The teenage Scott Coffey first appeared on film on the Roman set of Once Upon a Time in America. In the years to follow, he would gain notice in small roles in big projects: Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Some Kind of Wonderful, Robert Zemeckis' "Go to the Head of the Class" segment of Amazing Stories, and Wayne's World 2. On the set of 1995's Tank Girl, Coffey befriended unknown actress Naomi Watts, whose head shot he brought back to the top of David Lynch's pile when the director was casting Mulholland Dr. (Coffey also appears in Lynch's Lost Highway and Rabbits series of shorts). Now, Coffey's at the end of the road for his directorial debut, Ellie Parker, a long-in-the-works film with Watts. I spoke to Coffey at the offices of Terry Hines & Associates on November 14, 2005.
Groucho: Most people in Hollywood seem to have a love-hate relationship with the town. What do you love about it, and what do you hate about it?
Scott Coffey: I just pretty much hate it. (Laughs.) No, what do I love? I have some people that I really care about, that I really love, that live there. I mean, it inspired me to make this movie. But I've been pretty exhausted by living there. I'm pretty tired of it. And my relationship with it has always been one that was kind of love and hate. I mean, I liked the opportunities it gave me, but I never liked living there. Just geographically, I don't like it at all. I think that's the worst thing about it. I hate the driving and the distance. I hate the weather. I hate the perpetual 70-degrees day that just goes on forever—and you can't mark time, and there's no change in light. I find it very alienating and confusing.
G: I actually wanted to ask you about the light. David Lynch's word for L.A.—his one word for the town—is "light." People talk about this; you've talked about it. What is the quality of L.A.'s light that's unique about it?
SC: I don't know. I'm never really sure what people say when they talk about "the light" in Los Angeles and how great the light is in Southern California. I think it's much more beautiful up here. Like the light to me is so clean and golden and extraordinary up here and in the East coast. In Los Angeles I always feel it's kind of hazy, and it's like a polarized lens of smog that it shines through half the time. So I don't really know what the quality of light is. To me, digital video is a really great way to capture the feeling of the light in Los Angeles.
G: I think you really do capture it—especially in that last shot—that hazy kind of gleaming—
SC: Brown of Los Angeles.
G: And I guess the film is sort of your "Dear John" letter to the town, because it was your process of saying goodbye to L.A., right?
SC: In a way it was, yeah, although I didn't realize that was what was happening at the time, but when I finished making the movie, I couldn't be there another second. So I live in Brooklyn now. But I go back. I've moved in June. I've been to L.A. like eight times or something. I have to continue to keep going because that's where Hollywood is, and that's where my agents are and the money is and all that kind of stuff. But I can go for a week and be fine and kind of be sort of amused by it and deal with traffic. But by the end of the week, I'm like, "I gotta get out of here."
G: You get to act on your own terms in this film. To what degree has acting held your interest, and do you still have ambition to act?
SC: I don't have ambition to act anymore. I always had other ambitions. I want to write and I want to direct. So acting was—it seemed to me really close, and for me, the easiest way to get there. Because I sort of acted, and I immediately started getting roles, and I was fortunate that I continued to work and work with some pretty good directors and meet some really interesting people. And sort of have some connections and learn what films are like. So that was kind of like my film school. But I never—even when I was working with a really great, great director like David Lynch—even that wasn't satisfying for me as an actor. I always felt kind of icky being an actor—I don't know—I didn't love it. I never loved it.
SC: I'm in my own movie—I'm in Ellie Parker—and those scenes are really fun, but that wasn't the most fun for me. It was much more fun for me to write and direct than it was for me to be in the scenes of the movie.
G: I read that before becoming a director, you worked on developing a couple of TV shows. That kind of got my curiosity. Were you for hire or were you developing your own material?
