A/V Room









The Door In The Floor - Tod Williams interview

Interview by: Jack Foley

Q. You must be very proud of The Door In The Floor?
I like it, you know I am very proud of it and when it works for people it really works for them, so that's really fun. It's not for everybody but it's nice to see that some people connect to it; that's very gratifying.

Q. And the reaction from both the book's author, John Irving, and the American critics must also have been very gratifying?
Yeah it was great. We didn't break the bank in Monte Carlo but some very smart people had some great things to say. I know John invited me to work on his next book and he's become a great friend of mine, along with Jeff [Bridges] too. It's just been... well you can imagine going from my very small first film to working with these guys, it's just been an incredible learning experience for me.

Q. And you first approached John Irving by writing to him to request the rights to the film?
I did. I wrote him a long letter. I had tried to adapt other things, actually, and if you don't know what you're going to do from the get-go, I probably won't ever do that again. I think just giving yourself an assignment like 'I'm going to turn this into a movie somehow' I think probably is a recipe for disaster most of the time.
But often, if you love to read, you'll read a book and you'll see it right now. So it was pretty easy for me to describe to John what I wanted - I just had to put it in the right words. And I just took a long time to really work on that.
One thing John said which, in retrospect I knew to be true, is that you have a conversation or a meeting with somebody, that's one thing, but anybody will read a well-written page and a half; even John Irving on a busy day. So letters, I think, are a great way to get to people, to get your idea right out there on the table.
And so he invited me up to Vermont. I think he was immediately excited by the idea of throwing away two thirds of his novel.

Q. So he came on board straight away and was fully prepared to incorporate the changes you made, such as changing the setting from the Fifties to the present day?
Yeah, he was. That actually was something that kind of came a little bit later because I wasn't as focused on that until I really began to really visualize the film and felt that the Fifties were distanced, and would start making us think that these people are different in some way than we are today. And I didn't want the audiences desire to judge be let off the hook that way. They had to judge or not judge based on what these people were doing as if they were people that they knew - not if they were people who didn't know anything because they were from a different time period.

Q. Jeff Bridges sounds as though he was involved in the whole process as well, right down to contributing his own paintings?
Yeah he did.

Q. How easy was it to get him on board in the first place?
Jeff's not easy. He's talked a lot about it. He's had an interesting career where he sort of doesn't like to work; he sort of tries to avoid it and something... he described sort of paddling down a river with whirlpools that suck him in - you have to sort of suck him in somehow.
I think what it is that once you get him he's the hardest working man I think I've ever seen. And he knows that - once he's on board, he's on this journey to the bitter, bitter end. So he tries to stay out of it as much as he possibly can.
I think that probably the reason I got him to even focus on reading it was because he had had some conversations with John about a different book, but Ted Cole is the kind of character that's irresistible to Jeff. Complex, you know, morally ambiguous, difficult to know, and I also think the idea that he could do his own drawings is one of the things that started his mind going on it. What kind of drawings would these be?
I've always thought that if I'm going to go after Jeff again I'm going to have to do a musical movie, something where he's going to have to sing [laughs]; something to get his other thing going because once he starts having those ideas he can't say no.
But when I first met him, he came to our very first meeting with 20 pages of hand-written questions.

Q. That was a long meeting...
[Laughs] That was a long dinner, yeah! And then drinks, and then smoking. And we had to go through all of those questions. They were very, very... it was a preview of what I was going to go through working on the film with him, which was just some incredibly deep-felt thinking. And for a very first meeting that's coming pretty seriously prepared.
Some of the questions were very simple, such as 'what is the substance we're going to use to dye my teeth black'? And some of the questions were larger character questions; such as 'how does Ted Cole feel when he wakes up in the morning if he drinks every night'? But luckily because I had written the screenplay I felt like at least I had some answers; they might not have been the right ones but I could answer them.

Q. And presumably you learned a lot from working with him as well?
Oh yeah, it changed my way of working and thinking, and it's something that I feel I can now bring to my next project with another actor who reminds me of Jeff, which is Benicio Del Toro. I've started working with him on something and it sort of feels like being back in the saddle with Jeff - a sort of fun ride.

