- PHOTO COURTESY OF WARNER BROS. PICTURES
- THE HEAD CHEESE : Alan Arkin played the Chief in the 2008 spy parody Get Smart, starring Steve Carell.
NEW TIMES Steve Carell said in an in interview that he was hoping to work with you again. Is there anyone that you’d particularly like to work with?
ARKIN Oh, that’s nice. Steve, I’m hoping to work with him again next year. We’re talking about a sequel to Get Smart. I’d love to work with Nick Nolte. I worked with Jeff Bridges years ago and I think he’s one of our great actors, in spite of the fact that he’s getting an Academy Award. Andy Garcia, I had a couple of experiences with Andy Garcia, loved working with him. And my kids. I love working with my children. It just makes things easier and faster. You can talk shorthand. You don’t have to tiptoe around them. First experiences, there’s usually a lot of tiptoeing and tipping your hat and being polite. If you know people well you don’t have to be quite so polite.
NEW TIMES What advice did you have for your sons when they began careers in the film industry?
ARKIN They never asked me for much in the way of advice. I think the verbal advice you give your kids doesn’t mean for a hell of a lot. What I’ve seen with parents and kids over the years is that the way you live your life is the main advice you end up giving your kids whether you like it or not.
NEW TIMES Do the people around you—your wife, manager—have a lot of say in which roles you accept?
ARKIN Not really. I pretty much decide. My manager reads everything before I do. She knows what stuff I won’t do, the kind of projects I don’t want to be connected with, so she gets rid of that. And I very much like my wife’s opinion on scripts I like.
NEW TIMES What kind of projects do you not want to be connected to?
ARKIN I don’t want to do anything that’s ultra-violent. I don’t want to do anything that’s particularly negative. I don’t like to play despicable people, things like that.
NEW TIMES A lot of people seem to enjoy that departure from reality.
ARKIN I wish it was a departure from reality. It’s not a departure from reality. There are people like that. It’s just that I don’t want to play them and I don’t want to be around them.
NEW TIMES What was some of the most fun you’ve had on a set?
ARKIN I don’t know if that’s really pertinent. It’s like asking Dostoevsky what was the most fun part of writing Brothers Karamazov. I need to be on a set where there’s a lot of joy but that doesn’t mean making jokes. It just means everything’s working well. I like being on sets where everybody’s on the same page in terms of the work. Get Smart was a fun set. It was a very light experience. Nobody was over-taxed and that was a good time.
NEW TIMES You’ve talked a lot about the significance of community on a film set.
ARKIN That means a great deal to me. I care a lot that everybody’s working for the good of the piece and each other and not being selfish. Some projects are like that. Some projects aren’t. Some projects you’re talking to each other and working on scenes and hanging out together and other projects people are just running to their trailers trying to isolate themselves from each other, which ends up being sad for me.
- PHOTO COURTESY OF TWENIETH CENTURY FOX
- ROAD TRIP BLUES : Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Steve Carell, Paul Dano, Abigail Breslin, and Alan Arkin portray the comically dysfunctional Hoover family, on a road trip to Redondo Beach in Little Miss Sunshine.
ARKIN Absolutely, without question. You can get a fairly good idea where a country is culturally by looking at the films of that time. I think that’s very much the case. It’s not the case with geniuses. I think geniuses live outside their time and outside their culture and their stuff could be coming out of anywhere but I think the run-of-the-mill stuff gives a fairly good idea of the culture of the people.
NEW TIMES You’ve said that it’s a tough time for the arts. Is that just because of the economy or are there social and cultural factors as well?
ARKIN I live near Santa Fe and galleries are closing right and left. It’s partly the economy and partly the fact that we’re culturally adrift at the moment. This has been a great year for American movies. There are more really interesting American movies than I’ve seen in a long time. Most years I feel there is one great movie but this year there are six or seven movies that I think are really wonderful.
NEW TIMES Can you name a few of those?
