'The Kid' Director Vincent D'Onofrio on His Old School Western and Long, Wild Career [Interview]
Vincent D’Onfrio‘s The Kid is a refreshingly old-fashioned western. It doesn’t shy away from archetypes or familiar iconography, but instead embraces the greatest hits of the genre. It’s a familiar yarn told well, and it stars Jake Schur, Ethan Hawke, Dane DeHaan, and Chris Pratt, who impresses as the big bad of the film without the laid-back charisma that launched him to stardom.
Of course, it comes as no surprise D’Onfrio – one of the best character actors around – knows how to capture strong performances behind the camera. He’s directed before, including short films and a horror-musical, but The Kid is his biggest and most cinematic film yet.
Recently, D’Onfrio told us about his earliest experiences as an actor and movie fan, why his western is so personal to him, and a bit about a few of his most notable roles, including Full Metal Jacket and The Player.
I enjoyed how much of an old school Western The Kid is, that it doesn’t try to be destructive.
Yeah, that was the idea. The invention of the idea comes from an emotional aspect to my life. So the film itself, my attempt was to give you a classic Western, with deeper and personal aspects and emotions in the storytelling then you would get from a typical classic.
What were the personal emotions that inspired the story?
Well, I grew up with two male figures. I grew up with my real father, who was in and out of my life, because he was crazy and not to be trusted, and then I had my stepdad, who later came into my life, who was a genuine dude. He was a firefighter, and he also did a few tours in the South Pacific when he was younger. He got me off the streets, taught me a trade. But there were also things about my father that my stepfather didn’t have, that my father had. He was an artist, he could draw, he could write, he could paint. He was involved in the theater. I saw the films at inappropriate ages because he was a nut, but I saw all the classics and all of the foreign films that are worth seeing from that period. I saw them all, and also, the American classics. I saw them at drive-ins, at movie houses, at big theaters, at tiny theaters.
So I’ve always wanted to tell that story. I think this was one way to tell it. I think there are other ways to tell that story too, and I probably will again if I ever get the chance. But I thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool to broaden it and make cool iconic characters that everybody understands, not just me, and put a boy in between them?” And so, that’s why the thing has this combination of being classic and this kind of emotional trip, because of those two characters. We followed their facts, and we followed their events, and their journey from state to state, and we just put this boy in between them.
I think a lot of movie fans are exposed to movies at inappropriate ages. Now when you look back on watching those films at such a young age, do you see how they might’ve influenced you?
I do, I do. I only think … The answer to your question is, yes, but with the caveat that as a young man when I started seeing women, when I started dating with women, when I started to have intimate relationships with women, the perfect women to me, or young women to me at the time, because I was young, it was based on women I had seen in the movies, but those movies were misogynistic ’60, ’70 films. And so, that formed a lot of my 20s and 30s, I think, and that’s not great, that’s not great. And so, I think that because I grew up with women, I grew up with a mom and two sisters, I think I was under control, and I still knew the difference between wrong and that kind of thing. But I think back at some of those films, even the European films, and the way that women are treated is awful.
22 years ago, I met an incredible woman, who laid down the law a long time ago of what kind of man that I’m supposed to be, and therefore, I am.
Thank you for your candor. Were there any positive takeaways from experiencing those movies at that age?
Yeah, totally, the fact that there’s no such thing as a conventional film, that every film is different because of all the artists behind it. And so, when you see Truffaut, and then you see Tora! Tora! Tora! in the drive-in, you know the difference, you know why those films are different. Not just because one is based on battles and the other one is more about people, but you see how the film is made and you see how the camera is used. All that stuff always used to stick with me, and the music, the way the music was used. Then through my late teens and my 20s, and all through my 20s actually, the yearning to see every film that I could possibly see, not just the films that are easy to watch, but all of them.
My childhood formed that, and that’s formed, I think, when I, just off the top of my head, start thinking of shots, or scenes, and the way they should be constructed, and things like that. All of that stuff is part of it, even in my acting, the blocking of scenes, the understanding of how to tell a story cinematically through servicing your character and then servicing the story through your characters. It’s all because of that stuff that I saw, amazing performances and amazing filmmaking.
How you considered the camera and thought about how films are made early on in your acting career, did you think one day from the beginning you’d direct and tried to learn as much as possible?
That’s not what I had in mind. I wasn’t thinking of directing. No, I just wanted to be a better actor always for a very long time, for something like 25 years, or something like that. And then I started to venture out to other artistic ways of telling stories. You have to evolve constantly no matter what you’re doing, whether you’re an actor or not. So you’re always looking for information and art, and surrounding yourself with people that you know have more experience than you have, and listening to them, and watching them, and watching them fail, and letting yourself fail, and learning from that.
