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Jack Goes Boating - Philip Seymour Hoffman interview

Jack Goes Boating

Interview by Rob Carnevale

PHILIP Seymour Hoffman discusses some of the issues surrounding his directorial debut, Jack Goes Boating, including why he wanted to do it and some of the challenges he faced.

He also talks about the shooting and construction of a key scene in the movie, whether or not winning an Academy award made making the film any easier and why he’s keen to direct again but found it difficult directing himself.

Q. Jack Goes Boating is a delightfully unconventional romantic comedy. Could you start by telling us what the origins of the piece were and why you chose this for your screen directorial debut?
Philip Seymour Hoffman: It was a play, there was a theatre company (LAByrinth) that I was co-artistic director of for about 10 years with John Ortiz who plays Clyde in the film, and we did this play as one of the plays we developed in New York and performed it there. It did very well and Big Beach [the film’s production company, producers of Little Miss Sunshine] came to see it and they wanted to make it into a film. It’s quite a cinematic play to begin with, all the things you see in the movie, we kind of had to make happen on the stage, including the boat. And so we said: “Alright, that’s cool…”

It was an extension, something we’d never done before as a company, so we thought, “ok let’s do that” and we started to develop the idea of doing the play on the big screen. John Ortiz wanted me to direct it since I’ve directed a lot of plays with the company over the years, so I took a couple of weeks to think about the film, and I started seeing it. I had a lot of ideas about the story, how it could be developed. I thought it made sense, it’s one of those things, it felt right and off we went.

Q. How much has the screenplay been changed from the play, thinking of the swimming pool and limo scenes, has it been opened up a lot?
Philip Seymour Hoffman: Really, it was just what needed to be changed, I didn’t really worry so much about forcing it open, whatever that means, the things that did they did, characters and scenes that needed to be changed were, they were done on their own organically. We really allowed it to speak up for itself when it came up in the development of the script and we trusted that instinct. A lot of interesting stuff came out of that process.

Q. Can you cook/swim?
Philip Seymour Hoffman: I’m an ok cook, I used to be a lifeguard.

Q. What was it like to film those swimming scenes then, was it a bit demeaning to be portrayed as a novice swimmer?
Philip Seymour Hoffman: Yep, I couldn’t handle it, I was so embarrassed, I couldn’t even look at myself [laughs]. No, that what was fun about it, because John [Ortiz] actually had to take lessons, he had to take a lot of lessons to know how to swim well enough to sell it that he was a good swimmer.

Q. How different a director would you have been if you had make your screen debut directing debut five or even 10 years ago? And did you draw lessons directly from directors you’ve worked with?
Philip Seymour Hoffman: Without consciously trying to choose shots based on directors I worked with, I kind of let it be. I’ve been around film sets for 20 years and I’ve been directing in the theatre for over 10, so I trusted that I would have a voice. I kept myself open and humble to learning whatever came my way from the people I was working with and that whatever I picked up along the way would inform that voice. This is the film I wanted to make, what you see is really what I wanted to do. But obviously all the things I’ve picked up from the great people I’ve worked with, was there with me all the time.

Q. If the opportunity had risen to direct five years ago you presumably wouldn’t have been the director you are now because of the extra experience you’ve gained?
Philip Seymour Hoffman: Well, five years isn’t that much time really, I made this film three years ago, but say in my late 20s, then no, I wouldn’t have done it. I don’t think I was interested in trying to do it then.

Q. How did you find doing both jobs – acting and directing? How did it affect you as an actor on the film? Would you combine both roles again?
Philip Seymour Hoffman: It was something I enjoyed immensely, the job of film director is a great job, but directing myself is not something that I liked. I’ve been an actor for a long time and I like someone else out there telling me that I’m not good, you know, and challenging me, putting a good, strong firm hand, out there for me to take. I like that. Not doing well on any given day and knowing I was the only one to turn to was uncomfortable. So, I had to get over that… that was the reality, I had to get over that, I had to trust the writer who was there almost every day, and my DP and my script supervisor, and I just looked to them and when they were kind of like, “well I don’t know” I had to just go away, sometimes I just had to walk off, go in a room and do my acting work and come back and be the actor. That really took a shift of concentration and focus that was kind of immense. As a director it’s a whole different thing, I managed to do that, it ultimately worked out, but I remember those moments and I won’t be doing both again in that capacity.

Q. Presumably you enjoyed the experience enough to direct again?
Philip Seymour Hoffman: I’d like to direct another film again, yes, that would be great.

Jack Goes Boating

Q. The tone of the film is a key element, and potentially was a challenge to maintain, where there any scenes in particular you found difficult in your capacity either as an actor or director?
Philip Seymour Hoffman: It’s an overall thing really, small parts leading up to the big whole, and this film’s message if successful, and I think it is, ultimately the ‘big whole’, I think, is a statement on life, not on relationships. What you’re left with in that final image of Clyde is a man who does not know where he is going. It’s not about: “I’ve lost my wife…” He’s almost become Jack at the beginning of the movie, or Jack 10 years ago even, I would have to say. He’s a man now lost in the middle of his life. That’s what the film is getting at, so the tone had to be quite delicate, you would get the information you needed when you got it, the risk-taking would come out in bits and pieces, and they would take steps forward and back. The characters would be acting upon themselves and others without even realising it at just the right time. You had to be able to see how it unfolded.

