I understand that it was on the basis of your short film, The Debt, which won the Best Short Film award at Cannes in 1993, that you were approached by a producer who enabled you to make On the Run?
I was actually approached by several producers in Cannes. I wonít tell you the whole story about how On the Run got made because that would take about two hours. But basically this is what happened.
In 1994, it was Lisbonís turn to be the cultural capital of Europe, and as part of the Lisbon í94 celebrations, they chose to do a film about Lisbon called Twenty-Four Hours in Lisbon, or something like that. And they invited three filmmakers under thirty Ė at the time I was twenty-seven Ė to do three shorts of 45 minutes each, about Lisbon: "The Morning", "The Afternoon", and "The Night". And just after Cannes, I was invited to do "The Night" in Lisbon. Which was a little weird, because I donít live there. I wasnít even born there, but my parents are from Lisbon. Anyway, they invited me and I got a grant from the Portuguese Film Institute to do the short; they would also help with the feature film. So thereís a connection there.
Anyway, when I was invited to do "The Night", I proposed a buddy movie. An American businessman would go to Lisbon. He arrives at the airport, takes a cab to go to the hotel, and has a seminar to do the next morning. The cab driver is a crazy lunatic, and heíll never get to the hotel. Itís pretty much the same relationship as in On the Run, with one introverted and one extroverted character in a story about life and death. The story was approved, but I wanted to do it as a feature, not as a short, because I needed time to explore their relationship. The ending was the same as it would be later in On the Run: they would have a car accident. In this case, the American would die in the taxiÖ Anyway, they didnít have money to do the feature and I wound up not doing the short, mainly because of differences with regard to financing.
So I had this idea that I wanted to explore. I didnít have a script, but I had a story. Then I met a producer called Tino Navarro and he said: "Anything you want to do is fine. Iíll make a deal with you and youíll do the film". We signed an agreement that I would make a film with him as producer. Then in early 1994, when I came to New York, I met with my friend Jonathan Berman, who would become my co-writer. He told me a true story that had happened to him, about his best friend who phoned him after an escape from jail. That whole bit is a true story. This best friend had robbed a few banks, I think he was involved with drugs, I really donít know too much about it, but he was mainly a manic depressive. So Jonathan Berman told me the story about his friend who called him from Port Authority, and Jonathan was really worried because he knew his friend was crazy and had a gun, so he called the police. In the true story, the police went to get him but didnít find him. The guy robbed another bank and went back to jail. Thereís more to it, but as I said, it would take two hours to tell the whole story.
During this conversation with Jonathan, I said: "Well this is terrific, because I have this other story about two characters and I was looking for a framework for exploring their relationship in a buddy movie". So I said: "Great, that could be the first act of the film, and letís make it so that he feels guilty, so he goes to Port Authority to pick him up, and then we have two guys on the run". That was the basic premise. And in the ending, I knew that one of them would have to die but I didnít know which one at the time.
And when I was creating the world of this movie, I saw a film that really influenced me a lot called Il sorpasso, by Dino Risi. A great film from 1962 I think, with Jean-Louis Trintignant playing the straight guy and Vittorio Gassman playing the crazy one. That film really influenced this one a lot, and the ending is also very close to mine. So I used that as a sort of reference.
I had a story, the two characters, I had had several meetings with my co-writer, Jonathan Berman, developing ideas that were based on what had happened to him. I had the producer. And to write the script, I found Joe Minion. And thatís pretty much the story behind On the Run.
The casting of On the Run is superb. Did you know the actors while you were developing the story?
Not when I started working with Joe Minion on the script, which took us two years Ė a year and a half for the first draft. We didnít have any actors. He said: "Who do you see as the main character, Albert di Santis?" And I said: "Michael Imperioli", whom I didnít know personally. Some friends of mine knew him, but I had never met him. I had seen him in a lot of theater work in New York in the early 90ís. And I had seen some of his films, like Goodfellows. I felt he had a very interior quality, which is very rare. And he had the shyness that I needed for the straight guy. So we wrote it with him in mind, and I sent him a draft around 1995 or early 1996. At the time, he was busy writing Summer of Sam, a Spike Lee movie thatís coming out next week. His manager called and said heís not available. So in 1996, when I started casting, I decided to begin by casting the other character and then do a match, which is very important in a buddy movie.