SC: I was developing Ellie Parker as a television show—as a cable show, a half-hour cable show. And in the end, it just didn't seem right. Too many people were telling me what to do and who I had to put in it, and I have to write with this person, and I just—it's not what I wanted to do. I don't know why those guys are qualified to tell me how to write. I just don't understand what they were—but, that said, I've written a couple of scripts for hire and that's really fun. And that's, like, great. I've even done some rewrites on, anonymous, on some kind of big Hollywood things, anonymously rewritten them—it's kind of great because the movie comes out, my name's not on it, but it's—you know, but I'm like responsible for that scene.
G: Do you have any trouble extricating yourself from this film being a TV project?
SC: I did. Well, no, I didn't start it—I never sort of intended it to be anything than what it was, so it was harder for me to think of it as a TV project than it was to just continue making it the way I was making it.
G: Let's talk about your star, co-producer, and friend Naomi Watts. What sparked your friendship initially—why do you think you have chemistry as friends and as collaborators?
SC: A lot of reasons. We have a real commonality in a lot of places in our life. We have a real same sensibility about living in L.A., in being an actor—she has a really great sense of humor that's very dark and kind of wild—and I think we share that. And we were both at very similar places in our life as actors when I made the initial short. And so I think our sort of collaboration is really captured in the final movie in the way we kind of inspired each other. The movie is very much a creation of our friendship and our kind of relationship, in a lot of ways.
G: And we get to see a side of her she really wants to show, as well as your vision.
SC: Yeah, exactly. And I think it's a pretty extraordinary performance and very unlike most of her other work. She's very funny and uses her real accent, and you get a real sense of a part of her that you don't normally see in movies.
G: About that collaboration, obviously she brought her enormous talent to play. How did she enhance the vision of the film and the character?
SC: I think I would write the scenes, and we would go to shoot them, and she would bring such an amazing, ferocious honesty to everything that really encouraged me to take risks with her and encouraged her to go farther and really kind of find out who this character was. And to treat the whole thing, the whole process, as an experiment in trying to find out who this girl was and what she was like in these different situations. So I think that was really fun to—we really inspired each other, because she'd come up with something amazing on the set, and that would inspire me and then go back to her and say, "Great, that's really cool. Let's do more of that" or "Go this direction." And it was like driving a Ferrari for a good driver. Suddenly you're just like "Oh my God. This is a great vehicle."
G: And what form did rehearsals take? Did you kind of film everything?
SC: The only scene I filmed everything was with the Chevy Chase scene, just because I didn't have any time with him beforehand. And I use the rehearsals as a way to figure out where they are comfortable in the room and the blocking and where I put the camera. So I use that as much as a rehearsal for me as I did for the actors. But for the most part, I rehearsed—I would rehearse for a couple of hours before we shot things, and I would go into the scenes knowing exactly what I wanted from them and kind of the shape of them and how I wanted to make them.
G: And for the benefit of those who may not realize the way the project was shot, can you explain how you shot it over a period of five years, kind of five hours at a time, as you've said?
SC: Yeah. Well, I shot the short film at the very end of '99 and into early 2000. And we just shot fifteen minutes and made a short and then took it to Sundance, and we were really successful with it there—everyone loved it and it played really well. So we came back to L.A. and shot a couple more. And then we took a break for two years, and then we shot a couple more, and we had sort of four shorts all together over a course of five years. It all just kind of evolved eventually into a feature that kind of found its own life. We went back last summer and shot a bunch of new footage and some scenes to kind of—you know, connective tissue and some deepening of the character to get to know her a little more. We did all that last summer.
G: I read that you shot one of the scenes in Naomi's trailer for The Ring 2.
G: Which scene was that?
SC: I'd rather not say where, just because then you'd look and go "There's that scene," and I'd rather get people involved. And it's not a big scene, but there definitely is a scene that we couldn't get—there was no way. She was too busy.
G: I would never have guessed by watching the film.
SC: Yeah. You can't tell. She was going to New Zealand to do King Kong the next day, and it was now or never, and I had to shoot in her trailer.
G: I read also that in the process of shooting the film—and you're behind the camera most of the time—that at one point you were gripping on to the hood of a car with one hand and holding on to the camera with the other—
G: Was that a moving car?
