The following interview was conducted on March 30, 2005 at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in San Francisco, CA. The interview first aired April 25, 2005 on Celluloid Dreams. Celluloid Dreams airs every Monday night at 5pm on KSJS radio (90.5 FM) in San Jose, CA.
Groucho: Winner of a Golden Globe and four Emmy nominations, David Duchovny famously played Fox Mulder on the hugely popular series The X-Files, and in the subsequent feature film. Duchovny's films include The Rapture, California, Chaplin, Return To Me, Evolution and Stephen Soderbergh's Full Frontal, among others. On The X-Files, Duchovny wrote several episodes and directed three. Now the accomplished actor makes his feature film debut as an auteur director. David Duchovny, welcome to Celluloid Dreams.
David Duchovny: Thank you.
G: One of the most striking elements of House of D, to me, is its dramatic definition of manhood. Psychologist Carol Gilligan came to mind for me—the idea that separation and individuation are essential to establishing masculinity in our culture. Your film suggests that a man must become a man twice: once by separating and once by reconnecting. Was this, for you, merely the stuff of myth or did you experience that yourself?
DD: W—wow. (Laughs.) I didn't expect to hear such intelligence. I'm a little stunned. The hairs on the back of my neck went up because I hadn't thought—honestly I hadn't thought of it that way. I knew that the movie was about the individuation of the boy. But when you put it in that way, of him becoming a man a second time by creating his own family, I think that's true. And that would have been unconsciously for me a part of the film—a necessary part of the film. So I thank you for making that clear to me. And I'll be sure to use it from now on.
DD: And I will make it conscious. But I think that that's true, and for myself personally: yeah, I think, you know, individuation—not just for a man, but for a woman as well—for any child, for any kid who's becoming an adult, you know, necessarily you have to move away from home in all ways physical, emotional, and spiritual. And for me personally, having my own family, has certainly been instrumental in my redefinition of what my manhood is and all that.
G: The House of D, as a neighborhood fixture, strikes me as an "only in New York" kind of thing. What are your memories of the real House of D and Greenwich Village in the '60's?
DD: Well, it's funny that you say it's an "only in New York" thing because I was just in the car, and I was looking at Alcatraz on a bridge, and I thought it's almost like a House of D, you know? It's almost in the city, and I thought about, you know, all those guys that were in jail, and they could hear the sounds of the city, you know, so close and yet so far. And I thought: well, if you could have just made Alcatraz a few—you know, a half mile closer, you could have done a House of D in San Francisco. But, um, yeah, as far as I know, the Women's House of Detention—you know, I'm not a historian of prisons, by any means—but it seems to me one of the only times in the 20th century where we actually had a working prison in the middle of the most populous neighborhood in the world almost, you know—middle of downtown New York. So when I—since I knew that, since I grew up in that area, and I had known stories of women hanging out the bars and calling to people; talking to their lovers, friends, pimps; trying to get conversations started with people because they were bored, I thought that was an amazing, dramatic situation. You know, usually when a prison is portrayed in a movie, you know, everybody's used to that scene where they go, they get patted down, they go through the gate, they go to the guard, and then they're up against the Plexiglas. And I just thought this is such a ripe dramatic situation where none of that has to happen. You just have to have somebody lean out of their cell, and all of a sudden, they're talking to a stranger. All of a sudden, they're talking to you while you're walking your dog. All of a sudden, they're talking to a twelve-year-old boy—and becoming a relationship.
G: Paris is also a strong setting in the film. You have a personal bond with that city. Your father lived there for a time—
G: And you've mused about escaping there yourself. What's the particular allure of Paris for you?
DD: I think it's the escape from this culture—not that there's anything wrong with this culture, but it's my native culture, and there's something really liberating about being in a city that's not your own, listening to a language that's not your own, looking at a culture that's not your own. It kind of takes the weight off of me, anyway. I felt kind of free, even though completely uninvolved and alienated (laughs) at the same time. I was just in Montreal, and it was fun because it was both English and French, and you had a culture that was different. In terms of Paris, when I was writing the movie, I didn't—I just knew I wanted the boy to run away to another country. And at first I thought it was going to be Rome, Italy, 'cause I thought, y'know, "If I get to shoot anywhere, I'd love to shoot in Rome—that'd be fantastic. And (chuckles) that's a really utilitarian kind of filmmaking. "Hmm. This one should be the Hamptons," you know? So I was kind of writing the script off the cuff, and all of a sudden, I got to this classroom scene, and I know, like, sixth-grade French, and I don't know any Italian. So I started to write the French class scene, and then all of a sudden—"Oh!"—it had to be Paris 'cause you had to—he had to get there.
