Writer-director Dylan Kidd burst onto the indie scene with Roger Dodger, the vitriolic but heartfelt comedy-drama about gender politics and, in particular, the male animal. Kidd's sophomore feature—P.S.—finds him adapting, with the book's author, a novel by Helen Schulman. I spoke to Kidd on October 8, 2004 at San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton Hotel.
Groucho: So, your second film—
Dylan Kidd:: Yes!
G: —is about second chances, and at first glance, this might seem like an unlikely follow up—P.S. to Roger Dodger. How did you come to the story, and what made you think you were the right man to make it?
DK: The book was owned by Hart-Sharp Entertainment, that did You Can Count on Me with Laura, so there was a connection there. They sent the book to my producing partner Anne Chaisson, who sent it to me. And after Roger Dodger, we've been getting every kind of "angry man" script and book out there, which is understandable and fine and, y'know, flattering that people are even sending these scripts, but it was such a relief to read something that had a female protagonist. I'm really not capable of thinking strategically, so for me, I either respond to the material or I don't. So, it ended up being a nice surprise that I loved the book, and it happened to be sort of, maybe different than the first one and a story that called for a different treatment with the camera. Y'know, we can show people that we do know what a tripod is—we can keep the camera nice and still if we have to! (Laughs.) But for me, I just—the only way I know how to make a decision is: it's really hard to make a movie, it takes a year of your life, and so, I just have to like—there has to be something in me that's just dying to tell the story. Otherwise, I just don't think I would do a great job.
G: The story has a mysterious element with Topher Grace's character, who may or may not be a reincarnation of—
G: —Laura's teenage boyfriend. So, without giving anything away, can you talk about the notion of the universe sending people messages—is that something that you believe in or that you've experienced?
DK: I really do. A great example for this movie is the artwork that we use in the film. The great thing about making a movie, one of the many great things—I've only done two, so who the hell knows—but both times that I've made a film, in the kind of months leading up to the movie, it's possible to get into a state where you're just very, like, open or receptive, and you're just—y'know, when you're scripting a low budget film where you're not going to be able to build exactly the set that you want, you really need to start—you need to sort of be prepared to find little opportunities that the universe might give you. And I—y'know, I'm not a religious person, but I do believe—I have to believe—that in some way the universe is always rooting for you to make a good movie. Just because, it's like, it's so— everything's out of your control: if it rains, you're shut down. So when you're working on an indie where you're not able to, like, turn night into day or create rain or, y'know, build Rome on a sound stage, you sort of have to get into the state of "Okay, if it rains, that's good, because it means we can—it's an opportunity." It's not just like, "Oh great, its raining"; it's like, "Okay, it's raining. Let's figure out a way to make this work for us." And we knew if we wanted to show F. Scott's artwork right away, we needed to establish to the audience that, even if they didn't trust this kid personally, that he was to be taken seriously. He wasn't just a dilettante; he was a really talented painter. And Anne Chaisson, who's my producing partner, is from a small town in Louisiana, and her friend Brian was a painter, and she said, "Well, I've got a friend who's a painter." I kind of rolled my eyes, thinking, "Okay, great, now everybody's coming to work 'Oh, my friend's a painter' or 'My son's a painter.'" But then she showed me his catalogue, and it was like that moment of, like, "Thank you, universe." You know, 'cause originally, our idea was, all we need is work that is representational, because he says in the movie "I don't do abstract work," and that it showed a certain level of talent. But what Brian's stuff gives us is this whole other thematic thing of the twins, the devils, and the kind of resurrection imagery. And so that's just—so I honestly do believe that so much of life is how—is the attitude that you take towards it, y'know? And without getting too cheesy about the whole thing, about like, "Problems are just opportunities in disguise" or whatever, you know? (Laughs.)
DK: When you're making a low-budget movie, you sort of have no choice but to just feel like the world is with you and that, y'know, you can take any element that comes your way and sort of use it to your advantage. That was a long answer to basically say, "Yes, I do believe in second chances"! (Laughs.)
G: That's all right. I was hoping to ask you, as a side question to that: there was a reference on the DVD of Roger Dodger to you and the psychic and the eventual casting of Elizabeth Berkley. I didn't really hear the end of that story, but could you tell me about that? What happened there?
