After winning an Oscar for his performance as Truman Capote in Bennett Miller’s Capote and stacking up a couple of Oscar nominations for roles that followed, it certainly would seem to most like Philip Seymour Hoffman has mastered the craft of acting. With that in mind, he decided to tackle directing his first film with Jack Goes Boating, a dark comedy that was originally a play at New York’s LAByrinth Theater Company, where Hoffman was artistic director along with the film’s co-star John Ortiz.
Hoffman plays another tragic character in limo driver Jack, who has been single for far too long, so his co-worker Clyde and his wife Lucy–played by Ortiz and “Rent” star Daphne Rubin-Vega reprising their roles from the LAB production–try to set Jack up with Lucy’s co-worker Connie, played by Amy Ryan. Jack is instantly enamored with Connie, but he learns that starting a relationship with someone as complex as Connie can be difficult. Her desire to take a romantic boat ride in Central Park requires Jack to learn how to swim, and her interest in him cooking her a meal means that Jack actually needs to learn how to cook. As Jack prepares for his first big date with Connie, Clyde and Lucy’s marriage is starting to fall apart, something that culminates in a disastrous dinner party where Jack tries his best to impress Connie with his newfound cooking abilities.
It’s another great role for Hoffman and the dark and quirky tone of the film seems right up his alley, but it’s an equally fine showcase for Amy Ryan and Hoffman’s theater friends, especially Ortiz, who has one of the meatiest roles he’s ever played in a film.
ComingSoon.net sat down with Hoffman earlier this week at the Toronto International Film Festival to talk about his first experiences as a director.
ComingSoon.net: This started out as a play at the LAByrinth Theater, which I assume you directed on stage as well?
Philip Seymour Hoffman: No, I acted in it. Peter DuBois directed it.
CS: So at what point did you decide, “Okay, I’m gonna direct a movie and this is what I’m going to do?” Was that a very organic decision?
Hoffman: Well, it had nothing to do with me really. I was acting in a play that John and Daphne and Bob Glaudini wrote and Peter Saraf from Big Beach and Chris McGurk from Overture all came and saw the play. They wanted to make it into a film, so they approached us through Beth O’Neil, who’s Bob Glaudini’s producing partner, who had already been sort of kind of prompting Bob to write an adaptation screenplay long before John and I were involved at all. So this was somebody else’s idea and a lot of other peoples ideas actually. So then we finished a run and they wanted to do this, so we all agreed. We thought, “Yeah, we’ll make a good film” and John said, “Why don’t you direct the film, you know?” because I directed in the theater company so many times. I was like, “Yeah, I know, all right.” It was something I thought about, I could do some day. That’s what happened.
CS: Overture was involved very early on.
CS: I would think that this was more of an independent film that got picked up after you made it.
Hoffman: Well, Danny Rosett and Chris McGurk, who were with them at the time, they were the ones at United Artists. They were the ones that picked up “Capote” too, so it was just another chance to work together. Big Beach was the primary company at that time, Overture had seen it, and they were interested in it and eventually they came on board as producing partners and investors.
CS: I’ve talked to a lot of directors who do adaptations, not just of plays, but also of books. When I talk to them they tend to say, “Well, the first time I saw the play, I had this vision of what I could do if this was a movie.” Did you have that kind of idea at all?
Hoffman: Well, when John Ortiz kinda said, “Well, why don’t you do it?” I had to think for a while, “Well, oh, I don’t know.” That’s when I started seeing images. You started to see things and it’s like, “Oh yeah. Let me do it,” because I did start seeing it in a way.
CS: What I like about the movie is that it’s really one of those New York romances like Woody Allen used to make… back when he used to shoot in New York I guess. Obviously on stage you’re not able to show Central Park or show any of these locations…
Hoffman: No, but they’re there, you know what I mean? That’s what’s great about the theater that that’s all imagination and that’s also a very special experience for people to believe. They get turned on by that, knowing that there’s someplace, but it’s not really there. In the film, we got to explore it literally, which was a lot of fun and it’s really cool stuff we got to shoot because of it. It’s cool.
CS: How many days did you have to spend in a swimming pool?
Hoffman: Yeah, that was pretty great. I don’t know how many days? Three or four days, two, three days? Yeah, yeah, I loved that stuff though. That was a fruitful time in the pool.
CS: Is this the first time you actually recreated a role you performed on stage for the screen?
Hoffman: Well, I mean, I did “Doubt,” but I didn’t do it on stage. Yeah, I don’t think so, no, but I’ve done things that were plays, you know?
CS: Was there any way you wanted to approach Jack differently for the movie compared to how you played him on stage or were there things you had to do differently?
Hoffman: He’s just a guy. I was interested in making him as accessible as possible as a guy like that could be, which I think he really is. There’s a lotta Jacks out there. I think there’s a lot of men and women Jacks out there, people who don’t have a significant other at a certain time of their lives and wonder why and are still on their own and have the same kind of job for a very long time and they’re there, you know what I mean? They’re stuck. Or they don’t know they’re stuck, but they are, or they don’t care that they’re stuck, or whatever. I don’t know where Jack is at the beginning. All I know is that he meets this woman and the world changes when he does. It’s all different.
CS: So let’s get to “this woman.” Who came up with the idea of having Amy play the role for the movie?
Hoffman: We all did. I mean, all of us love Amy and we asked her to do a reading of it like a year and a half before we shot it. For a long time, she wanted to do it.
CS: Obviously John and Daphne were in the original play. Did it take any kind of convincing of the financiers to allow them to reprise the roles? This is a great role for John especially, because we don’t really see him do these kind of roles.
