The soft spoken Martin Donovan has been one of the most subtly charismatic character actors in film for years. Perhaps best known for his work with 90s indie-film darling Hal Hartley on projects like Amateur and Flirt, he has built up a steady career of strong, grounded work in films like Insomnia, The Opposite Of Sex, and the TV series Weeds. Yet at age 54 with over 70 screen credits to his name, Donovan has announced that he’s one of those actors who “always wanted to direct.” Thankfully, that’s not merely an ego driven experiment. In fact, he spent decades carefully nursing along a screenplay that he felt would be appropriate to bring to the screen.
The result is Collaborator, a movie about a struggling New York playwright Robert Longfellow (Donovan) who returns to Los Angeles after a harsh failure to visit his mother, an old flame, and maybe pull together a little hack screenwriting work. Things get a little strange when a former high school buddy Gus (David Morse) who still lives with his mother keeps asking to drink and hang out, eventually forcing the issue with a gun for one of the most pathetic and funniest movie kidnappings in recent memory. Told with a sense of humor as dry as the one Donovan has brought to his many performances, it’s a surprisingly assured directorial debut that’s received acclaim and awards at film festivals worldwide before opening up in Canada this week. We got a chance to chat with the actor about his transition into directing and the personal inspirations for his first feature.
Dork Shelf: How long have you been interested in writing/directing?
Martin Donovan: From a very young age. Going back to my teen years I had a desire to write. It’s taken me decades to clarify my thinking and organize my thoughts to where I could follow through on it. It’s been a long process.
DS: Did your ongoing relationship with Hal Hartley play a role in developing that ambition?
MD: Absolutely. He’s very supportive. He wasn’t involved in any way with the film. He never read any drafts or anything. The first time he saw it was at a screening in New York this year. But, Hal is very supportive of me and artists in general, particularly those who aren’t into filmmaking purely for mainstream purposes, but are interested in something more personal. So his support meant a lot.
DS: Having never made a movie before, did you have any models or key influences for what you wanted your film to be?
MD: It’s hard to pinpoint. All of the filmmakers who I’ve admired over my life I’m sure are influences who are in there, but really what I was trying to do was work from where I am and how I see the world. I tried very hard to write something that audiences would find compelling. That’s hard enough, you know? (Laughs) I didn’t have any genre in mind. I didn’t have any agenda other than trying to write an honest piece that wouldn’t make audiences click off five minutes in or walk out of the theater. I just wanted to keep people in their seats. I thought anything after that is gravy..
DS: Did the germ of the idea come from a personal place?
MD: Well, all of the political and social context comes from the fact that I was a young child of the 60s. I was raised in a pretty conservative, Catholic home in Los Angeles, so there are elements that are autobiographical, I’m sure. The character of Gus was inspired by a guy who lived across the street from me and did die in a SWAT team stand off years after I had left home. So, he never made it to his 50s, but if he had he probably still would have been living with his parents. So there have been characters like that around in my experience. A lot of people have told me that everyone knows a Gus who still lives at home. And then the political and social context of the story just sort of emerged from those ideas. Ever since I was a kid I was so sensitive to the issues going on in the 60s that for the rest of my life I’ve been trying to make sense of the world and the nature of power. That’s a context that we all find ourselves in and I actually get a sense of discomfort when works of art or entertainment makes a concerted effort to ignore political or social context. That always feels like the people behind it are avoiding something and in a certain way are kind of lying. We’re all products of social and political forces and that’s what interests me, where the political and personal issues merge.
DS: Did you always intend to play the lead role of Longfellow yourself?
MD: Yeah, I really did. There were a few times there while we were struggling to find financing and in a moment of weakness I said to my producers that it might be worth thinking of a name who could help us get financing. But in the end, one of my executive producers Ted Hope who I’ve known for a long time and who produced a lot of Hal Hartley’s early films, he was the one who said, “if you cast someone else in the film and you don’t like what they do, you’re never going to forgive yourself.” That’s a rare producer who is going to encourage the filmmaker to not pursue the more commercial economically viable route. (Laughs) It was meant to be that I play the role.
DS: Did you write the role of Gus for specifically David Morse? I couldn’t imagine anyone else playing him.
MD: No, David Morse wasn’t specifically in my mind when I was writing, but it was very soon after that I began thinking about him. I asked Mary Louise Parker about him when we were working on Weeds together. She had done How I Learned to Drive with him off Broadway, so I asked her to tell me about him and she said, “the guy’s a genius, you have to work with him.” The other thing that I had hoped David would bring and he did was a tremendous sense of generosity and support. There are a lot of guys who might have been bigger names and could have showed up with fear and tried to control the situation. That’s not the case with David, he completely turned himself over to the film. He had no agenda other than making the best film that we could make. His generosity and support was a huge, huge help to me.
DS: Did you rehearse the scenes between you and David carefully like a play sine so much of the second have of the movie is between the two of you in that house?
MD: Well, again I was lucky because David was so committed. Nobody got paid any money on this film, but he was so generous that he came up for four days of rehearsal before we started shooting. We had secured the location of the house already, so we were able to get in there and block all the scenes. It was a huge help I don’t even want to think about how much more difficult it would have been without that rehearsal period.
DS: I really liked the way you presented Donovan and Gus as two adults who have essentially reverted to childhood while staying with their parents, what interested you in that theme?
MD: My parents passed away now, but I remember that well into my 40s when I went to visit my parents if I spent more than a couple of nights I would end up reverting to being 14 again and it’s pretty depressing to slip back into that old dynamic (Laughs). And it’s particularly pathetic when it happens when you’re 45. So that’s something that does feel like a real aspect to parent/child relationships that I find very funny and wanted to play with.
DS: Were you concerned about how to bring the violent and kidnapping elements into what had been a very delicate character piece up until that point?
MD: Well, I kind of always knew where it was going to go. It felt like it was consistent with what I was trying to say about violence. Because underneath all of the fun that I think the film has with the hostage genre and the humor there, the two big issues are state violence vs. retail violence in the form of Gus and the form of wars and police forces and things like that. That was a mechanism for the plot, so it had to be fully realized for it to work.
DS: I really enjoyed the very subtle level of comedy in the film and was curious how you approached it when working with the actors? Was there a conscious effort to play everything completely straight?
MD: Oh yeah, I think comedy never works when you’re trying to be funny. In slapstick perhaps, but even then it has to have a certain kind of serious intent or it’s not funny. This gets into that discussion about comedy that no one has been able to figure out for the last 10,000 years, but I do think it has something to do with things being very dry and inappropriate, that’s why we laugh. So even the most serious issues, the conflict built around that can turn into humor. I think it has to be played seriously or it’s just bad comedy.
DS: Looking back on the whole experience now, did you feel comfortable making that transition into writing/directing?
MD: Well the whole thing is sort of all rolled into a big ball. It’s hard for me to pull it all apart at this point. The film feels to me like an inevitable trajectory of my creative life as an actor. The writing and directing feels like just another facet coming from the same place. I enjoyed it immensely. It was not always fun and there were more than a few very rough days, usually surrounding financial issues. The creative process was wonderful. It’s an ongoing process, so with any luck the gods will smile and I’ll get to make more films.
DS: Do you have any thoughts on what your next film might be?
MD: I’m developing a screenplay now and it continues to shift around. I hope this one doesn’t take another 40 years to make. It will be about what it’s like to live in this world. I know that’s way too general, but you know the nature of power, how to human beings get through and make sense of this world based on their history and circumstances. I know that isn’t much help, but it’ll be about that. I know that much so far (Laughs).