Now Is The Winter Of Our Discontent...
...A Few Words With Freakboy!
By Mike White
Cashiers du Cinemart: First off let me tell you that you're a difficult person to get ahold of!
Alex Winter: Really?
CdC: Yeah, gosh, I tried to SAG [Screen Actors Guild], Directors Guild, Writers Guild, and nobody could help me out at all.
CdC: Yeah! So, if you have a stalker, they probably couldn't get ahold of you either – you can rest easy about that one!
CdC: What have you been up to since FREAKED?
AW: After FREAKED I had a couple of scripts that I wanted to write and I also just wanted to shoot as much as I could. Mostly I've been developing two other movie projects and writing a lot. I've also been directing a lot of music videos and TV commercials. I have my own company in London and I do work there.
The funny thing is that Tom [Stern] and I have been making movies together for a while when we did FREAKED but we had never shot 35mm before! It was exceedingly ambitious and great experience for us! When it was done I just wanted to go out and sort of do my own thing.
CdC: Are you excited to be in Toronto?
AW: I like this festival a lot. It's my favourite festival because it's so laid back and it's so not industry oriented and it's so not choosy and it's just about movies and people who like movies. It's nice to come to a festival that's primarily for the people.
CdC: Is Toronto just the second place that FEVER has shown?
AW: Yeah, we only just finished it the beginning of the summer. There's still so much work to be done here and there before it gets released.
CdC: Like what?
AW: Just titles—they're still not just quite there yet—nothing storywise, nothing narrative.
CdC: How long have you been working on the film?
AW: I've been writing it off and on for the last three years while working on other things. I've been doing nothing but FEVER for a little over a year and a half.
CdC: Why the move from in front of the camera to exclusively behind the camera?
AW: That's always where I preferred to be. I went to NYU film school long before I started acting in movies. I had done some acting as a kid to make money: basically, to pay for college. I've always sort of used acting as a way to make money – it's a fun way to make money! It's also a way for me to make money that allows me to stay within my industry and keep my connections and learn and watch. My agenda was always to get out as quickly as possible. The whole time I was acting I was shooting. Tom and I started working together in film school in '84 and we made FREAKED in '91-'92 and The Idiot Box for MTV before that. That was all during the acting stuff.
CdC: I loved SQUEAL OF DEATH.
AW: That was our NYU movie.
CdC: I can watch that over and over again.
AW: Its got good repeat value because it's so damn condensed. It takes you about two thousand viewings to get all the jokes.
CdC: Yeah, I like listening to all of Howie's mutterings to himself. I loved that too about FREAKED: that undercurrent of voices. In the work print of FREAKED, I noticed that none of those extra touches are in there. For me, a lot of them make the film, like the chorus of agreement in the milkman scene.
AW: Sound has always been very important to me. The subtleties that you can play with in film in sound design are not exploited that well. Something that I worked hard on in FEVER was using sound to create a subtle but impactful effect, rather than an obvious effect. The surround sound in most movies is just used for grenades and bombs to go off. It's a waste. Once you start playing with the ability to get all the way around somebody with a sound happening here and happening there and what happens to you. It's sort of like what happened in the sixties when they first got their hands on stereo—you'd put on a Beatles record and eventually a Pink Floyd record with headphones and you'd be like, "Whoa, dude! They're panning left and right!" Surround sound isn't exploited fully and that's something that Tom and I played with. It's something that I spent an enormous amount of time with Col [Anderson], my sound designer, on FEVER to create a sound space.
CdC: I actually did notice that yesterday so it didn't go to waste! By the way, nice "Richard Coogan" reference on the Gnostic book!
AW: Oh good! Somebody noticed!
CdC: Did you write for Paper [magazine] for a while?
AW: Yeah, I wrote a film column for them.
CdC: Okay, I caught it once and didn't know if the column I read was by you or another Alex Winter. What I read was great—I've always been impressed by how film literate you are. In your work, you play off prior films so well. In FEVER I caught a strong sense of Polanski's REPULSION. What other films influenced FEVER?
AW: REPULSION wasn't so much of an influence to me, I'd say probably more THE TENANT. I mean, REPULSION is such a great movie but it's so Grand Guignol, so over-the-top. For me, FEVER is much more quiet and much more about not playing the sensational trump card for a very specific reason, to keep things in a very claustrophobic and ambiguous world.
For me a lot of things that influenced this film are more Dreyer and Murnau and a lot of the '20's and '30's expressionistic—but quiet expressionistic. Also, movies that created a headspace for you like Nicholas Roeg's DON'T LOOK NOW. I was interested in telling a story that used the visuals to create the characters headspace which I know is a little narratively unconventional. It was a fun experiment for me and the actors: particularly Henry [Thomas] and the DP [Joe Desalvo].
