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Interview with James Toback

Seduced and Abandoned

HBO

How did you and Alec Baldwin come together for the project?

James Toback

We just started having very enjoyable conversations over a long period of time. Eventually I said that there were some seriously amusing and interesting things coming up that we could find a way of using cinematically. The movie we ended up with isn't like anything else that's been done, so its development was a slow evolution.

HBO

How did you put together your list of who to speak to?

James Toback

I knew all the directors I approached. I was pretty friendly with a few of them. Alec wanted those particular directors. Ryan Gosling was his idea. I've known Jessica Chastain for several years, and she was my idea. I hadn't thought about Diane Kruger before, but then we ran into her in the lobby of the Carlton Hotel [in Cannes, France].

HBO

Who did you interview that knocked it out of the park?

James Toback

Anything that's in the movie we automatically felt really strongly about. Often to make a plot or narrative work, you need to put in a scene or two that on its own merits you wouldn't necessarily include. But we invented the structure of this movie as we went along. As a result, we had the luxury of only putting in the stuff we really liked. Obviously, there were certain things that jump out. Ryan Gosling surprised me. I thought his anecdotes were wry, smart, funny, and revealing. I don't know how an actor could, in the screen time he has, come off any better than he does.

HBO

How do reconcile the romance you feel about film with the commercialism of the industry?

James Toback

I don't think it's possible to reconcile it. You have to just accept it. It's as if you're running a marathon with a 25-pound weight on your back. You don't have the ability to ignore it, whereas in any other art form, you dont have to worry about that stuff. But you can't make a movie without the physical equipment, which forces you to spend an absurdly, ridiculously large amount of time waiting for and hustling money. I don't want to say that energy and thinking will automatically detract from the making of the movie, but it obviously affects it. In many ways, it determines what the movie will be. There is a point where you get frustrated enough and say, "Tell me how much money you are willing to give me, and then I'll make the movie for that." The conception of the film is dictated by the amount available.

[My 1998 movie] 'Two Girls and a Guy,' for instance, it is what it is because I hadn't made a movie in a while and I didn't want to waste a lot of time trying to get money. I thought, "I will write something that I can make for a million dollars." In that case, it helped, because the movie turned out to be not only a favorite of my own, but also the idea probably wouldn't have occurred to me if I hadn't consciously decided the budget. In a way the same thing happened with 'Seduced and Abandoned,' because there was a contained budget from the beginning since the Cannes Film Festival is only 11 days.

HBO

George Lucas and Steven Spielberg made headlines with their comments about the future of film. In 'Seduced and Abandoned,' Alec says the industry is splintering. Can it be revived?

"I think that the culture at large is geared towards the seductive power of money and material things."

James Toback

I think that the culture at large is geared towards the seductive power of money and material things. It tends, in movies and everything else, to seduce people into building things that have a broader appeal and will bring more money.

I remember talking to Spielberg around the time of 'Jaws' about his next project. It wasn't really something I was interested in doing, and I asked him, "Why are you so excited about it?" He said, "It's a 6 million dollar movie." Six million would be like 100 million today. It was if we were speaking two different languages. It wasn't until later I realized, he must have been thinking, "Who is this f---ing na´ve guy who is asking me why I would want to do a 6 million dollar movie? Doesn't he understand that that's how the game is played? You graduate upwards if you're lucky. You build on one success into another." It's very rare that people don't get co-opted. I've never thought that way. I just can't.

HBO

You mention that you've been ready to die since you freaked out on psychedelic drug LSD. Can you speak to that experience?

James Toback

It was both the worst experience of my life and the best. I only survived because a psychiatrist named Max Rinkel injected me with an antidote. That would have been it for me at the age of 19. A number of friends and acquaintances of mine in those years, at Harvard in particular, were jumping out of windows and dying of overdoses. There was an epidemic. In fact, [psychologist] Timothy Leary and [his friend and colleague] Richard Alpert were kicked out of Harvard because of the number of suicides.

HBO

Were you suicidal?

James Toback

I was beyond suicide. The only reason I didn't do it was because I thought, What if I feel this same way after I'm dead? The lifelong benefit was that I had complete fearlessness in the face of death. Have you ever known you were going to be dead in 20 seconds?

HBO

I have not.

James Toback

You have a moment where you consciously say, "This is it. It's over." The second thought you have is your feeling upon registering that you're going to die. In my case, it's always been exhilaration. I was shocked the experience was as liberating and enjoyable as it was.

HBO

What is the status of 'Last Tango in Tikrit,' the movie you pitching in Seduced and Abandoned?

James Toback

I would say it's in limbo. You don't happen to have about 15 million dollars you're not doing anything with, do you?

HBO

Unfortunately, I do not.

James Toback

If you meet somebody who does, the status will go from limbo to readiness.

Seduced and Abandoned