ARKIN Hurt Locker is an extraordinary movie, and I think Avatar is great in its own way. Precious is an amazing film. I love the Sandra Bullock thing. It’s a very, very simple story but it’s done with meticulous taste and imagination and I think her performance is absolutely wonderful. The best performance I saw this year was Helen Mirren in The Last Station. That’s far and away the best performance I’ve seen this year. I thought Brothers was a lot better than the reviews. It didn’t get great reviews but I was very moved by it. I was very moved by Invictus. That’s very rare for me to feel that there’s more than one or two movies a year that I can get excited about.
NEW TIMES So do you go to the movies a lot?
ARKIN No. I don’t like going to the movies. I get mad. I get angry at movie theaters because the sound is fine then the minute the previews are over they turn the sound down. Whenever I go to a movie theater I get angry about that. So I watch at home, screeners of when it comes on DVD.
NEW TIMES You’ve said that your acting isn’t cerebral, that it’s instinctive. Is that something that’s evolved the longer you’ve been an actor?
ARKIN I used to have to spend a lot of time working on background. If they had a specific profession I worked at that profession. I talked to people. I just don’t do that anymore. It’s much more instinctual. These days I feel like I have to respond immediately to a character and then I can do something about it. If I don’t respond immediately it’s kind of tortuous.
NEW TIMES You’ve been very forthright about the fact that you don’t hold awards in high esteem. Are there any accolades that you do take note of?
ARKIN The Nobel Peace Prize. I’ll settle for the Nobel Peace Prize. When I won an Academy Award a couple years ago the thing that was mostly moving to me about it was the amount of e-mails and phone calls and mail I got from old friends who I hadn’t spoken to in years and years, people I knew who seemed genuinely happy for me. I usually discount things like that but there was such an outpouring for me that I couldn’t shut it out and I was very, very moved by that. The award itself, I mean who’s to say who’s the best. In a footrace you know who got the best time and that guy’s the best. In terms of a movie or a book or a play, who has the right to say who’s the best? There’s too many factors involved. If you look at the roster of what was considered the best movies of the past 75, 80 years about half of them are kind of jokes now. Styles change. Modes change. Things that people care about change.
NEW TIMES Given your experience with Second City, is improvisation still an important part of your art?
ARKIN It’s important to me. I don’t spend a lot of time improvising on camera. But I do like to improvise during rehearsals and see if the dialogue can be played with, scenes can be sharpened and improved and then once the other actors and I figure out and the director figures out the best way to do a scene then I like to put it on film. But I’m not crazy about improvisation myself.
NEW TIMES So you favor communal improvisation as opposed to going off and doing your own thing.
ARKIN That’s my deepest concern. Because I know it shows. People care about that, when you’re working with people and it looks fresh and you’re having a good time in the work environment. Audiences know that. They can see that. And they can feel it. And that’s not conjecture on my part. People come up to me all the time and will say to me about a specific movie or two or three and say it looks like you were having a wonderful time on that film. And they always pick the film in which that was the case, in which the work was going well and we were getting along with each other.
NEW TIMES I think I felt that in Little Miss Sunshine, where the family’s got a lot of problems but you almost wouldn’t mind being a part of it because they were just so amazing.
ARKIN To me one of the great things about that movie is the fact that everybody was united in one thing at the end of it and everybody’s on the same page. Even though nobody’s got a job, everybody’s life is in a state of disarray, they’ve been pulled together by the magic of this child. I think that’s one of the most beautiful things at the end of the film.
NEW TIMES How similar are you to your character in that film?
- PHOTO COURTESY OF PAUL COTTER
- ON THE SET : Paul Cotter (wearing the baseball hat) spent 28 days in a German village filming Bomber
NEW TIMES He did have all of these habits which are completely socially unacceptable to most people but…
ARKIN He was unabashed about it. He was open about it. He didn’t give a damn, wore his heroin proudly around his waist in a pouch, that’s one of the things I loved about him. He’s just completely without pretense. And he’s crazy about his granddaughter which was very easy to do. It was easy to be crazy about Abigail Breslin.
