Filmmaker Todd Robinson has written, produced and directed a variety of television features and documentaries, including the Oscar-nominated doc Amargosa. When he decided to make his first feature-length dramatic film, he decided to focus on true crime story which he could connect with on a more personal level. After all, Robinson’s grandfather, Elmer Robinson, was the lead detective working on the case of Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez, a couple who went on a cross-country killing spree during the early ’50s.
Lonely Hearts isn’t the first movie to tell Fernandez and Beck’s harrowing story, but it’s the first one to take a more personal angle, dealing with Detective Robinson’s private life after his wife (Todd’s grandmother) commits suicide. It features an all-star cast including John Travolta as Detective Elmer Robinson, James Gandolifini as his partner Hildebrandt, and Jared Leto and Salma Hayek as the infamous “lonely hearts” killers.
ComingSoon.net had a chance to talk with Robinson about his movie, as it was set for a limited release nearly a year after its premiere at the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival.
ComingSoon.net: I understand that the idea to make a movie about your grandfather and this case wasn’t one you came up with on your own or have tried to make for years, as is normally the case.
Todd Robinson: No, this was actually a story that had been kicking around my family for a long time. To be honest with you, at the time, I wasn’t even aware that there had been movies made about it. I thought we were the only people who knew about the story. A friend of mine sent me a book, I think it was called the “Encyclopedia of Serial Killers” for an unrelated story, and I was flipping through it and there was a page on the Lonely Heart Killers and I thought, “Holy smokes! There’s my grandpop’s story.” So I started toying with the idea of kicking it around, and it really wasn’t until I started talking with my family and finding out a little bit about the details of stories that really had more to do with my grandmother’s death. I wasn’t sure if I had anything to contribute to the story beyond what had already been done in the prior two movies, but I was looking for something that could hook me on a more personal level.
CS: Did you go back and watch the other two movies?
Robinson: Yeah, I did, and I thought these were both two very good movies in their own way, and the Arturo Ripstein movie “Deep Crimson” is really more of a remake of “The Honeymoon Killers.” My movie doesn’t have anything to do with either of those movies. It’s really not a remake at all, though people keep saying it is. I don’t think a cop shows up in any of those movies. This is really all about untangling the sort of patriarchal communication dysfunction of my family, that was really my motivation for doing the film, exploring that through what my granddad did. If you accept the premise that we as men tend in this culture to define ourselves by what we do, and that the thing we do can have a collateral effect on the people we love, that was really more the movie I set out to make.
CS: Was your grandfather still alive at this time?
Robinson: No, he died in 1991.
CS: Did he keep any journals of his life during the time shown in your movie?
Robinson: No, but he had all these stories he told us about events that took place in my family. He really was like a war veteran. I’m sure that he suffered post-traumatic stress, so he tended not to talk about the gory details of any of the things that he did. One of my relatives told me he worked a thousand homicides during his 5-year career. That’s quite a lot of grim reality for one person to deal with, so the stories he told tended to be amusing ones. For instance, he was handcuffed to Martha Beck on the plane trip back from Michigan. It was a DC-3 and they fly at 12,000 feet, which is right in the middle of the worst weather, and she threw up all over him. He would tell stories like that. The other one I always referenced was that when we were growing up, we were not allowed to ever cook chicken at the house when he was around, because the smell of it made him sick. The idea that this big strapping, intimidating man could be reduced to physical illness both sensory and mentally told you a lot about what the experience was of watching two people be executed.
CS: Did you always think of John Travolta to play your grandfather and what was it about him that made you think of him?
Robinson: It’s kind of a weird story that I won’t bore you with, but John and I connected almost 20 years ago when I was an actor. He saw a play I was in back in the first round of his superstardom, and actually, he told me that he had liked my work. I was stunned by that, at the time, and somewhere in the back of my mind, I thought wouldn’t it be cool to work with John. Then there was a movie that he did with Brian De Palma called “Blow Out” that I always really liked. It was shot in my hometown of Philadelphia, and I loved that character that he did. If you took that character and projected twenty years down the line, that’s who my grandfather was. He had all that cynicism and those sorts of memories. That’s kind of who my granddad was, and John put on weight and got really big for the part. The greatest compliment I think he got was from my dad who was standing on the set one day, and he turned to me and he goes, “That’s him.” What he meant by that was that he could see his dad. I think my intuitive nature in terms of who could fill these shoes was really validated by the guy who knew him best, my dad.