CdC: Okay, maybe I'm just completely off base with this but I thought at one point that Henry's character, Nick, was in room number nine in his apartment building but later on it looked like he was coming out of room twelve. Is that right?
AW: No. Will [David O'Hara] lives in room number thirteen; Nick lives in room number nine. There's a point where he leaves Will's room and then hides in an abandoned room which is number twelve.
CdC: Okay, duh. Sorry! I was frantic yesterday.
AW: I can imagine. That's the thing with Cannes too—in interviews people start quoting characters to you that aren't even in your film.
CdC: What was the reaction in Cannes to your film?
AW: Really good! I mean, the film polarizes people. Well, the work I've done has always polarized people. But folks either love FEVER or they just have no idea. It's a very particular film and it's very fun to watch it with an audience because I can see the people that it's getting. There are certain scenes where people are just either restless or their eyes are just locked on the screen.
We got a good review in Variety which helped us a lot—they got it. There are some people, though, that don't get it. For me filmmaking (and this is a big problem I have with modern movies) is a commitment. It's an experience. It's more like architecture or music than it is like theater or books. Unfortunately, that's not the case for most movies. I like to go to movies that force me to commit to them—they create a space, they create a world that works with sound and vision. FEVER for me is very much either you "take the ride" or you don't.
If you're just looking for a good "twisty" ending or waiting for it to turn into a DePalma film or even a Polanski film and have some sort of huge spectacle of some kind then you're going to miss out. That's the reason why the opening titles are so slow: you just have to shut up and watch and let it work on you. In that regard, I'm happy with it. When it effects people, it's a satisfying effect because you see them afterwards and they're jangled. LOST HIGHWAY is the last movie that did that to me.
I had low expectations for LOST HIGHWAY because I hadn't liked David Lynch's movies in a long time, not since BLUE VELVET. Since then he's been sort of youth culture oriented. When I was just starting to prep FEVER, I went to see LOST HIGHWAY at three in the afternoon and I had no expectations. I was in London and I was by myself, thinking that it was going to be a piece of shit! There are parts of it that are bad, in a way, but they still serve a purpose. I remember walking out of the theater and just the whole world looked upside-down. Now that's a movie! I mean, I'm not up to Lynch's level by any standards but it's nice when people leave FEVER in that tailspin. That's what I hope to happen. That's what we wanted to do with FREAKED as well.
CdC: I always felt so bad about FREAKED not getting a wide release and the attention it deserved.
AW: We got screwed. I mean, we got really screwed, don't get me wrong, but the fact is that Tom and I originally wrote film to make as a low budget Butthole Surfers vehicle. We wrote the original story with Gibby [Haynes, lead singer for the Butthole Surfers] and that's what we were going to do. It was going to be a cult movie and it was going to be for people like us. We couldn't get it made! Eventually, we pitched it to (Twentieth Century) Fox as a more accessible film and they went for it at ten million dollars up from the two hundred and fifty thousand we were going to try to do it for.
The irony of it—and I think it's kind of a nice irony for me which doesn't fill me with bitterness and regret—is that the film eventually found the audience that we originally made it for because people come up to me everyday and tell me how much they like that film. Or, they don't understand what the hell I was doing! People are seeing it. And, it's got websites out there for it and it's got a following now.
At the time it was hard because so much work went into it and there was no love lost between me and the studios. I think nowadays they're just bankers who don't have a fucking clue about making movies. But, in terms of the film itself, Tom and I learned an enormous amount on it, we're both proud of it and a lot of people have seen it. If we had gotten screwed a month earlier then the film would have never even been finished—that would have been devastating.
CdC: I think that FREAKED playing at the Magic Bag around Christmas time a few years back was the only public screening the film had in Detroit.
AW: Tom and I spent about a year afterwards making sure it got into towns and repertory theaters. We just did it ourselves. I literally would walk around with posters and tack them up. Then I went to London and got it a good video distribution. Again, I got in a car and drove around all over England to go into the video distribution companies and hawking it. I was like a traveling salesman, but I got it out there. It was very grassroots.
Most of my financing for FEVER is coming out of Europe because of that. It's not just because we were dumped after FREAKED but it's that I've been watching what sort of movies have been coming out of Hollywood and it's just not any sort of place I have any desire to tangle with. I think that my sensibilities aren't overly American. It's not that I think European movies are so much greater (actually a lot of them are tedious as hell), but it's a smaller market and you tend to find more intelligent people holding the purse strings. You're dealing with more educated and film savvy people in the European financing structure.