NEW TIMES What would you have done if you hadn’t been an actor?
ARKIN I would’ve been a hit man. What would I have been if I hadn’t been an actor? I have no idea. It didn’t seem to be much choice. It feels like I had to have done what I did.
NEW TIMES That must be a good feeling.
ARKIN It’s kind of strange. I breathe a sigh of relief all of the time to realize that I have actually made a living at it for almost 50 years now but it’s a miracle. There’s a lot of people I grew up with who had the same passion, the same drive and maybe the same talent but weren’t able to make it come together. So it is a good feeling. I’m grateful that I’m able to make a living at something I care about.
NEW TIMES With Little Miss Sunshine and Sunshine Cleaning you’ve got two dark comedies with dysfunctional families at their core. How did the filming process for the two films compare?
ARKIN Little Miss Sunshine was an extraordinary experience in that everything clicked. There was a wonderful sense of being on the same page with all the actors, with the directors, with the writers. It was a low budget film but it was meticulously produced and Sunshine Cleaning I don’t want to talk about except that I loved working with Amy [Adams] and I loved working with Emily Blunt. The boy who played my grandson was a delight but aside from that it was kind of a ragged experience. It wasn’t a great experience, aside from the three of them.
NEW TIMES What were your initial feelings on accepting the role of Lieutenant Rozanov in The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming?
ARKIN I was nervous about doing it. When I got the part I was thrilled but I was anxious on a daily basis. My constant prayer was please let me be good enough at this that I get another job. It was my first film and I had no idea whether anyone would be interested in what I was doing, whether I would be any good. One of the things that was kind of funny about it was for the first couple weeks I’d come home to my wife and she’d say how’s it going and I’d say I’m not getting any laughs. I said I feel like I’m doing good, funny stuff but I’m not getting any laughs. And it disturbed me for several weeks until I finally realized about three weeks in that if anybody laughed it would ruin the tape. It would have to be done over again. I realized I’d have to get used to doing funny stuff without getting any laughs. It was my first experience without an audience.
NEW TIMES Were you concerned about a potential political fall-out?
ARKIN Everybody in the group felt like there would be. We all felt it was a very unified experience. We all knew why we were making the movie and what it was about and everybody was on a mission. We fully expected there to be a political fall-out from it and there was none. All the reviews, it was as if the entire country breathed a sigh of relief as a result of the film and said my god, somebody finally had the courage to come out and say it. That we’re all just people. The political aspect is stuff for the brass to get involved in but person to person we’re all just people with the same needs and the same desires and the same hopes and the same fears.
NEW TIMES Sounds like the kind of message the country could use right now.
ARKIN Thanks for saying it.
Los Angeles resident Paul Cotter’s first feature length film, Bomber, plays at the film festival on March 14 at 1 p.m. at The Park Theatre. With a handful of short films already under his belt—Odd Shoe, Estes Avenue, Last Hand Standing—Cotter began writing his script in 2007, and the film debuted in March of 2009 at South by Southwest, a series of music and film events that take place in Austin, Texas. A unique interpretation of the road trip film, Bomber features an English family of three—stoic and silent Alistair (Benjamin Whitrow), his ignored wife Valerie (Eileen Nichols), and their adult son Ross (Shane Taylor), who can’t seem to get into the swing of life after film school.
- PHOTO COURTESY OF PAUL COTTER
- FULL MOON : Shane Taylor stars as Ross, a former art student whose life doesn’t seem to be working out as he planned, in Paul Cotter’s first feature length film, Bomber.
COTTER I went to film school and got a MFA in cinematography. Before that I’d been a geography undergraduate. I decided to do film in my mid-20s. I sort of came to it a little later than most people. I became a camera assistant and then started doing short films.
NEW TIMES I’ve read that the script was semi-autobiographical.