Hoffman: No, it’s a great part. He’s great in it. It’s a great, great thing for John. Well, John was in it and Daphne were in it, and they were in it. So, they just came. I was pretty adamant about that, but I knew the Connie role–Beth Cole did it in the play and she was really terrific–but I knew that was the role that we could change-up and that would be good to change-up for financial purposes and stuff like that. It’s a really cool role and I knew we’d probably be able to get a really interesting actress to do it. Immediately, I thought of Amy and then we moved, she wanted to do it. But the three of us did the play, and they are very good parts–John and Daphne’s roles–and it’s a great storyline, as pertinent as any of the other storylines in it.
CS: When you mention financing, I really was curious whether they’d want to get actors who have done more films to do the roles played by John and Daphne, since you’d be able to get more money. I’m not sure who you could get to replace them though.
Hoffman: No, that’s true, that’s true. I was in it and Amy was in it and so, we were in it and that helped, I think. It’s not a very big budget movie. I mean, it’s not a lot of money.
CS: One of the things I like about the movie, which also makes it difficult is the tone, because it’s funny and then it gets very dark at times, and it reminds me a bit of the movie you did with Laura Linney, “The Savages.” I was curious about playing with that kind of tone in a movie and if that was something very much from the play?
Hoffman: Yeah, I think it’s a tone that shifts. I dunno. If no one’s read anything about it and you just go into this movie and don’t know anything about it, I think it’s impossible to know where it’s going. Some people have told me, “Oh, I knew exactly where…” and it’s like, “You’re lying. You’re lying. There’s no way you knew that Clyde was gonna start snorting blow.” You know what I mean? That’s the beauty of the story and Bob’s imagination that sometimes life takes on a logic that’s an emotional logic and not an intellectual logic. In this story, it takes on an emotional logic which is the logic of the insane, the logic of being loved, the logic of the heartache, which becomes completely unpredictable.
CS: Well, it’s just the way humans behave.
Hoffman: Yeah, so like that’s what’s happening. That’s the movie. It sets you up for this kind of chaotic thing that takes place which leads toward something quite profound which is, “I’ll love you anyway. I love you despite my relationship with my friend has changed. I love you despite the fact that you might hate me one day,” and all that. It doesn’t make sense, those kinds of things, and our lives don’t make sense.
CS: I think theater audiences are used to that, but movie audiences, they sometime have trouble adjusting when a movie mixes comedy and drama, it’s hard. Having played the movie at Sundance and seen it with audiences (as was the case with “The Savages”) did you find that people would get freaked out by all that?
Hoffman: Freaked out by…?
CS: By how dark it gets?
Hoffman: Sometimes, yeah, some people do. Most people I think go with it, most people I think get it, they enjoy the catharsis of it. You can see they’re just like, “Yeah, yeah, no doubt, yeah, absolutely.” (Laughs) You can just see they’re feeling right with it. Then there’s some people that are like (makes a sound of someone being disturbed by something.) “What are they doing that for now? Why is she going at him now? I don’t want that” You can just see them thinking that’s too extreme or something. I’m like, “Really?” I don’t know how anyone could say that in the world we’re living in. Daphne screaming, “You’re nothing,” is too extreme? (Laughs) It’s like, “What are you?” That’s like two kittens playing in a room compared to what goes on in our world, you know what I mean? It’s like, “No, that’s what happens.” Couples start screaming nasty crap at each other like, at the top of their lungs, sometimes in public places.
CS: It’s almost like moviegoers are put off by real life when they see it in movies.
Hoffman: Yeah, it’s like, “Why do you have to do that? You don’t have to do that.” People respond like that. It’s a minority, but it’s like, “Why does she have to say that? Why does she do that?” as if she should behave some other way. This is because they don’t like it and they don’t want her to do that. They don’t want it to be that way, but it is that way.
CS: Having finished your first film directing experience, do you feel this is something you’ll want to continue finding scripts and take a different approach with your second movie? Or do you feel like that was a very specific incident that just worked out the way it did?
Hoffman: I don’t know. I hope I get a chance to do it again and if I do it again, I hope it’s something different. I hope I don’t have to act in it. I don’t really want to have that experience. I hope I get a chance to do that again and just create something completely different from this and offer it. I want to see what that is, you know? I think it’ll make itself known. I think I will if I stay alive, but it might not be soon. I don’t know when that’ll be, but that would be cool.
CS: What have you been doing acting-wise? Do you have anything else you’re working on now or coming up soon?
Hoffman: I just finished “Moneyball” with Bennett Miller. I’m gonna go direct a play in Sydney, Australia in a couple of weeks. Then I don’t know what. Then there’s a few things kinda banging around. We’ll see.
CS: How did “Moneyball” come out?
Hoffman: I think it’s gonna be great. They’re not finished yet, but from what I saw, I really think it’s gonna be a terrific movie.
CS: I’m really interested because I talked to Soderbergh about it back when he was doing it. Were you involved in the Soderbergh version at all?
CS: Okay. I was really curious about the tone of it.
Hoffman: Yeah, I think Bennett’s doing a bang-up job. I mean, it’s funny. It’s a difficult film to adapt, because the book’s really cool. It’s really adapted in a way that’s close to what the book is. I think you have to kind of open it up, take some liberties, use your imagination, so you can really get at the truth of it or a sense of the truth of something. I think Bennett’s done that. I think he’s done that really, really well. I’m looking forward to seeing it, I really am.
Jack Goes Boating opens in New York and L.A. on Friday.