SC: Yeah, it was a moving car. We could have been arrested and killed.
G: That's real guerrilla filmmaking I guess. There's no permits—
SC: No film crew. No permits. It was really, really guerrilla filmmaking.
G: What did you think as you watched your friend's career and fame explode?
SC: I was really happy for her. I was so ecstatic—and her choices have been really great—you know, the movies she's attracted to. It's a pretty great career.
G: From both sides of the camera, what have you learned is the best way to get the best work out of an actor?
SC: It's weird. A lot of directors don't really watch their actors. They don't seem like they're watching what's going on and really empathizing and being there and really experiencing their performance. And I think that that's the key thing for a director—at least a director that makes the kind of movies I'm interested in—and the movies I love and the movies that I'm interested in making about human beings and how they interact. And I think I have a really good eye for authenticity and for moments, and I think I can detect the false moment the second I see one, and I think actors really respond to that. They really want to be honest and real in a scene. And I have a really good sense of reality and truth. That was something I think I learned about and became more confident with. And working with her was a really great lesson too.
G: You talked about—I thought you described it quite well—that the camera was sort of an extension of Ellie's central nervous system. So that kind of attention to the actor makes it about what they're giving you and less about what you have to dictate to them.
SC: Yeah. I tried to have the camera be in a way that was expressive emotionally of her state at the time. If she felt lonely, I'd try to have a sense of quiet and sort of emptiness to her life and all those kinds of things.
G: Because of time constraints and you being pretty much—virtually the whole crew—it would seem to me that the shooting sessions would be unbearably tense. On the one hand that could intensify your focus, but I would think it might make it more difficult to keep things loose. How did you manage that on a day-to-day basis?
SC: Well, it was intense, but in a really inspiring good way. It felt like that energy was really important to get to make the movie. Once we sort of set a pattern and a rhythm, we were able—even if we took a year break and come back to shoot more, we were able to get right back into it again. I guess it was our chemistry and the kind of story we were telling—and Naomi knew this person. Once she started working on the character and creating the character, she got to the point where she knew who she was. And we kind of knew she wouldn't do that or she wouldn't be like this, but we could tell where she was. And that was fun to locate. And it seemed pretty readily accessible to us when we were working.
G: Did you have to do looping for the film afterwards, and how was the editing? Was that tricky?
SC: A little bit. No, editing went really smoothly. I had a great editor and there was some really great footage, so it was pretty easy to tell kind of how to put it together and what was going to be right and how it was going to work.
G: How did the form of Los Angeles dictate the form of your film?
SC: Well, definitely the way I choose to shoot the movie. And I used digital video 'cause Los Angeles has that sort of look to me. And the frenetic intensity of driving around on the freeways—long distances and the kind of alienation. I felt like video is really a perfect way to kind of capture all that stuff. And also being hand-held was something that the environment really informed me to shoot that way.
G: I want to talk about the use of an actress as a metaphor. I think that strikes a chord: the search for integrity when you're being treated as a commodity and the search for identity among, at least in the film, mirrors and masks and makeup and all that kind of stuff. Have you found that audiences are relating to the film on that level, or do they kind of see it as "inside baseball"?
SC: No, it's interesting. You know I think our big concern and the big concern with audiences may be that it seems like "Oh, it's a story about an actress. Who cares? An inside Hollywood thing"—and it's really not. I think she happens to be an actress, and I think some of the situations she's in are really resonant to people. I mean, I have people tell me all the time, "Oh my God, that's exactly like my life," and they're like an accountant or they're a paralegal. And they're like, "I can relate to this movie exactly. That's exactly how I feel when I have to put makeup on and go in somewhere."Or even guys, like I have friends who go on job interviews and "That's what I feel like when I'm at the end of the day, and I don't know who I just was in that room and what I just said," so I think it resonates in a pretty personal way to a lot of different people, whether you're an actor or not.
G: I have to confess myself, this morning when I was driving to this interview, I was putting on my belt in the car, and I thought, "Oh my God, I can't believe this is happening."