COTTER A little bit of it is, most of it is just fiction. My father was a bomber pilot. I was just intrigued by the idea of this character going back to Germany at the end of his life to find redemption. That became a nice beginning for a story. After I studied in America I went back to England and one of the first things I did was go on a road trip with my mom and dad to Germany. We went through Poland and Hungary. It was both weird and wonderful at the same time. As an adult child you end up reversing roles from childhood. I was driving, along with my sister, and my parents would sit in the back and they were the ones who would ask are we there yet. You’re still their child so you act a little childish around them. It’s kind of this pressure-cooker for emotion.
NEW TIMES I heard that you made this movie with $30,000. Did financial considerations influence your script?
COTTER Absolutely. I wrote it thinking I would have no money. And it was important. Most of the scenes are daytime because I knew if you shot in the daytime you wouldn’t need lights. We shot in May because the days were long. I knew we were going to have a small crew. I knew that I needed to keep it very simple. On the shoot, if our location didn’t work out we could move to a completely different place. The philosophy of the film was keep it simple. I was always allowing for flexibility to change things if anything would cost us money or used a lot of crew.
NEW TIMES What was your timeline, from writing to shooting to editing?
COTTER Basically about eight months before we shot I sat down and said I’m going to start filming a feature film in May of 2008. I said if I have a dollar I’m going to shoot with a dollar. If I have $50,000 I’m going to shoot with that. Whatever I have in my pocket, that’s what I’m going to shoot with. And then I just set this date and said I was going to start filming on this day and everybody thought I was crazy. We shot for 24 days with all the actors. We shot four days without the actors. Editing was kind of interrupted. In total, editing was about nine months. I think it would have been more like six months if we hadn’t been off doing other jobs. We premiered at South by Southwest in March of last year.
NEW TIMES You grew up in England, but you live in Los Angeles. What was the intended audience for this film?
COTTER It’s a bit of a hybrid, though I have to be honest, I wasn’t thinking about an audience. It was my first film and I just wanted it to be something that made me happy, that made me smile. My sensibilities are really a bit of a mishmash. I’m really influenced by American and European cinema. When you blend them together I have a strong sense of plot but with a lot of subtle character, character being the driving force. Usually, with Hollywood, plot is often the driving force. The road trip feel of it was completely inspired by American cinema but the characters are more inspired by European sensibility. It’s funny because in Britain I was seen as being very heavily influenced by American cinema. In Britain they don’t see me as a British filmmaker. I don’t fit in there and that doesn’t surprise me. In some ways I owe more of a debt to American cinema.
NEW TIMES Did you have any difficulties convincing people to be part of a low-budget picture?
COTTER My philosophy was they’re either into this idea or not. If they’re not into the idea I didn’t want them. We actually had a lot of interest. Nothing was hidden. It was very obvious that we had no money but we were going to take care of everybody. It was sort of like theater to them in that you have to do your own makeup and take care of your wardrobe. I think they liked that. Everyone just wanted to do a group project. Everyone who worked on the film became a profit sharer. If and when the film makes money, everyone makes money. Our expectations aren’t particularly high. If it fails, the worst thing that happens is we spent four weeks in Germany shooting the project.
NEW TIMES What has your experience been on the film festival circuit?
NEW TIMES Are you working on anything right now?
COTTER I’m in writing mode. The great thing about having made your first film is that suddenly you’re being taken seriously as a feature filmmaker. I’m writing a film to be shot in Southern California. It’s going to be shot under similar conditions. You don’t need people’s permission anymore to make a film. I’m finishing up the script, which can be shot cheaply, also working on a script for the UK film council. I’ll try a third script. I do want to work within the industry eventually. You can reach a bigger audience. I always admired [Steven] Soderbergh because he directed one film for himself and then one for the industry. I admire that, someone who can keep developing their craft.
Arts Editor Ashley Schwellenbach is North by Northwest. Send compasses to firstname.lastname@example.org.