Q. Another key member of the cast is Kim Basinger, but you mentioned after the LFF screening of the film that you had some reservations about meeting her at first?
Yeah, well it's probably not the most political way to say it. I just didn't see it, you know what I mean? I had the opportunity to meet every actress and some of them you could imagine very easily sort of being in this kind of a movie, but you just think of Kim as being so iconically blonde bombshell. Most of all, like a sex bomb.
And obviously the part had sex in it and Marion was supposed to be beautiful but I just didn't think of her as being maybe profoundly sad or a broken person. You think of her as being something else.
But I met her and it was obvious to me that there was so much more to Kim than we have seen; she's a much much more complex person that I would have imagined and more complex than most people I've ever met, really. There was just something she understood about loss that I knew I didn't understand and she was both very drawn to the role, I think, knowing that there was something of her in this character and also very scared of the role knowing that she was going to reveal something of herself that people may not have liked, or accept. But she's just a very brave person - willing to take heat for the things that she does. She won't change her opinion.

Q. And how did both of your older leading ladies approach the nudity - because you have both Kim and Mimi Rogers taking their clothes off, which helped the film to get a bit of publicity before it opened in America?
Yeah. You know, I probably should have gone further. I think that in the end, when we were shooting the stuff with Kim, which we did first, Jon Foster is a young actor and I was very nervous and skiddish about it. Kim is a shy person but once she kind of makes a decision to do something, she just... there was no hesitation, she just got down to it, and sort of was laughing and teasing us for being so goofy about it. She's comfortable, I think, because there's something about her that's frankly comfortable. I guess she's confident that she's beautiful.
And Mimi knew that the part she was playing was going to be the awful butt of Ted's problems and was going to be destroyed visually, at least in the drawings, so she had to come into it and just laugh.
But also you can tell she takes care of herself and looks pretty great too, so that probably gave her some comfort.
For a certain kind of man, Mimi is the ultimate sexual creature. And especially even now at the age she is now. Through this movie I've met like a cult of Mimi worshippers. She's like a fetish object for me [laughs].

Q. On the subject of the nudity, did you have any reservations about using such a young actress (Elle Fanning) around naked people, because it is such a sensitive issue nowadays?
No, I figured that it might be a problem and that people might object to when he [Ted] comments on his penis or when she walks in on her mother with Jon. And the funny thing is, of course, that when she walks in on Eddie and Marion having sex that she was in the room - of course she wasn't in the room. That's been cut to her and she wasn't looking at anything. And, of course, Elle won't see the film until she's 18, because her parents won't let her see it.
But it was part of what I wanted to do with the movie as a whole, which is your initial reactions to those moments are probably to be repulsed and judgemental, and then I think a lot of people will think to themselves, 'well really what's wrong with this'? It's obviously what happens sometimes with parents and children; it's obviously not a problem, I'm obviously bringing some kind of media/cultural bullshit and looking at it through a perverse lens. And so it's natural and it's fine; it's uncomfortable and I can accept it.
And I felt like that was a mental process I needed the audience to go through in a much more larger kind of way, about what Marion does finally, in the end of the movie, when she leaves her daughter. Just to reserve judgement and not jump to conclusions.
For me, it would have been easy to take those things out and probably keep a larger chunk of the audience, but I thought it was necessary for the thing to work properly that I kept them in there.

Q. And it helps to contribute to some of the movie's more powerful and, in some cases, comic moments?
Well when she comments on his penis I think it's also the first time that, whether it's an uncomfortable laugh or whatever it is, you feel like 'oh there's going to be some funny, strange shit in this movie'.

Q. And that's one of the strengths of the movie - in that the balance between the tragedy and the humour is pretty much spot-on. Was that easy to maintain?
Directing is a funny job. The best you can do with something like that, which in the end is a question of taste, is go for your own best guess and I tried to think about what it's like to see the movie - that's pretty much what I think my job is - and I could make these turns in these places between the laughs and the serious stuff. Some people can and some people can't. It doesn't mean anything if you can or you can't, so I did my best and that's why I'm so pleased when I find that it does mean something to some people and that people can laugh because I wasn't sure that my sensibility would translate, or that I shared this with other people.

