Last year, James Toback descended on Cannes with cohort Alec Baldwin to shoot the documentary “Seduced and Abandoned.” This year, Toback is in town to screen the film and discuss its contents with interested parties. Of which I am one, having thoroughly relished his supremely entertaining and frequently illuminating portrait of the sorry state of the film business today.
If “Seduced and Abandoned” meanders and strays off course throughout, it matters not a jot because Toback and Baldwin form a magnificent double act, and the talent they’ve rounded up to spout off includes Bertolucci, Scorsese, Polanski, Coppola, Chastain and Gosling.
They all prove willing accomplices for Baldwin and Toback’s canny probing, yielding endlessly fascinating nuggets about the industry and their own careers. The nuts and bolts of the doc, though, are Baldwin and Toback’s efforts to raise the financing for a fictional (we think) sex romp to be headlined by the “30 Rock” star and Neve Campbell, set in Iraq and titled “Last Tango In Tikrit,” which allows producers, financiers and studio men, including Ron Meyer and Jeffrey Katzenberg, to reveal the realities of modern-day filmmaking (“I love Neve/Alec but…”).
Surprisingly, given that it’s set in Cannes, the press screening was sparsely attended, but “Seduced and Abandoned” has been greeted with positive critical reaction (Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian labelled it “a guilty-pleasure romp of a documentary”). And Toback is a renowned talker, so I was looking forward to a motormouth encounter when I met him in his Carlton hotel room, where he was packing in readiness to leave the festival. His young son was still trying to sleep in the bed, prompting right off the bat a salacious story about George Cukor…
James Toback: I was working with George Cukor for a year at his house on my Victoria Woodhull script [American suffragette and free-love advocate], which is the one great unfinished movie of my life, and George was grilling me every morning on the erotic details of the night before. He never would divulge anything about his own obviously quite lurid life and one morning I got there early and coming out of the bedroom was a boy – probably younger than [my son] Andre, about 11 or 12 – in a bathrobe. I looked at the boy and Cukor’s mouth was twitching, he didn’t know what to say. Then he said, “This is my gardener’s nephew,” as if that somehow made it less incriminating. Throughout the entire day, he punctuated our conversation with, “Now, the gardener’s coming tomorrow and he always brings his nephew,” trying to make this association innocent. I finally said to him, “George, you’re talking to me! I’m not judgmental!” “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Matt Mueller: Are you pleased with “Seduced and Abandoned”’s reception in Cannes?
Toback: It does seem to be going down well. We shot exactly a year ago without worrying about the fact that we didn’t have a clear idea of the movie. We were just shooting everything that interested us and we had certain themes that we were exploring and an array of different people that we wanted to talk to. When you have a script, you think you know exactly what you’re doing but we didn’t even have an outline.
How did you hook up with Alec Baldwin for this project?
We had hit it off when we met on the set of “Alice” years before. I was in a scene with him, a scene that I rewrote. I said to Woody [Allen], “Do you mind if I rewrite a couple of my scenes?” He said, “No, no, not at all.” So I did and the scenes I rewrote got cut out of the movie. Alec and I had a rapport, then we met again at the East Hampton Film Festival and we both felt, “Let’s get our relationship going again; let’s not blow it this time.”
So over the next six or seven months, we met between 50 and 60 times, usually at the Harvard Club or the Grand Havana Room, which is his hangout as a cigar degenerate. It became clear that not only did we want to do a movie together but he wanted to do a movie about where film is today. Because obviously it’s in a crisis state right now, and everybody in the movie agrees with that. In fact, Tom Bernard said to me a couple of years ago, “Nobody knows anymore. Everybody’s kind of floundering around wondering what to do.” To do serious movies is a fluke now. I said to Alec, “Great, let’s do it,” and I suggested Cannes as the physical backdrop because all of international cinema is here during the festival.
Was it difficult raising the money?
We had to shoot last May, otherwise we weren’t going to be able to do it. It wasn’t as if the dates were going to move. I found it fortunately. There’s a guy Alan Helene who is one of the three financiers and he happened to know my movies pretty much by heart, which unfortunately not many people do. Or even not by heart. He corralled two others and we had enough to get here and do it. That all happened in the two months leading up to shooting. Then we took 10 months to edit it, which is a luxury on any movie.
Was it difficult shaping the film?
We were floundering for quite a while. The only thread was that we were trying to get money for another movie but that was clearly not enough, and what were we going to do with all these conversations with all these people that had nothing to do with that? It only fell into place by a combination of instinct and luck, and it was only the last month that I felt the movie was there. If I’d had to stop a month earlier, it would have been 60 percent of what it is now. The last two weeks was really quite remarkable. Editing is mysterious, the way writing is – it just all of a sudden takes over and you’re following it instead of leading it.
What was the breakthough?
I proposed an idea that tied certain things together visually, went out for a couple of hours while my editor did them – I’m a Luddite; my son was sharper than I was when he was three – and when I came back I said to him, “How do you think it worked?” He said, “Very well,” which for him – he’s very understated – is like saying, “It’s the greatest leap forward in human history.” Like with Alec in the movie, he balances my exuberance with a restrained enthusiasm. It’s like Coppola says in the movie about putting two pieces of film together and we show that great cut from “2001”: it sometimes has an effect exponentially more significant than it would seem to if you just described what you did factually.
The names you’ve rounded up are illustrious. Was it difficult getting the likes of Scorsese, Polanski and Bertolucci to sit down for you?
No! Most shocking to me was that everyone we approached wanted to be in the movie. With Ryan Gosling, who I think is sensational in the film, it took about 20 minutes for him to relax because neither of us really knew him before. Everybody else, it was like two seconds: it’s as if they’d all been waiting their entire lives to have a chance to unburden themselves. And some of them say subtly startling things.
What were the most startling revelations for you?
Very few people have picked up on this but it’s something Ron Meyer says. In the moments of grandiosity and pomposity which dominate most of their conversation, the executives of Hollywood would never actually admit this but the assumption always is what Eisner said to Beatty, Diller and me in 1978 during a meeting at Paramount: a good movie is a movie that makes money; a bad movie is a movie that loses money. Period. Ron Meyer admits and even assumes that there’s such a thing as a good movie that will so-called flop, and a bad movie that will make a lot of money, but he at least maintains that distinction, which is a risky thing to do. But he covers himself by saying that if he loves a movie and everybody else at the studio hates it, they don’t make the movie. In the old days, even 20 years ago, executives bragged about having a greenlight power that basically meant, “I can do whatever the fuck I want and it’s your job to agree with me.” I say to him in the film,“Isn’t that detrimental to any kind of potential artistry or art in film?” And in a way he agrees by citing his own different experience as an agent when he could go in and get a movie done in one conversation with Tom Pollock. Now he says there’s nowhere you can do that, and I would assume he’s right.
A sad state of affairs…?
Absolutely. Even John Calley, who was the most advanced guy in every way as far as I was concerned, wanted to do a Miles Davis movie when he was running Sony and he asked me if I wanted to do it. I said, “Yeah, I knew Miles, I think that’d be great.” Three days later, he said, “We’ve got to shelve that; I can’t get any support for it here.” I said, “What do you mean you can’t get any support? Tell them to go fuck themselves. You run the fucking company.” He said, “Jim, it just doesn’t happen that way anymore.” It was his idea and his passion and he hired everybody there, Amy Pascal, that whole group, and yet he understood at that time, around 2003, that it was all corporate and compartmentalized. No more megalomania.