I saw about 150 actors and was about to give up. I told my casting director that we just wonít make the film, because itís really a character movie. Then on the last day of casting, John Ventimiglia walked in and before he even read any of the lines, I immediately knew that he was right for the part. He read, and my casting director didnít want me to offer him the role right away, he wanted me to sleep on it. The next day I woke up and I loved the tape. So I called him. We had lunch and I told him that he had the role. He asked: "Whoís playing the other guy?" meaning like: "Iíll do it but I have to know whoís the other guy because itís almost like a love story." So I said: "Iíve written it for Michael Imperioli, but heís busy." And he said: "Oh, Michael is my best friend." So of course he called him and the next day we had dinner and the deal was doneÖ
We had about one year after the casting of the two leads to finish working on the script. We did improvised sessions that were taped and transcribed. Then weíd go back and rewrite what we had done. This went on every week for a year. So they really got to know their characters very well and a lot of personal things started coming in, from me and from them. We became like a trio, with very strong bonds.
Most of the other actors were suggested by either John or Michael. I also did a lot of auditions, mostly with people I knew. I wanted it to be very New York, to have that quality. And there are wonderful actors here. The link was that all the actors chosen had a very special New York quality about them Ė in the way they were a little off-center or had certain "twists" that we would look for.
The actors playing the main characters made a very important contribution even in dialogue. I would show the writer the stuff that came up in improvisations, and he loved it. We also improvised on the set, which I like doing. Itís my favorite part of filmmaking Ė the collaboration with the actors. The other stuff is hard; thatís easy (laughter).
Iíve never heard dialogue with that particular quality in any other movie.
Well Joe Minion is superb. And talk about coincidences. In 1994, I was looking for a writer who had a unique style that balances a kind of absurdity with realism. You donít find that often in the States. And when I went through my video collections, I found films written by Joe Minion that had that quality and I thought he would be great but I had no idea where he was. Then the phone rang, and it was my friend Lisa, who taught at the North Carolina School of the Arts. She asked if I had a writer yet. I told her that I was interested in this guy, Joe Minion, and that I was going to try to find him somehow. And she said: "Oh, heís right here!" and she put him on the phone. He was then teaching at the same school. A total coincidence! I talked to him on the phone, he was on the train to New York the next day. He gave up his job at the school and we worked on the film together for over a year.
Joe is very good. I personally think he is one of the best writers. He writes very specific dialogue. He has that quality, that absurdity that I like. Itís very hard to write that sort of thing Ė situations that could be believable but are on the verge of not being believable. The first draft was even more absurd, very crazy. And to get the balance I was looking for, the actors brought in a style of New York street realism. And what you see in the film is the fusion of the two styles Ė the absurdity and realism, combined with a lot of John Cassavetesís influence. We would take a scene that was written with very specific beats, with a twist on every beat. Then we would say: letís open up the scene. For instance, the scene at the bar with that girl, Tina. Originally, there were tighter, faster beats in that scene. And we opened it up with improvisations while shooting, and stuff came up that was totally unpredictable.
So I would say a combination of styles was what I was aiming for, and I donít know whether I succeeded or not. Itís not for me to say. We tried. And it was risky. There were points when we didnít know where we were going. Weíd sometimes get lostÖ We would explore. I would get a phone call from John at 5 in the morning: "Why would Louie do this?" "Why does he escape from jail?" And I would say: "Thatís for you to find out." It became a sort of anthropological study of the two characters, and it was a very collaborative effort.
I would like to ask about a specific scene. At the point when Louie is hiding in the kitchen, and the policeman reveals that Albert had turned him in, Louis looks into the camera. Is that really a camera look?
Yeah, thatís a Godard thing. Thatís like: "youíre watching a movie"Ö If youíve noticed, thereís a shift in the point of view at that moment. Until then, youíre pretty much with Albert. At the point when Louie looks into the camera, youíre with him. So the audience turns to the other side. And then you stay with Louie pretty much for while, until he destroys the apartment, and then maybe you go back to Albert. It was a transference of point of view. I donít know if it worked, but that was the idea.
If I may ask a very general question: what do you see as the main ingredients of a good story in a film?
I tend to go more for character, actually. I love stories. But thereís a difference between what I like and what I want to do. I like so many different kinds of films. If weíre talking about films that I would like to do as a director, I like films that are character-based and that have a kind of philosophical or even spiritual evolution of the characters at the end. I love going to the movies and seeing a really good story, but the story not my primary interest in my own work.
What kinds of characters do you like to work with?
Troubled ones (laughter). Thatís a good question. In the case of On the Run, I like not only the characters but also the relationship between them. Iím generally attracted to characters that are outsiders in some way. I have five scripts in development right now, at various stages, and they all involve the same style of characters, with the same actors playing the roles. At least Iím going to try to do all five films with the same actors. So youíll be seeing a lot more of these guys.
24 June 1999
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