G: The child is father to the man—
G: So what kind of child were you, and was Catholic school a part of your upbringing?
DD: That was—I considered making that one of the tag lines to the movie, but, you know, I want people to go see it. So—I think sure-fire box-office death is to quote Wordsworth on your poster. Well, it's probably never been tried before, so we should try it at some point. "Tintern Abbey: The Movie"—we could do it. I think—well, I went to an Episcopal school and—so I took Bible class, you know, and I kind of—. My father's Jewish, my mother's Lutheran, so I kind of had both sides of the Old and New Testament growing up, but, y'know, really was active in neither. But, you know, I'm happy to have studied the Bible in grade school—you know, if only because it informed so much of our literature. You know, when I went to graduate school—you just realize how—you really have to know your Bible. You know, it's very funny, you think about this liberal arts education that gets condemned so much as being away from religion, or the Bible, but if you're a literary scholar or you want to be, you have to know your Bible really well because the tradition of English literature comes out of the Bible.
G: You came to acting via English literature and playwriting and eventually returned to writing. Are you conscious of striking a balance between perhaps the intellectual approach to writing something and the emotional need of an actor?
DD: No, because I think they're—if you're involved in drama, which I think is very different from prose or poetry, I think the emotional needs of the audience are very similar to the emotional questions that an actor asks and, therefore, what a dramatist should ask. Y'know, because a drama is not a forum for ideas. A drama is not an occasion to teach somebody something. It's an occasion to entertain and to involve and then maybe, if you're imparting some ideas of significance or interest, then that's great too. But I think, as Horace said, it has to be sweet and, uh—I forget. It was dulce et something else; it has to be smart and sweet or something. I'm probably misquoting. But I think that that's a worthy aim, but above all, you have to involve an audience—you have to entertain them. And I'm very happy to try and make stuff funny. And I think that the movie is—often my impulse is to go towards comedy. 'Cause I think comedy, aside from being so entertaining, is also—kind of outlines characters' pain. You know, you can tell where characters hurt by what they're funny about or how their sense of humor is. So I think that the—I set out to make this movie really funny and try to hook people that way and then bring in either ideas or deep feelings through the back door that comedy opens.
G: Anton Yelchin is really terrific in the film, as Tommy. He handles the humor and the cathartic stuff really well.
G: As a director who's been there, how did you help him to get where he needed to go?
DD: Well, I wish I could say that it was, you know, my direction. But Anton happens to be a phenomenal, kind of instinctual, weird actor—and knew it from the beginning. Understood the guy, understood his relationship with his mother, which was the key to—as you said—to his having to pull away and individuate. And Anton just got it. And Anton is a very sensitive actor and a sensitive guy, and he could really handle those emotional scenes. What I was totally surprised at was how funny he could be. 'Cause when I met Anton, he leads with his sensitive side. He is a serious fourteen-year-old, if that is a possible thing to be. But when he did scenes like the French class scene or, you know, interacted with Robin Williams, I was really surprised and so happy to see how funny he was 'cause "funny" is probably the one thing that you can't direct. You know, you can try to give somebody an idea about timing, but "funny"—if you feel funny, usually you are funny. And Anton just felt funny when he had to be.
G: I have to get in before we finish up here: which performance of yours was sultrier of these two: your role as the narrator of Red Shoe Diaries or Dennis/Denise Bryson on Twin Peaks?
DD: Oh, sultrier. (Laughs.) Oh, definitely Denise. I mean Denise was all sex. You know, just dripping with it.
G: Well—that's a note to end on—
G: If I've ever heard one. I've been talking to David Duchovny. Thank you very much for talking with us.
DD: Thank you. It was a pleasure. I mean that.