CdC: What's coming up next from you?
AW: My producer [Christian Martin] and I are working on quite a big film; I'm finishing the script now and there's money in place.
CdC: BEN HUR big?
AW: Oh God, no! It's just bigger than FEVER. It's a very black political satire, sort of like in a CATCH-22/M*A*S*H kind of vein.
CdC: What was the last movie you saw?
AW: Actually, I went to see THE PHANTOM MENACE in London the other day just because I thought I had to. I guess it's sort of like TITANIC where you know you're going to hate it but you just can't not see it. It looked like a low budget public access children's show! It was dumbfounding considering not only the big hoopla of its opening but also the pure tragedy of hearing George Lucas talk; he's so deluded! I mean, he's completely out to lunch. He's in his little domain, completely closed off from the rest of the world, and he's spouting utter nonsense. At least when they re-released THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, which was my favorite Star Wars film, there wasn't that much they mucked around with. STAR WARS he completely ruined. It's embarrassing.
I went to see EYES WIDE SHUT and everyone was talking about what a control freak Stanley Kubrick was and then you look at his roster and you see that he did manage to make a movie every four years or so. Considering how hard it is to make movies, that's not that bad. Then compare him to Lucas and he's not that much of a control freak—he let people do their thing. He'd get other writers on board; he knew is weaknesses. For Lucas to go and write and direct this film when he hasn't made anything in over twenty-two years is just arrogance beyond belief.
CdC: What have you seen lately that you liked?
AW: I'm probably one of the few people who actually enjoyed EYES WIDE SHUT and I've never been a huge Kubrick fan. It was another LOST HIGHWAY experience where I didn't think I was going to enjoy it that much. Like LOST HIGHWAY there's a lot about it that was terrible—
CdC: What didn't you like about LOST HIGHWAY?
AW: The whole Robert...what's his name?...Loggia subplot.
CdC: Whew, I thought you were going to say Robert Blake!
AW: No, that was amazing! The telephone scene is the best scene in the film. Hand's down. That's Lynch's whole mindtrip of existentialism right there and it's brilliant. But, to me, the goofy youth culture stuff that was the stuff I didn't like. I just didn't dig the highway chase; that was silly. Some of the Patricia Arquette stuff towards the end got a little goofy. Lynch is so sophisticated and intelligent; I don't need him to pander to the MTV crowd.
But, in EYES WIDE SHUT, Tom Cruise is absolutely the wrong guy for that role; bottom line, end of story. There's just no way you can argue that that should have been him. It shouldn't have and that bogs the film down. By the same token, in EYES WIDE SHUT (like BLUE VELVET and to some extent our film) the actor just isn't that important—you're more in this guy's head. He's just a conduit for all these things that are happening around him. I couldn't help myself with that movie, I just got taken in. It's sort of like AFTER HOURS where you either get hypnotized by that film's world or you don't.
CdC: What's the question that you've been hoping to be asked but haven't been yet?
AW: I guess if there's anything I'd like to talk about it's that FEVER is sort of a "protest movie" in the sense that it's about using the visual medium to tell the story. I think people have fallen out of practice watching movies like that. The dialogue isn't that important, the twisty ending isn't that important. What is important is the mood and the atmosphere that's created by all of this stuff. I'm happy to see that people are still passionate about that. I hope there's a place for serious filmmaking—not meaning "not funny" because I consider FREAKED to be serious filmmaking—made by people that love the medium and don't want to shoot on digital video or shoot stuff for broadcast on the internet.
I just want to make sure that there's an integrity to the industry. If the technology catches up, who cares? I mean, it's not like a Luddite kind of purism; once digital video looks like film, then fuck it. I've been cutting nonlinear since I left film school. I don't mind computers. I just think we're losing touch with the kind of storytelling that we used to have a lot of in the '70's and, to some extent, in the '80's like John Waters or David Lynch. That's the kind of iconoclastic, idiosyncratic filmmaking that I consider the purity of it.
To be honest with you, the nice thing about both FREAKED and FEVER is that they're both different but similar in a certain way in terms of being certain kinds of movies that, hopefully, have a certain kind of effect on their audience. It reinvigorates your faith especially because I feel that the medium is in bad shape right now. I think it's fighting for its life. I think that THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT showed us that the landscape of movies is going to change radically.
It's been satisfying that I've been asked smart questions. I mean, nobody's asked me if I was the guy with the curly hair or the straight hair.