I was very conscious of all that, and I don’t think that I would have that perspective if I didn’t have the real father that I had, and who introduced me to the right to places to be, where there were other people that knew a lot more and had a lot more experience than him.
As a director, what were some of your biggest lessons on The Kid you’ll keep in mind going forward?
Once you start getting into using other people’s money for projects, you have to plan things out, you have to really think about, “Okay, what’s the next film that I want to make, and what should I make now, so that I can make another one with a bigger budget?” You have to think ahead. I thought that I could make this Western for $7 million, and I thought if I was able to bring in really good actors to pull it off and do the best I could if I accomplished that and got good reviews. I knew that it wasn’t going to make very much money because it’s a $7 million Western. They just don’t make any money, mostly. But I knew that if I could pull it off and get good reviews and have the performances be really good and have all the actors be happy and bring it in on time and under budget, I knew that it would be helpful for the next story that I want to make, which is already into development. So there was a plan, there was a plan in the way I approached it. And any of the films that I made before that, like a short, or a crazy musical I shot in my backyard for practically no money, where I didn’t have to depend on anybody.
I actually wanted to ask you about one of your shorts, “Five Minutes, Mr. Welles.” You’ve played Orson Welles twice, so how do you prepare to play a figure as larger-than-life as he was? How deep does your research go?
Yeah, you have to do it. I’ve been asked to do it again, there’s been projects that have come and gone and stuff, and I would do it again if somebody asked me. I still don’t think I got it right, but I will one day get it right. It’s just this never-ending process. It’s probably everything you think: it’s books, it’s recording, it’s talking to people about him. It’s watching the documentaries about him, so you can see the way he really was and not the way he portrayed himself on film. But then yet, you still have to know the way he portrayed himself on film if you do a movie where he’s actually in a film. It’s endless amounts of research. I haven’t by any means finished. It could continue. Not that I have read anything or looked at a picture of him in years, but I know that there’s a lot more to learn, and I know that I could do even better than I did with the right script. So it’s kind of like that, you’re asking somebody who approaches every part like an experiment and just keeps going. There’s no real end to it, you know?
What do you think you haven’t gotten fully right about playing Orson Welles yet?
I think that I would like to see him actually act. I would like to be in a situation where he was directing a play, or how he spent time with other actors, how he spent time with Peter Bogdanovich. Peter has told me some fascinating things that are not written down anywhere, or talked about, or put in any of the documentaries about him in the way he was, and there’s a fascinating film in there somewhere.
With The Kid, you worked with cinematographer Matthew Lloyd (Daredevil) again. How was it different working with him as a director? What is your relationship usually like with a cinematographer?
We get along like we’ve known each other forever. I don’t know why that is. We did from the first day we laid on each other. I walk onto set, the first thing I always do is get a sense of the cinematographer, and not just him, but his whole crew. It tells me what I have in store for the next few months.
Within an hour of watching him and his guys and girls work, I knew that it was going to be a really good shoot and it was going to be set for an actor to work on. I’ve had less good experiences. In the over 35 years I’ve been working as an actor, there were two cinematographers from 20 years ago that occasionally their faces float into my mind, and I wish that I knew what I knew now, and they would probably have been a lot nicer to me. But they’re all different, men and women. Obviously, just like in anything, some are just geniuses at what they do. Matthew is one of those people, who like any smart leader, will surround himself with all these amazing people, his operators, his dolly guys, his electricians. He’s a phenomenal guy.
There were times where we were I was directing, he was D.P.-ing, and we were first A.D.-ing the whole day, all the way through. We had everything planned out. I remember he went to a toy store and bought a bunch of tiny little guys and tiny little horses. And I laid out a big white cardboard thing on two sawhorses and had the art department blow up some blueprints of each set and each town for us. And we tacked the blueprint down every scene that we were going to do that day on the set. We’d take these little guys and these little horses, and we had these little thimbles that were the camera, and we would set up the full day, looking down at it.
You and Ethan Hawke have known each other for a long time. Did you two ever act in the theater together?
Yes, we have. The last thing we did was at The New Group theater in New York in a play called “Clive.” Jonathan Sherman did an adaptation of a Bertolt Brecht play called “Baal.” Ethan directed it, and I starred in it with him, with six other actors, Zoe Kazan and some amazing actors. It was great actually, it was very successful. We packed the house for three months straight or so. It was awesome. I’m waiting to do another one. I’m trying to convince him to do “Henry Moss,” the Shepard play, but he’s [recently] finished “True West,” so it’s going to be awhile. But I think we’re going to do something at New Group again together.
Did you get a chance to see him and Paul Dano in [Sam Shepard’s] “True West”?