DK: Sure, well, my friend Sheila is—she's not a practicing psychic, but she is— I know this sounds so flaky, but I just—I don't know how else to say it. She really is psychic, and I can rattle off like eight different examples. But, uh, she just is. Not in any kind of like she can help you talk to your dead dog Fluffy or whatever, be she just sort of makes connections. So quickly, the story with Roger Dodger was, I gave Sheila the script, and I said, "Just tell me: any images that pop into your head, color, anything. I don't know, just, y'know, no pressure, but just anything pops into your head." And she said, "The only thing—", and I said, "Well, specifically, what about the two women that they meet, those two characters. Anything popping into your head about—?" And she said, "I just kept seeing dancers." She says, "I don't know why. I just kept seeing dancers." And so we cast Jennifer Beals first, and then I was talking to Jennifer about Elizabeth and she said, "Oh, I love Elizabeth, y'know, we really connected because we both have this sort of traumatic dance movie early in our careers," and I'm like—. So, on this one, the only thing that Sheila really saw was Marcia's character. She really, for some reason, she was like, "I just see her in a kimono," so when the time came, I told our costume designer, "Ah, put her in a kimono, why not? Let's—" (Laughs.) Y'know, "Let's have a—." I'm one of those people, I'll take anything, y'know. I don't turn away anything. I read horoscopes when I'm getting ready for a shoot—I'll pick it up. Whatever adds fuel to the fire is good.
G: That's interesting. You had mentioned the relative advantages and disadvantages of doing an indie film as opposed to a Hollywood, maybe bigger-budgeted film. If you had your druthers, do you think you would prefer that bigger scale, or do you think—I guess I'm curious, too, about working on locations as opposed to, you know, would you rather micro-manage the designs of sets?
DK: I really prefer locations, because honestly, I'm just not the kind of person that, like, reads the script and says, "Okay, the room has to be like that." I prefer to location scout and look at some rooms and start with the crew and start generating ideas. I think, of course, it would be wonderful to have all the big toys and do a huge movie someday. I mean, that's everybody's dream. But I also feel like you have to be realistic about the type of movies that it's possible to make within the system. Not because people in Hollywood are evil, but some of the producers are spending so much money, it's just—you need to really make your case much [more] strongly for taking a chance. So, for me, as brutal as it is to make a movie in twenty-five days, and as much as I feel like P.S.—I look at it now, I'm like, "Oh, if we just had a little bit more time, a little bit more money," the storytelling freedom is worth, y'know, tenfold. I mean, just the ability to, like, do a movie where you're mixing genres, and you're sort of defeating audience's expectations, and the protagonist isn't necessarily sympathetic every second of the movie. That, to me, is a fair trade-off. And honestly, it's like—when I was young, I just remember thinking, like "A million dollars." You couldn't even conceive of that, y'know? And so I don't want to be the guy that's like, "Oh God, we have to make a movie for a million dollars. How are we going to do that?", y'know? (Laughs.)
G: I presume you read actors in pairs to arrive at the leads you have here.
DK: Well, Laura was the only one that I ever wanted. I had met her—she's a friend of Campbell Scott, so I met her—we had a rough-cut screening of Roger Dodger, and she came, I met her about five minutes, I just was so taken with her. And obviously, she's wonderful and, y'know, underappreciated, and I just thought, "I should write something for her." And when I read the book, I was just like, "It has to be Laura." I mean, I love the idea that Laura could actually play, y'know, a little bit of a Cosmo Girl, maybe...because I find her really sexy and alluring, and I just wanted her to be beautiful on film. So we had her first. The only problem was that she was doing Kinsey right up until our shoot. So we knew we weren't going to have any rehearsal time, which is scary, because usually rehearsals are when you kind of build—you build the rapport between your leads. And so we knew, in casting the F. Scott character, that we needed to basically have chemistry from the get-go. We weren't going to have time to build it. We need to show up on set and have them already clicking. And she was really nice; she came in on one of her few days off that she's had this entire year, I think, and read against Topher. And it was one of those great moments where they really clicked, y'know. She said a great thing; she said, "It wasn't until I read with Topher that the story made sense to me," which is a great—. Actors need a way in, y'know?...And that told me everything I needed to know about Topher, was that—y'know, I knew he was great, I knew he was funny, I knew he was—had all the qualities that we needed, but the fact that he just somehow like—suddenly Laura was like, "Oh, yes, that guy. Now I get it." It was a wonderful—that's when you know that—. Usually casting is just torture, saying we never know if we're doing the right thing. In this case, it was very apparent that we'd cast it well.