CS: Did John remember you at all from that earlier meeting?
Robinson: It’s funny. I waited and I didn’t tell John that story right away, because I didn’t want to use the story as manipulation to get him on my film. It wasn’t until we were in rehearsal, and I told him the story of when I was doing “West Side Story” with his brother Joey in St. Louis, and afterwards he came back and sought me out. I was just blown away, and I reminded him of the story, and he goes, “I remember you.” The punchline of my story was as I told people my John Travolta connection, people would tell me they had similar stories where John would be very supportive of young people. I mentioned that to John, and John goes, “Well, let me tell you something. I wouldn’t have said it if I didn’t mean it. I’m not in the flattery business. I thought your work was good and that’s why I said it and I remember you.” I had a picture of me from the play, and we had a great laugh about it.
CS: What about James Gandolfini? Had he already signed on by the time you got John?
Robinson: You know, Jimmy, it was one of those things where I thought he’d be the perfect guy to play this character Hildebrandt, and of course, I’m an unabashed fan of “The Sopranos” and of him in particular, so I started badgering his agent. Jimmy said to me, “I do this all the time, and 90% of the time, I find myself thinking of other actors who could do the part better, but I could really do this part well, and I’d love to help you.” So Jimmy came on first and that was the validation I needed for William Morris to really pay attention for John. He read the script, he thought it was a good part for him but when John found out that Jimmy was going to do it, they wanted to work together again after “Get Shorty” and two other movies. They’d always been small scenes and they never really worked together as co-stars. John eventually made it a condition of him doing the movie that Jim would still play that part, and that was a no-brainer because I didn’t want anybody else. The two of them got on great, and the folklore is that Jim’s father, who had a trucking business, used to buy tires from John Travolta’s dad, who owned a tire store in Englewood, New Jersey. They had that whole history and past together, so it was cool.
CS: As far as the actual killers, you have Salma Hayek playing Martha Beck. Was the original Martha Beck of Hispanic descent?
Robinson: I tell you. There were a lot of significant actresses circling the part, but in the end, Salma was the only one with the balls to do it. She produced a lot of problems for me historically speaking, because the real Martha Beck was fat and unattractive and American, so now I’m facing arguably one of the most beautiful women in the world and she’s Spanish. Initially, when she was pitched to me, I was going, “I loved ‘Frida’ and I think this woman’s got chops, but how do I solve that problem?” and Salma solved it for me. I met her in New York, I flew up to see her, and it wasn’t ten minutes before I knew she was right for the part ’cause first of all, she’s a brilliant person. It’s hard to know but she probably has a 160 IQ, she’s really smart, and she’s traveled and she understands things, and has personal women’s issue causes she’s very involved in. She understood the personality of this woman instantly, and also was completely unafraid to be wholly and completely unlikable. I just thought, “You know what? I’ll take the heat down the line about putting this girl in my movie,” and I’m glad I did because she’s great in the movie.
CS: Jared Leto went through a bit of a transformation for his role as Ray Fernandez, so did he actually shave a bald spot on his head to play the part?