Oh, yeah, it was great. I mean, I like both of those actors, so I’m not a very good … I’m biased completely because Ethan and I are best friends and Zoe’s Paul’s girlfriend or wife now, and they have a kid together, so I’m so biased. It’s like going to see two friends work and you just enjoy their success, and that’s all.
Obviously, you were performing in theater and studied acting for many years before your first film role, Full Metal Jacket, so did you feel fully prepared for the role and transition to movies when it happened?
Well, I was fully prepared with my acting, I think, for the age I was, and where I should have been as an actor at that age. I think I was prepared in that way. I think that I had done enough plays with the kind of acting, the method acting, that I’d learned, where it became … I was not one of those actors that was afraid to apply an actual technique to my performances, and a lot of actors are. A lot of actors study and then they’ll follow through with their technique and they just wing it, and some are really good at that, and some aren’t. I know some of them are really good at it, because they use bits of pieces of this and that, and they’re fantastic. But I was not afraid to lean on what I had learned at the Stanislavsky Theater Company.
So I was pretty much ready to do that. And then being on that film set, that was like going to film school. Stanley was very nice to me, and he’d make sure that I would understand everything. I was 24 years old, and the one thing that I wasn’t savvy about was the actual technical aspect of filmmaking. In the 13 months I spent with him, it was a very in-depth course in filmmaking.
Since you always like to think of the bigger picture when you’re acting, did the last half of Full Metal Jacket influence your work at all?
I think that it only story-wise did, and I’m sure that’s what you mean. It affected the way that I played him, yeah, because I knew what the end of the movie was. The whole war is hell aspect had to come through in a very modern way and a very emotional way, rather than a John Wayne kind of way. So I was a very intricate part, me and the sergeant and Matthew and Stanley’s script, that it was very intricate how to get all that out in the first half so that the second half could end the way it did with them all marching and singing Mickey Mouse.
How do you apply your technique to a role and movie as operatic as The Cell?
Well, only because of Tarsem was it a good experience. He understood everything I wanted to do, he let me be involved in every aspect of it, the influence in the costumes, and the makeup, and the scenes themselves, and the writing of the scenes. I asked him early on, I said to him … because I usually keep all of my work to myself, because a lot of directors don’t like to deal with actor-y stuff, and I learned that early on. And so, I never talk about my technique, or how I’ve gone about finding anything. I just come onstage and do my thing, and then that’s it. But I could tell with Tarsem early on, that he likes to be involved and likes to know about things, so I kept him involved in all the research and the stuff. And so, through that, we were able to influence the storyline of the character more, which then would change the in his stuff. Everything’s connected in a way. So coming up with certain nursery rhymes and certain ways of speaking, and postures, and all these things, where we both involved in all of that, and it was very cool.
Another visionary I want to ask about is Robert Altman, who left an incredible impression on so many actors. How was your experience with him? Is it still meaningful for you?
Oh, yeah, for sure. There are only a few films that you do in your life where you can remember being on the set and doing certain shots. And the one I remember on his was obviously the walk from the theater to the parking lot before I die. Once you got to the cars, then the shot ended, but before that, it was all done on a long tracking shot, a long track with a baby jib, with probably 10 guys, cabling all the cable out of the shot, because with a jib you can go up, down, and around. So we could walk over the tracks, we could do anything we wanted and as long as you don’t see any cable trailing behind like everything is a set. So it was quite something. There’s a lot of dialogue, and yeah, we just did it a couple times, and each time we did it completely different.
Then when we got to the killing, I had this idea, because they were afraid that … It was tricky for us to figure out how in a real way Tim Robbins could knock me down and kill me but wasn’t an accident. The questions would be, was it an accident or wasn’t? You’re to not know that because of this kind of … Tim always plays these great characters that have secrets, and he’s really good at that. That’s his best thing, so we wanted that kind of thing.
I said to Robert, I said that people can drown in a glass of water if their esophagus closes up on them, and so there’s no reason why I can’t drown in a puddle of water. So if he knocks me unconscious, and I come in and out of consciousness, there’s a possibility that while I’m intaking water from the puddle that my lungs could fill with water, I could choke, and then my throat could close off, and I would suffocate. And he said, “Well, how would we do that?”And I said, “We just need to run a little tube that I can find with my mouth when I hit the water, and I’ll just breathe, and then I’ll just stay underwater, halfway underwater. And then when I’m ready to release, I’ll just open my mouth, and I’ll just die.” And he walked away, and then he came back, and he said, “I love that idea. I just want you to know that from now on that idea will always be mine.”
Everybody laughed, and we laughed so hard, and I thought that was awesome. I think on one of the LaserDiscs, he actually says that he said that to me, which I thought was awesome.
The Kid is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray.
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