tough to set out and make a film when you don’t have a strong director with a really clear view of what they want to make. And even if they do have a clear view of the movie they want to make, are you going to give them the money to support it?
Well, as an actor, how was it on your ego to hear from these financers that they would only pony up so much money with you tied to a project?
What I’m worth and what I’m not worth, I’ve known that for quite some time and that’s an adjustment that you make rather conscientiously, or you're going to have a lot of problems in this business. Because those people that glide through this business with an exaggerated sense of what they’re worth and who aren't in touch with what they’re really worth, they suffer enormously down the line. I’ve always been someone that wants to know. So when they say, like in this movie it’s a much more sort of direct example, a much more unvarnished example because you’re also a producer on the film, where people will say I’m only going to give you so much money to make a movie with him — the difference is, those people said that to my face, which we thought was kind of funny. Whereas, people have been saying that in rooms that I’m not in all the time. What I’m worth and what I’m not worth is evident to me. You learn that very quickly.
How quickly did it come for you?
I think when you make studio films and those films don’t make money — you might have a film that’s a hit … I did the movie “Hunt for Red October” that did really, really well back in 1990. And what that does is it buys you six or seven years where people want to roll the dice on you again and again. And then by 1997 or 1998, I was rounding the corner toward 40 — what happened for me in my career was very commonplace. And that is: My movies were not making money, they did not perform, I’m turning 40 years old, my audience is not 20-year-old girls or young people who tend to go to movies more, I’m not doing “The Hobbit” or “Harry Potter” or some big serialized movies. Then you go and do independent films, smaller films. In that world, you very quickly find out what you’re worth: What’s the kind of script — Is it a thriller? We’ll give you $3 million. Are you playing Alexander Graham Bell? We'll give you 50 cents. It’s all calibrated to the material. Right away by the end of the ‘90s, I knew. And I walked through that landscape for quite awhile — doing independent films, guest starring on TV shows. And then I realized the kind of effort it took to have a film career and travel all the time and chase opportunities in films — I got tired of that. I wanted to stay home. Doing “30 Rock” was beyond working with Lorne [Michaels] and Tina [Fey’s] material; it was principally about lifestyle. By that time, I’m 48 years old and I’m two years away from being 50, and lifestyle is much more in focus for me. I didn’t want to have to pack up and fly to Louisiana to shoot a vampire movie or something. That’s great — but somebody else can do that. I want to stay home. So I did the TV show. We rolled the dice, it worked. We did well.
Now I totally want to see you in a vampire movie. You have it in my head.
You do get into that ‘what if.’ What if I had done a vampire movie at 40? Where would I be now? Who knows where I’d be. Things might be great.
Work is work. To sit back … there are people who catch a wave, you have to be skillful and you have to ride that wave carefully. My hat's off to those people. George Clooney was a on a TV show. He was the star of a TV show. It wasn’t like George Clooney was on a TV show and nobody was watching. “ER” was a huge show. When it was over for him, whatever career decisions he made to change his direction, that takes discipline, you have to be smart. I’m sure that if I closed my eyes and I said, “I want to get back in the movie business and I want to be a success in the movie business on some level”— there are opportunities out there. Age is a limiting factor, but it's not an eliminating factor. And so I sit there and say to myself, if I sat down and mapped it out, there’s a way to — potentially I could revive a movie career and have that be my principal work. But that would probably require a lifestyle that I’m not willing to live anymore. My wife and I got married; we had a baby. I would much rather go home with my wife and lay on my couch with my daughter and watch a movie than be in a movie if being in a movie meant I couldn’t have the other. I know people have said that a million times, but that’s really true.
But I’ve never heard Alec say that.
If I had you in my life and you were my agent, I’d probably be doing a vampire movie, wouldn’t I? It could have been good.
Would you have changed anything? Did you make a wrong turn?
I think the only change, or wrong turn, was when I made movies I should have gone with my instincts when I knew I was doing something for a paycheck. Like, I’d go into a room and I would do a movie and I’d say to myself, if everybody on this movie does their job perfectly — that’s a big assumption — the most we can hope for is mediocrity. I would do movies and I was in that wheel in the '90s where I would do movies and they’d give me a lot of money. And I worked with a bunch of people — agents and producers — their attitude towards movies was you fling it against the wall, who knows what people want, who knows what’s going to stick? We just keep getting up to bat. I lived that life for six or seven years. It became frustrating. I was too thin-skinned. What I should have done was said, “Oh, I don’t want to go do that movie.” I should have taken more time off. I had a kind of workaholic nature. As opposed to being more cautious about the stuff I did. I don’t want to name names and hurt people’s feelings, but there are movies I made where I knew it wouldn’t be good. Let’s put it this way: The apotheosis of this is Daniel Day-Lewis. He is someone who steps into the limelight to give a performance only for those movies that are really worthy opportunities. He is this inconceivably talented person, the most talent man alive today in the movie business. Along with Anthony Hopkins — those are my two favorites. Day-Lewis doesn't have to work for, like, three years. It’s great. I’d probably jump off the roof of a building if I didn’t work for three years. He is someone who — he does his thing. And look at the results. He does incredibly beautiful work. In the business, all other actors admire him. That’s a tough thing to pull off. We should all want to be like Daniel.
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