SC: (Laughs.) I watched a guy shave and put aftershave on and like pluck his eyebrows in the car this morning—in Berkeley I saw this guy do that. Like at a stop sign, a stop light. It was just like "Oh my God, it's not just L.A." It's everywhere. The compartmentalized lives.
G: I read that Bill Gates watched this film at a festival screening; I don't know if that's true—
G: And that odd tidbit got me to thinking that I should ask you for your most surreal movie-biz story.
SC: Ohhh. God, I have so many. Yeah, I don't know. I mean, I have so many that I can't repeat. And some that will get people in trouble. I don't know! I guess—I don't know. That's tough. I feel on the spot. You know, it's pretty surreal making this movie and watching Naomi become a big movie star, and then we go back to shoot again. That was kind of—pretty surreal.
G: Well, speaking of surreal, you and your family and friends and many of the performers in the film have spent a lot of time in the orbit of David Lynch. Do you remember your first meeting with him, and how did you find your way into his films?
SC: Yeah, I met him—God, I met him like in the late '80s in New York City, and I auditioned for him for something and we got along really great. I became really close friends with his casting director, and then I introduced her to my mom, and my mom became friends with her and then got a job working for David, and I had been in sort of a lot of his movies and had been good friends with him for a long time. We all kind of knew a lot of the same people, and they all kind of came into our lives at the same time. So I recommended Naomi for Mulholland Dr.. I worked with some actors that he's worked with, and we've been kind of just in touch.
G: I wanted to ask you about Wild at Heart —you filmed scenes for Wild at Heart?
SC: Actually, those scenes were never shot.
G: Do you remember what your character was going to be?
SC: It was a gas station attendant in a scene with Nicolas Cage, and I don't remember.
G: Of course, a lot of it would have happened on the set. What about—what do you remember from working on Lost Highway?
SC: Oh, it was so great. Working with him is really extraordinary because he creates such an amazing environment. He so trusts the universe and trusts himself that kind of what's happening in a scene and whatever comes up is really part of his creation of that kind of vibe on the set. That really births kind of an amazing creativity that everyone's involved in. So it's really interesting.
G: Of course, a lot of it is sort of happenstance and accidental, but there's so many similarities between Mulholland Dr. and your new film, Ellie Parker, including that they were both going to be, at one point, TV series, and the confluence of the actors. Your original role in Mulholland Dr. was an agoraphobic writer, is that right?
G: How did that part—did you get to film a lot of scenes for the television pilot, and what happened with that?
SC: I did. It's just it was a separate storyline than the main narrative focus. And I think because it didn't get picked up, and got turned into a film, it was such a separate story line that it was important to make the narrative go a different direction—which is fine with me. It would have been great, but did I really want to be on a television series, and David Lynch wasn't going to be involved day to day? You know, I had a lot of apprehension about: do I really want to be on TV once a week? And my anonyminity would be totally gone, and you sort of become furniture in people's living rooms after a point. Had he directed every episode and really been there and really been involved, it would have been a different story, but I think that's kind of physically impossible. So the experience of working with him was good enough. I'm happy with that and happy I got to do that.
G: Can you paint the picture at all for what your character was like?
SC: Yeah, he had sort of very interesting connections to Hollywood and possibly some sort of underworld stuff, and I think he was a genius writer that knew a lot about mathematics and lived kind of this hermetic, strange life. I mean, I don't really know too much—I never knew what was going to happen. So it was very secretive. That's what I could intuit and glean from what very little amount of work I did on the show, but I don't know what would have happened.
G: Most recently you worked with David on the Rabbits series of shorts, which is a very unique job I'm sure.
SC: It's really fun. I loved doing this.
G: What did he tell you about those other than, when you were working, what to do? Did he give you any background on what you were about to do?
SC: Yeah, he's such a great director; he just puts you in a frame of mind and creates a vibe on the set and that takes—that's huge—so many people can't do that. He's so gifted at it that you kind of live in the world and you just sort of are there. It's like you're dreaming, sort of.