Ultimately, it’s a story whose ending at the beginning. The minute Clyde says: “I think you should…” He’s basically lit the touch-paper to the destruction of his own marriage, and he knows it, but just would never admit it. Clyde is changing as is Connie and the others, you’re watching the four of them, and that is the central tone of he film, how delicately you move the central four characters to keeps it as tight as possible, so that when Jack finally picks Connie up there is a sense of release. There are bits and pieces, tonally but it’s hard to look at the parts now, I keep looking at the whole.

Q. Can you talk about the casting? Who was involved with the original production of the play previously and who was brought to the project for the film?
Philip Seymour Hoffman: It was a four-hander of a play, John, myself and Daphne were all in the original production, Amy came to the film new. John and I have worked together as producers, I’ve directed him onstage [Jesus Hopped the A Train], we’ve acted together, we’re artistic partners and have been for 20 years. Daphne I’ve known for 20 years and Amy is someone that I’d acted with previously, twice in the theatre and film so we all knew each other well and had worked together. It’s not a question of how it felt to be the boss, but what it was like having someone else let me be the boss, because that’s what it is with John and I, it has been this handing over of responsibility, and we do it really well, as co-artistic directors, saying: “This is yours, this is mine”…

The give and take is full of trust, and therefore difficult. The way we challenge each other is pretty straight up, and that’s a great environment to be in, to know that you don’t have to be scared that someone is going to be mad at you, because you want more, or that the tone is quite complicated in the moment. Think of the scene when Clyde chases Lucy down the stairs, out onto the sidewalk, it’s this moment when you see that he’s in chase mode, he’s trying to push her towards burning their bridges, he wants her to end their relationship, but he doesn’t know that’s what he is doing. To try and direct an actor into that kind of complexity of character and tone is difficult, John and I had a great history so we were able to go through that together, because we’re close.

Q. How easy was it for Amy Ryan to come into that role with everyone who had worked together on the play?
Philip Seymour Hoffman: I think she came into it thinking: ”Oh god, these guys are going to know what they’re doing, because they did the play.” But ultimately, when we started doing the film we had to re do it all, we had to re find everything, and actually had to make the stakes a bit higher and make everything a bit deeper, so she joined in with us. We all knew each other, we’ve all worked together in some capacity, Amy was the perfect Connie for us.

Jack Goes Boating

Q. Did winning the Academy Award give you any extra clout or impetus to direct, or was it already in your mind that you wanted to direct a movie?
Philip Seymour Hoffman: It was never in mind to direct Jack Goes Boating as a movie, someone saw the play we did and came to us and said we’d like to adapt it as a movie, then it was our decision as to whether we would take the offer on. I was never in search of a movie to direct. I was a director in the theatre and that’s what happened in this case. I’ve no idea if my clout as an Academy Award winner helped me.

I think they (Big Beach) really wanted to make the movie, you know what I mean, I have celebrity, but I don’t have the celebrity that some people have. This is a small movie, John is in it, we were therefore able to keep the original cast pretty much. I think the clout of the theatre company (LAByrinth) helped too, the story, and I think they knew that we all knew each other, we worked hard together and that we would do the best we could. But sure, it’s helped in some way, in my life since then, your cache goes up because of that.

Q. Has it given you more freedom to choose projects?
Philip Seymour Hoffman: I don’t really see the vast difference between my life before then and after that. I think I was given more than most before I won and I still do, I consider myself incredibly lucky. I mean that. Out of all the actors I know, what I’ve been given is an abundance of riches, and I felt that way before I won the Oscar. I’ve been able to support myself as an actor since my late twenties. Trust me, most don’t have that security, so it’s hard for me to discern so completely before and after winning.

Q. The dinner party scene remains very theatrical, how did you manage to keep the flow of the scene and could you tell us about your own dinner party nightmares?
Philip Seymour Hoffman: The dinner party, it’s the tragic night. Mott (the film’s DP) and I talked about the unrealistic way we could actually shoot it, we weren’t going to worry about shooting it naturally, because there is something about that scene, that’s an experiment that you’re watching, something innately theatrical, which doesn’t mean that it’s not cinematic. There’s lots of films we see where directors make theatrical choices about how to shoot something. It’s not natural, it’s not realistic. I think with that dinner party scene how it unfolds, it’s quite fantastical, what happens during that night is all gut, it’s not logical.

How Clyde enters into that evening and what he proceeds to do to that party is not something that someone has thought through. It’s something that’s been acted upon. It’s all id, what you’re going to see from there on out. There’s some shots that I know were purposefully theatrical and purposefully non-literal, especially the whole hookah scene where you seem them happy for the first time ever, that’s actually the point when the worst thing is going to happen happen, so, no, I didn’t worry about trying to get it just like we did it before. We just broke it up into chunks and took a good week to shoot it. And, no, I’ve never had a dinner party that went that bad. I’ve definitely had nights that went that bad though (laughs), we’ve ALL had nights that went that bad!

Read our review of Jack Goes Boating