G: Laura's character is surrounded by dysfunction—
DK: (Laughs.) As are we all.
G: She has the brother and the ex who are addicts, and the mother that drives her crazy, and, of course, her best friend who's not very trustworthy. What do you think, by contrast, Topher's character offers her other than, of course, the memory of—
DK: I think...all movies are sort of rites-of-passage movies to a certain extent. I mean, the whole point of meeting a character at the beginning of a movie is that there's something important that's going to happen in their life that's either going to take them to a new stage or resolve some issue. So I think he represents sort of something that she has to get through in order to finally move on to the next stage of her life. And what I love about all the actors in the film is that it's so fun to introduce characters and have the audience sort of feel like they know, "Oh, that's going to be, y'know, the sort-of passive-aggressive mom or that's going to be the kind-of, y'know, just snarky brother. But all the characters in the movie sort of redeem themselves, or sort of hopefully end up kind of broadening throughout so that Sammy ends up being a really important person for Louise, and her mom provides real comfort, and Missy is somebody who's going to be in—even though these two are very competitive with each other, there's a real love and friendship there. So I always love in movies when I'm introduced to a character, and I think I know them, and then they surprise me. So I'm always sort of aware of, like, the first time you meet a character and doing that whole "red herring" thing with the audience and think like, "Oh, it's going to be a stock character," and have them kind of then, as the movie goes on—. 'Cause I really feel like there really are no small characters. Part of what makes a movie work is that there's a sense that you could follow each of these characters off into their own movie and be interested. So I think—I just feel like when you're falling in love with somebody, it's sort of an opportunity to kind of kill an older version of yourself and move on. And I feel like that's what he's offering her, is this opportunity. Because, the way the universe works, it's like, y'know, the same person who could be a real huge person in your life and provide a real catharsis and her chance to move on is also, because of this kind of uncanny resemblance, an opportunity to totally backslide, and I feel like that happens a lot in life. It's that, in order to really take a step forward, you have to resist a very strong temptation to remain in a rut or whatever happens in our life when we get stuck.
G: Yeah, I thought the art in the film put me in mind of—part of its appeal is that it did freeze time; it holds those moments.
G: How did you see the way his art defined his character and also appealed to her?
DK: Well, I think what's great about Brian's work is that it does a lot of storytelling for us. You don't have to write dialogue for Laura to say something like, y'know, "Oh my god. I feel like my great love has sort of risen up from, has resurrected himself." You can just show Brian's work, and it's like it's filled with some Christ-like imagery and images of people rising up out of shadows. And I always prefer that audiences get information or exposition through that kind of thing, like through their stomachs, not through their brains. I'd always rather have it sneak in. I'd rather have a character say, "This is what the—this is what this character is feeling." Just at a plot level, I think it's important that we take him seriously as an artist. And I think that Laura's character is somebody who—she's sort of drowning, in a way, and this kid shows up, and he's like a life preserver. And so everything—all the kind of things, y'know, the physical resemblance, some of the things he's saying, and the art start to all become sort of wish fulfillment of "Yes, this really is happening." And so I think that's—I think part of what happens in the film is that she's able to actually look at the paintings objectively and see that he's really talented and get out of her own kind of musical narrative that she's creating in her head out of desperation, and I think that's part of her journey to deal with him as an artist, is to just sort of remove that filter and really look at them. But I just—yeah, the role of the paintings is so huge in the film, and we were just so blessed to find Brian. It's the kind of thing that if we had an unlimited budget and we'd been able to, y'know, hire an artist to do exactly what we wanted, we wouldn't have come up with anything this good.
G: Right, so all of that was found.
DK: Oh, totally found. Yes, absolutely. There's just not, obviously, I want a guy laying in a bed and another guy sitting up, and they should look exactly the same. I mean, it's, it's—. So there's the universe...(Laughs.)...giving a helping hand.
G: What do you hope to accomplish with your own art? Do you have certain goals that you want to achieve in the future?
