SLIPSTREAM WRITER-DIRECTOR ANTHONY HOPKINS.
There are actors who direct and their films seem like extensions of the personas they‘ve already developed in their screen performances. For example: Clint Eastwood with his lean, iconic dramas; Takeshi Kitano with his bemused, off-kilter take on the cop movie; Woody Allen‘s New Yorkish blend of erudition and goofball comedy.
After seeing Slipstream, however, I think it‘s fair to say that there‘s been nothing in Anthony Hopkins‘s onscreen work that could prepare one for the path he‘s taken for his third directing effort. At heart it‘s the tale of a dying writer, Felix Bonhoeffer, and the contortions of his mind as recent people and events in his life merge with a crime thriller screenplay he‘s writing. It owes something, perhaps, to David Lynch‘s Mulholland Drive but also to Alain Resnais‘s Providence, another film about the blurring of perception within the creative mind. But Hopkins, working with d.p. Dante Spinotti and editor Michael Miller, has scrambled all manner of narrative storytelling convention, creating a deliberately disruptive montage that conveys the cosmic craziness of life itself while also challenging the staid conventions of mainstream storytelling.
I spoke with Hopkins by phone about his decision to direct Slipstream, his thoughts on the nature of time and what the film means to him. The film will be released through Strand Releasing in late October.
CHRISTIAN SLATER IN SLIPSTREAM.
I read an interview you did about the film and you talked about being fascinated with the nature of time. I think you even said that you speculate that God is, in fact, time itself. So with Slipstream, which came first: these kinds of philosophical questions, or simply the character of Felix Bonhoeffer? About four years ago I just sat down at the computer and wrote [Slipstream] as an experiment. I didn‘t set out to write it as a piece with any meaning or message or any sort of significance. In an offhand way I just said, “Okay, I‘m going to write something,” and that‘s how I started. I don‘t want to [use] highfalutin words such as “stream of consciousness,” but I think that‘s what it was. I started with scene one and let it write itself. I tried not to edit my mind as bits came out. I didn‘t spend days intensely working — I‘d write two scenes, maybe, and then I‘d walk away. Then I‘d come in the next day and do something else. I think I wanted to see where it would take itself and how random it would be. After a few months I read what I wrote, and I thought, “Well, this is kind of interesting,” and I let it go at that. Some other people read it, and they said, “This is really, really weird and strange — what does it mean?” I said, “Well I know what it means, but I can‘t actually explain it to people.” So I asked Steven Spielberg to read it for me. A few weeks passed and he phoned back, and he said, “This is very interesting, a stream of consciousness, I guess.” I said, “Yeah, I suppose”. He said, “You‘re going to have a bit of a difficult time mounting this. No studio will want to take on something like this, but anyway, good luck with it.” Then I examined [the script further] and I began to understand what the meaning of it was for me. It‘s about the strange nature of time, and how we can never grasp it. It‘s so inevitable, such an enigma. You cannot even grasp a microsecond of it because it‘s already flashed into the past.
Do you think our conception of time has changed as the modern era has progressed? Are things faster now? Is a sign of our times a kind of disorienting “speed of life?” Oh I don‘t know. I think it‘s always preoccupied people through the centuries. It has preoccupied playwrights like Shakespeare and poets like Blake. But as I‘m getting older, I‘m drawn back to the past. I don‘t live there, but I am drawn back to the past, and my memories are clearer and clearer as I get older. I think what I have tread upon [in Slipstream] is, what the hell is it all about? Why are we here? But I didn‘t want to put that as a message in the film — there is no message in the film. The other thing that I wanted to do was, I suppose, to annoy the audience. I wanted to provoke [the viewer] by doing the opposite thing [you‘d expect in the film]. For example, the waitress in the restaurant [scene], as soon as she takes the order from the two seemingly main characters, the camera follows her outside and then it goes off into tangents, picking up on other peoples‘ lives. And I knew there was no logic, no good reason, why these two guys [played by] Christian Slater and Jeffrey Tambor would have any reason to hijack a café in the middle of the desert. There‘s no money. But I put a red herring there that maybe Christian Slater recognized Gina who nearly killed him on the road at fast speed, and he may have remembered that she could have been a witness in the parking lot the night before he murdered Michael Clarke Duncan‘s character. But I thought, why do we have to offer explanations? I‘m not even going to explain it.
The scene in the desert and then the whole film-within-a-film story with the crew making a low-budget movie was a part of the film I really enjoyed. I recently saw Frank Perry‘s film Play It As It Lays. Frank Perry?
Yeah, do you know that film? I know the book, but Frank Perry directed The Swimmer, didn‘t he?