G: Is there anything worse than an audition?
SC: Nothing. Open heart surgery is probably worse, but that's about it.
G: I know Oliver Stone fell asleep on you once, I read.
G: If you could estimate, how many auditions would you say you've been on?
SC: Oh, God. Hundreds and hundreds. Awful. Horrible.
G: I know. I've been through that myself, and I wouldn't wish it on anyone.
SC: Yeah. It's awful. It has nothing to do with being a great actor or not. Because you can perform in the room and be a perfect trained seal and still not be a good artist.
G: And it's hard not to take personally.
SC: Yeah. You do.
G: You've been recognized for years, but it seems like you're finally kind of going to emerge from the shadows a little bit as well. Where do you go from here now that you are a full-fledged filmmaker? What do you want to accomplish? Any specific goals, and what are some projects you're developing?
SC: I just want to keep writing and keep directing. I have a couple of things that I'm really into. I have a movie I'm going to make, hopefully in the spring, about Christian fundamentalism. It's kind of a satire, but a gentle comedic satire about the Christian Right and kind of life in America now. And then I have a project that's based on a Haruki Murakami short story that starts shooting in January, that I wrote but I'm not going to direct. And a young Swedish director—it's his first film—he's directing it, and I wrote the screenplay. So that's kind of the next thing I'm involved with.
G: What's that first one called?
SC: It's called Jupiter.
G: I know you were working on something called Poor Holly. Is that on the back burner?
SC: For now, yeah. It's a mainstream studio comedy, and I think I want to be careful and make sure it's as good as it can be before I commit to putting it into production. I'm kind of in talks to do that now. I just want to make sure it's not some stupid comedy, and it has something that is intelligent going on.
G: As you go forward, do you have a wish list of any people you'd like to work with?
SC: Yeah. Diane Keaton's my favorite actress in the world, so I'm hoping—I really adore her and I'd love to find something for her to do and work with her on something.
G: I agree that she's amazing.
SC: She's the best. I'm hoping—I think about her all the time, trying to think of a role I could write for her or some movie we could work on together.
G: Because of that, I'm sure that Woody Allen was one of your formative film experiences. What are some of the earliest films you remember making an impression on you?
SC: Well, Woody Allen's movies certainly—a huge, giant, giant influence on me. But also Hal Ashby's movies. Coming Home and Harold and Maude and Being There are big influences to me. An Unmarried Woman was a big influence to me just because of Jill Clayburgh's performance—just kind of the amazing scenes in that movie, and Klute is a huge influence on me. A lot of movies that are about women in the '70s seem to be influential to me. Cassavetes' movie A Woman Under the Influence is a huge influence to me. That performance is extraordinary. And recently, Elephant I thought was fantastic—Gus Van Sant's movie—I thought that was unbelievably great. And Gummo; that's a big influence on me. I thought that was a great movie; Harmony Korine's movie. And I was really influence by Joan Didion a lot. Some of her writing. A lot of her writing about California in particular is really influential to me. Joni Mitchell's Blue—that record is a really big influence to me, just artistically. So I kind of draw influences from a lot of stuff. But I think mostly at the end of the day, it's probably Woody Allen: Manhattan, Annie Hall, Interiors, Husbands and Wives—those are kind of my major filmic influences.
G: And now that you're in a position where you'll be starting to influence others, what sort of advice would you give up-and-coming filmmakers?
SC: I don't know. God. I always think: just don't ask for permission. Just do it. Don't wait for the opportunity to happen. Create the opportunity yourself. Otherwise you'll never—that's the thing that's kind of amazing you learn—you have to just do it; you can't wait for someone to give you permission. And that's easy to say. I don't really know specifically what it means, but I just know for me the most important thing wasn't to wait, was to just do it.
G: Well, I'm glad you did. I hope you have great success with the film.
SC: Thank you very much. Thanks a lot.
[For Groucho's review of Ellie Parker, click here.]