DK: I just want to keep working. I really believed—. I just read—David Mamet has a book called Three Uses of the Knife, it's on the purposes of drama—and I'm truly inspired by it, because he really says his theory. And he's always being deliberately a little bit provocative. But, y'know, he's like, "Art isn't here to like teach you anything, it's not here to have a political message, it's not here to help you express something. It's just literally—it's about there's some—there's some tension or imbalance within the artist that needs expression, and somehow, the audience gets to commune with that, and gets to feel not so alone," or something. And I just—I know that, in life, even though I love—I'm not like a pessimistic person or—actually, it's very tough to get—to connect with people. I do feel like, oh, I just—I'm always tortured by how we're all sort of islands, essentially, y'know, and the only time I really feel like I'm making a connection with other people is when I sit in the dark and watch a film. And so I really think there's something about movies, that they provide some—y'know, whatever that thing is that cavemen were doing sitting around in a cave and making a drawing of the hunt, it's like that communal thing. And I just...I hope that I can keep spending the rest of my life doing this because it's really fulfilling, and it's just—it's a great way to—it's a great way to make a living (laughs); it's wonderful, y'know. So, in terms of goals, I just want—I just want to keep working, and it's like, y'know, if I really thought about it, I would probably say, "Yeah, I'm incredibly ambitious, and I want to someday be put in the pantheon of great American directors," but mainly it's just the joy of working with good people and working together with a group of people with a common purpose, because that's really life-affirming to me.
G: I think one of the things that comes out of your films is this theatrical quality, not—I mean, obviously, as you say, the elements of drama, like change, but also in a style sense: sustained scenes, long takes. What does it take to achieve that effect on the kind of schedule that you're often facing?
DK: It truly is all about the cast. Y'know, it's like—I've worked on two movies now where if our actors weren't absolutely top-flight, the movie would die. And then on the page Roger Dodger was just a series of monologues, and [what] people very rightly said was "you should stage this as a play." And I couldn't say, "Well, I've got this idea for what it's going to look like." And same thing with the scene where Laura takes Topher in front of the mirror [which] is an incredibly theatrical, stylized scene, and then the speech that she gives. It takes a really special actor to deliver huge, very theatrical speeches like that and make it feel—play like a dialogue. Very different when you go into the theatre, there's a level of art that everybody's comfortable with and has sort of agreed to. In the movies, I think you have—it can be more distracting if you're sort of aware of the artifice. I mean, the whole point being, in movies, you want to sink in and forget that you're watching a movie. So for me I just have no choice but to keep trying to work with the very best actors I can. Because in this kind of movie where it's long scenes, very low coverage; we're right there with her and Topher, they just—y'know, their faces have to be endlessly interesting. Otherwise, the audience is going to get fatigued.
G: Yeah. About Roger Dodger, you pulled off a neat trick there of indulging that sexist machismo for its entertainment value—
G: ...but also undermining it.
G: What prompted that story for you?
DK: I think that was one where I just wanted to write something that I could do on a very small budget, and I think that the idea of sexual politics is a subject that you're capable of sustaining an audience's interest for ninety minutes, y'know. It couldn't be a movie about a guy who wanted to talk about, y'know, tax codes for ninety minutes. You have to find a subject that is meaty enough, that has enough sort of nooks and crannies in it and—. And so in a way, it's sort of a dirty—it's sort of cheating. But I think it also had something that I really felt was true and still is true about gender roles being re-defined, and people are just struggling to make sense of this new world, and I think there's—particularly on the male side—there's a lot of disorientation and sort of anger at not knowing where to go now. So I wish—if I knew where these things came from, y'know, I wouldn't be in therapy. (Laughs.)
G: I guess I'll say for the last question, how has your life changed over the last few years since Roger Dodger?
DK: The main thing for me is I'm still broke and living in New York in Queens with two cats, I mean it's like—I'm not, y'know, leading any kind of glamorous lifestyle. But making the first one was great, because it just—I'd put a lot of pressure on myself to the point where I was like, "If I don't actually get a movie made in my lifetime, I'll be a total failure." So it's like there's a nice sort-of like "monkey off of my back" feeling. But mainly the thing is that now I'm able to get into a room. I can get Laura Linney on the phone. I mean, it's just, it's—the first one is always the hardest because everybody is guilty until proven innocent. My feeling is always just like: you want to make as many movies as you can as quickly as you can because then you're just sort of—it's not like you're in a club; you've built up a body of work, and you just, you have a certain credibility, y'know? And that script that maybe doesn't seem like it's going to work, suddenly, it's like, "Well, y'know, he's done some other stuff that works, so maybe he can pull it off." It just gives you a little bit more...the ground is sort of more solidly under your feet. So I think that personally, my life's still a nightmare. Professionally, I've gotten to like it here. (Laughs.)
G: Well, very good luck to you, and thanks so much for talking to me.
DK: Thank you.
[For Groucho's review of P.S., click here.]