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Rodrigo Garcia on Mike Nichols, 'Dexter' and Cable

Rodrigo Garcia presented "Mother and Child" in Baltimore on May 9, at the closing night of the Maryland Film Festival. He received an ovation for the performances he'd drawn out of Naomi Watts, Kerry Washington and Annette Bening, and for the tapestry he'd woven of disrupted family life in middle-class and upper-middle-class Los Angeles. I had a chance to speak to him the next day; what he said about his superb new film will appear in Friday's "Live" section (the film opens theatrically here tomorrow).

But I also got to ask him about how he made the leap from camera operator and cinematographer to director -- and why, as a director, he continues to jump back and forth between theatrical movies like "Mother and Child" and cable projects like the hit embattled-shrink series, "In Treatment." And that I present to you right here. 

Q: Were you hoping to become a director when you started out working as a camera operator?

A: It was working as a camera operator with Robert Benton on a movie called "Twilight" and with Mike Nichols on "The Birdcage" -- seeing how these two guys directed was the first time I said, "Oh, maybe I can do that." Not because it's easy but because they made it look so easy. They were the first directors who gave me the impression that directors did not have to direct everything. I came away from their sets with the impression that they had done 70 per cent of their job before their first day of shooting. Once they were there they were reacting to what the actors were doing, they were looking at the sets -- there was a lot of setting up and then allowing themselves to react. They gave very little 'direction,' but what they gave was meaningful. And I thought, "OK, this is good, this can be done." Also, of course, they were telling very human stories. On "The Birdcage," Elaine May was on the set with Nichols, and that was just terrific. We once shot a test of Gene Hackman in drag and when he came on the set it was just shocking -- everyone wanted to collapse, but you could never collapse with laughter at Gene Hackman. Oh, he was a very good sport about it. He comes on screen and you laugh but at this test, no one dared.

I always had the ambition that if I could write a script, I would direct it. I didn't want to be a director for the sake of being a director. It's all part of being a storyteller. I don’t think so much of the look of a picture when I'm writing; I develop that. But I am thinking of angles and sizes, whether I'm shooting close or far away. Sometimes I write a script, not in a technical way, but with little notes to myself in a cryptic language that reminds me of how I want it to look. From the way I write the scene and structure it on the page, I know I'm telling myself how to do it as a director. 

I was a cameraman for a long time, I didn’t make "Things You Can Tell Just By Looking at Her" (1999) until I was 39. I have slowed down a little, but for a while I wanted to get as much experience as I could. Certainly doing all those cable series has been enriching, not only episodes of "Six Feet Under" and "The Sopranos" but the pilots of "Big Love" and "Carnivale" -- they made me enter worlds I would never have visited on my own. I called Hagai Levi, who created the original Israeli version of "In Treatment," and told him that every third question I get on my "Mother and Child" tour is about his series.

Q: But you did develop "In Treatment" for HBO and produce the first season and direct and write key episodes.  Don't you think people are asking you about it because it's good and because more people have seen it than your movies?

A: Look, "In Treatment" taught me a lot. Among other things it taught me that you just have to deliver, because you’re shooting an episode every two days. We were adapting the show from something really good, something beautiful, but still, you adapt it, it changes. And "In Treatment" gave me that confidence that physical scope doesn't have to be there -- you can do a drama brilliantly on a grand scale, but two people in a room can be enough to carry the day.

Top photo: Rodrigo Garcia on the set of "Mother and Child," courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

Q: "In Treatment" commanded a lot of attention, and not just from fans of Gabriel Byrne [in the role of the shrink,  left].

A: "In Treatment" may be the only thing I've done that I had immediate confidence in. I knew it could be adapted, I knew it could work, and I thought it would be compelling. The Israeli version just made some really smart decisions, great choices. Having the shrink go to his own shrink, having the Monday patient always be the Monday patient, the whole Monday through Friday thing -- and ultimately, making the center of the series the shrink's own crisis. In the Israeli series, also, the episodes when he starts going to his shrink with his wife are just hypnotic. That triangle ... it was a genius invention, that show.

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Q: What TV shows do you watch?

A: I like the good TV shows a lot. I like "Dexter" a lot. There's something comic-book about it in the best sense -- I say that not to be disparaging about it, but because it's "high concept."  A serial killer has been trained by his father, who saw him as a a dangerous boy, to only kill killers. So there's something pulpy about it, but it's really enjoyable and beautifully played by everybody in it, for sure.

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I missed the pilot season this time because of "Mother and Child," and I'm in the market for good pilots. Still, I think TV is a gilded cage. If you're successful you're in prison for five years. I don't know how show-runners have a life on shows like "Sopranos" or "Lost." And ultimately you are still working for a network, even if it's a very supportive network like Showtime or HBO. There is a discussion about where it's going and what it is, and that is not always a discussion I am willing to have. I need at least one aspect of my creative side to be just what I want it to be, whether I make something good or I fail. Look at a movie like "Nine Lives" -- it's completely indulgent, I made the move I w anted to make and if you don't like it, too bad. I wanted to make these nine moments. Often the price you pay is a smaller audience, but so be it.

Q: It's funny, though -- you are trying to make theatrical movies while a lot of top theatrical-film directors are trying to do HBO.

Yes, Mike Nichols did two of his best movies there -- "Wit" is just a great movie by any standard, and "Angels in America." There was Barry Levinson's Kevorkian movie, and "Recount" was just dead on: it's amazing that the studios just won't make a movie like that any more. But these other guys have a lot of movies behind them. I'm a cable guy who wants to do more movies, and they're movie guys who now want to make movies wherever they can. It's great that guys like Levinson and Nichols have made movies like these for HBO -- it helps take away the stigma of making things that don't go into theatrical release. It's a stigma that should disappear. My first movie ["Things You Can Tell Just By Looking at Her"] was sold to Showtime, after the fact, and behind our backs, and it's a stigma from which the movie did not recuperate. But, right now, if from the beginning you make a movie and it's for HBO, it's more high-profile and better than a lot of theatrical releases. The people at HBO are great at taking care of their brand. They do not throw any of their product away. They really sell it.

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