Q. Have you noticed much of a difference between how US and UK audiences have reacted to the movie so far?
I think that it is easier for an English audience to be able to laugh in the midst of complex emotions and dealing with... this film has a lot of scenes in it where you don't quite know how to feel. And for some reason I find that the English are a little more comfortable with that. I think that American audiences have been trained, or - and I hate generalisations - but I think American movies really do train American audiences to not think. England and Europe in general are a little bit more complicated.
And as well, I'm half-English and I wonder if some of the humour in it, and some of the stuff that baffles them in it, might be some of the stuff that baffles them about Monty Python or something like that.

Q. One of the things you mentioned at the LFF screening was changing the key scene where Ted and Marion say farewell. It struck me from what you were saying that perhaps you brought a lot more emotion to the film than the book?
Yeah I was trying to find something that felt a little bit like new ground to me, which is that could you both be able to laugh and have moments of irony at the same time? And not negate the fact that the world is filled with rich and raw. And not to be embarrassed by emotions. I feel like American independent cinema, in particular, hates or resists emotions probably out of hatred for sentimentality and stays in ground that is ironic always. And I thought is it possible to do both at the same time?
For example in Kubrick's Lolita, where that beautiful lush music comes up, in that movie he makes fun of Humbert the entire time, but the entire time you also know that Humbert is one of the great lovers of all time. That, I think, is probably a filmmaker where I can find this blending of emotions and sort of humour, irony and detachment all at the same time. I think a lot of people find his movies detached, but I find them filled with emotion.
I think John's book, if you continue through the next 700 pages after the movie finishes, and you get to the end, I think many people would be crying - but it would be kind of a happy crying.
I find it a little cowardly to shy away from emotion. I know that many films are overly emotional and sentimental and sappy but at the same time to reject it is to essentially reject the point of filmmaking and just laughing at people is not good enough.

Q. Going back to casting, the film offers another talented Fanning in our midst?
Oh yeah, it was really tough casting that, because I needed somebody who could deliver some pretty complex dialogue. And I found out that - I don't have children - but I found out that many of the very young children were great, but they had no idea and they couldn't function in the way I needed them to, and the older children were overly coached and coy. And I thought she did it both; she was as natural as she could possibly be and could understand direction and understood what the point was of the scene.
And then I actually was just absolutely blown away by her and found out afterwards that she was Dakota's sister. And even her beautiful face was an after-thought; I was hanging on by my fingernails cos I thought I'd never get to find the right girl, but she came in and just sort of blew me away.

Q. And how was she off the set, because she seems - like Dakota - to be remarkably mature for her age?
She is but she can have a ton of fun too. She was with us a lot, even when she wasn't working she'd sort of be hanging out. We always had a playroom for her and she was always nearby with her grandmother. Jeff would go in there and they'd draw a picture book and make children's books together. But she was very able to get in and out of the material so I didn't feel like I was doing any psychological damage to this child because she shrugged it off the moment I said 'cut'.
But she wasn't just faking it. The way she worked is interesting. Her grandmother would explain to her in terms that she could understand what the character was feeling, what the people were feeling, and Elle could tap right into it. It wasn't fake. I'm sure that watching her sister do it was a huge advantage.
But then Jeff said acting is something that all kids do and he tries the same sort of sense of pretend in his work.

Q. And Jon Foster, how did you find him?
Casting is often you meet people for two seconds and you know they're right. I didn't know if he could act or not before I knew I wanted to cast him. He just looked more like someone you know as a brother, than he looked like an actor. And I just felt if he looked like an actor, and was a hot, sexy young thing, then the whole movie wouldn't work because every woman would assume that Marion is sleeping with him because he's just a hot number.
It was important that her decision to do that was peculiar to her. And he's a great looking kid, a very handsome guy, but he had that real feeling about him, I thought. And that was more important to me than whether or not he could act.
Having said that, I think he did an incredible job acting. Even in the scenes where Jeff is front and centre, I've watched it many times and whenever I've ripped my eyes off Jeff, even in those big moments, the kid's perfect. He worked every day and busted his ass.

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