Robinson: It was worse than that for Jared. We didn’t shave his head [for this]; he plucked every hair out of his head. You know, I wasn’t sure if it was going to grow back. I don’t think he was either. First of all, Jared chased me a little bit for the part, and when I met him, he looked like a rock star. He’s got this beautiful long hair, his nose is sticking out, you can’t see his eyes. He’s kind of got this slacker vibe going on. I’ve seen a lot of his work, and I knew he was a good actor, but I was really looking for what I felt was more like a normal man. I couldn’t see past who Jared looked like, because he’s pound for pound one of the best looking guys in the world, short of maybe Brad Pitt and one or two others. He stayed on me, and he called me, and I found him compelling, he kind of talked me into it. Then, there was this great day. We rehearsed a bit and anyway, I was shooting one night with the whole cast, and I hear that Jared wants to see me, because he wants me to see him in his wardrobe and his whole vibe. I’m like, “Okay, I’ll come to the trailer,” and it was like, “No, no, he’s going to come and see you.” He walks in and he walks up to me, and I’m like “How are you doing?” I didn’t know who he was. I thought it was an extra. I had no idea.
CS: I heard that he pulled something similar when he got the part for “Chapter 27” where he gained weight to play Mark Chapman.
Robinson: Yeah, that happened after “Lonely Hearts” and I saw his picture in the paper of how he put all that weight on, and I was just floored. I think he had some health problems, too, from dropping all that weight so fast, but Jared is a totally committed guy. I really hope that we haven’t lost him from the movie business forever, ’cause he’s a super talent. I think his music is doing great right now, so that’s got his focus, but I really think it will be a loss to our community and movies in general if he doesn’t come back to acting someday.
CS: I know that you had a lot of police reports and stories from your father to research his part of the movie, but how did you figure out what was going on with Raymond and Martha while they were on their killing spree?
Robinson: First of all, I describe this picture as historical fiction, which is to say, this could have been a story about any one of the murders my grandfather worked. I just happened to pick the most salacious and well-known, because pretty much everybody’s dead who was around at the time, so I was left with what’s been recorded through the media at the time and historical references in terms of court documents. Because there was such a yellow journalistic sort of feeding frenzy on this once they were locked up in Sing Sing, it was really pretty well documented, not to mention my grandfather and the attorney Edward Robinson (no relation to me) and Hildebrandt went up there and they got a pretty detailed confession out of them. It’s on the record and I have it, so It wasn’t too difficult to really untangle the events. What was tricky to create the characters so that audiences could be able to watch it.
CS: Since your movie premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last year, there’s been a lot of historical crime drama films including “Hollywoodland”, Brian De Palma’s “Black Dahlia,” and most recently David Fincher’s “Zodiac.” Is it frustrating that your movie will ultimately be compared to them despite it having come out first?
Robinson: No, no at all. First of all, I actually really liked “Hollywoodland.” That’s just the way the business is. A good movie’s a good movie, and I can’t control what happens and how the movie’s promoted or released. I can’t control what other people are making or releasing, I can’t control any of that. I love movies, I love filmmakers and actors, and I love the whole world, so I’m always pulling for everybody.
CS: What will you be doing next?
Robinson: My next movie’s called “The Last Full Measure” and currently, my cast includes Morgan Freeman, Robert Duvall, Bruce Willis, Andy Garcia, Laurence Fishburne, Amy Madigan and a whole bunch more, and I’m doing a pilot for FX right now with Jimmy Smits. I got lots of things going on.
CS: What’s “The Last Full Measure” about?
Robinson: It’s a totally beautiful, wonderful gut-wrenching true story about how a group of veterans who survived the bloodiest day in Vietnam after an incredible ambush, were reunited 35 years later by this self-interested Pentagon bureaucrat who was tasked with helping them get the man who saved their lives 35 years ago the Medal of Honor. It’s a gorgeous movie and the Department of Defense is all behind it. It’s one of those that I’ll be able to be proud of when I’m a granddad, it’s a good one.
CS: Are you going to be doing that through a studio?
Robinson: Well, I’m putting it together independently because when you go to a studio, it’s a lot more about the business of making movies then the passion, and I get these actors based on the script and based on our synergy. Sometimes it’s tricky to do that with a studio. It also depends on the type of movie. I’m sitting here at Universal right now after spending an hour at DreamWorks, because they have a project I really like, so it all depends on what business plan fits the movie the best. I don’t really have a position on it. Independent movies have a lot of challenges. It takes a lot longer to get them up and going, but you have more control.
Lonely Hearts opens in select cities on Friday, April 13.