Yes. But Play It As It Lays also deals with a kind of psychological breakdown that occurs in the context of a film shoot in the desert. What is it about the particular psychology of the people that work in film, or maybe that kind of impromptu community of people that comprises a film set, that interests you? They‘re like circus animals. They come into town, they arrive with their big trucks and for a few weeks they become a family. And then it‘s all disrupted in the end, and they all go their separate ways. I watch a movie and think, just off camera you‘ve got a whole crew with coffee cups, and craft services and catering, and God knows what. You‘ve got the director who at the end will say, “Okay, cut,” and eventually someone will say, “That‘s a wrap everyone, thank you very much.” And everyone goes back to his or her little boxes on the hill. But in fact that‘s what life is — it‘s all a dream, an illusion, and at the end of this film, particularly when Bonhoeffer is killed by the car and lies there on the windshield, you realize the whole thing was make-believe. It was a film anyway. I perceive life as a game, a game that we play at some unconscious level. We have no knowledge of what lies deep under it. Maybe if we were visionaries we would but I don‘t think many of us have any clue what this is all about.
In some ways you could call Slipstream an experimental film. It certainly rejects conventional film storytelling and, specifically, continuity editing. In devising the language of this film, did you consider the work of earlier experimental filmmakers? I tried to stay as uninfluenced as I possibly could. I was obviously interested in the way Oliver Stone edited films like JFK, particularly those peculiar flashes of images in the middle of the scenes. But if I thought of anything it was Last Year at Marienbad.
I love that movie. That was a really interesting film that I couldn‘t make heads or tails of. I believe it was 1961 that it was shown, and it deals with the nature of perception, the nature of memory and the peculiar puzzle of life and its repetitions, which I find really haunting. [Slipstream is] also based on one — well, several — experiences I‘ve had. I experienced two or three concussions from accidents with a loss of memory that lasted about an hour or so. An acute form of amnesia. They were very unnerving. The first time it happened, I was doing a movie with Alec Baldwin called The Edge. I was suffering from hypothermia from being in the lake, I didn‘t want my body temperature to drop and I started replaying in my mind the journey on the road, two days before, as I was driving up to Canada to make the film. I slipped back into the minutes of that day. To lose contact, to lose one‘s mind in that way is a horrible feeling.
What sort of direction did you give your d.p., Dante Spinotti, on this film? Did you work together with him to create a visual language? Well that was the lucky stroke. He came on board with such enthusiasm. He decided that he wanted to [shoot it] digital in high-definition, and it was quite extraordinary. I‘d come up with my camera shots and he‘d looked at them and smile and say, “Well I think we can do a better shot here.” So I let him do his thing. And then, in fact, it was quite interesting because on the third day of the filming I tore my Achilles tendon. You know the scene when I‘m running around the corridors of the hospital?
Yes. Well I ripped my Achilles tendon, and I was in a wheelchair for quite a bit of the film, until it started to heal. At that time, I thought, these guys know exactly what they‘re doing, so I‘ll just leave it to them and I‘d just come up with some shots.
How did you approach the financing of the film? We filmed it in two pieces in fact: The scene in the desert when I meet Kevin McCarthy, we filmed that previously, a year ago last February, because we had a producer who said that he wanted to put up the money and then changed his mind. So my wife and I decided to put up some cash to shoot that week‘s filming just because Kevin is in his nineties. And then after the wrap, we thought, where do we go from here? We went through about three or four different sources of money, producers who gave us a smile and then said they wanted final cut and they wanted to talk about the script. I said, “No, absolutely not.” I got tired of talking to those guys. We managed to get some private financing. Enough said.
How much of the visual scheme of the film, particularly the optical-dissolve work, and visual effects, was built into the script? Well I planned most of that. I wrote copious notes about what I wanted the effects to be, to flash back in time, to have 3 or 8 or 25-frame cuts, and I had an idea of where I was going to insert them. I spent four months with Michael Miller in the editing room, and Michael, who has worked with Woody Allen, is a really fine editor. I said to him, “You have to warn me if I‘m going too far into your ethics and your integrity as an editor. I don‘t want to do anything to damage your reputation.” He just said, “Whatever you want to do, let‘s go for it.” So we worked together. I said, “I just want to knock everything on its head, want to tip everything on its ass.” We had a great time.
Now that you‘ve finished the film, what has the completion of it meant for you, sort of creatively? What has it meant?
Yes, I mean it‘s a huge accomplishment to direct a film, particularly one that‘s not a conventional film. What does it mean for you that Slipstream now exists in the world? As I was writing it I thought, “Well, this is impossible. Nobody‘s going to make a movie like this. I‘m living in a fool‘s paradise.” And as I kept going through it I thought, “Well there‘s nothing wrong with it, I‘m just doing it my way. I know people are not going to understand it.” I sent it to the various actors, and people still didn‘t get it. Christian Slater got it, and John Turturro, I think. It was my wife Stella who said, “Let‘s not give up on it.” So to have accomplished it and to have finished it, I feel very pleased because it‘s my movie. I think, “Well, we did it.” And I‘m thrilled. I did it for my own pleasure really — for my own insightful pleasure. Slipstream is my view of the world.