Alan Rudolph has said that "film is the truest human invention because it celebrates the mystery of life," and his movies have been celebrating that mystery for going on thirty years. He is often lumped together with maverick director Robert Altman, with whom he worked as an assistant director on such seminal 1970s classics as Nashville and The Long Goodbye, and as co-writer on the script for Altman's Buffalo Bill and the Indians.
But his own career as a director has been almost as lengthy and varied as Altman's, spanning three-plus decades and including such art-house favorites as The Moderns, Choose Me, and Equinox, the more commercial box office hit Mortal Thoughts, and a few he'd probably rather forget (Roadie, Love at Large, Breakfast of Champions anyone?). All of Rudolph's films at least look good, and his new film, The Secret Lives of Dentists, is in keeping with that tradition, but here the look is less important than what's going on with the characters.
Dentists is a strangely affecting movie, a subtle treatise of a marriage on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The film is heavy on the hipness factor (a cast featuring indie stalwarts Campbell Scott, Hope Davis and Denis Leary, music by The The and Cat Power) and, although unlikely to shoot to the top of the box office, it is one of Rudolph's best films in years. The down-to-earth and affable director (as directors go) was in San Francisco for Dentists's opening night screening at the SF International Film Festival, and sat down with us to chat at the end of a wearying week.
Rudolph noticed my tiny digital tape recorder and commented on how strange it is to be using something with no moving parts. "The first film festival I was ever in," he said, "was the Paris Film Festival, which lasted only two years. I was there for Welcome to L.A., and this French journalist who has since moved to America and become a friend of mine, had a big duffel bag full of cassette tapes of interviews he had done at the festival. He was transcribing them in his room. So we're doing the interview, he goes to put a tape in his player and I notice the tape says "Martin Scorsese." This was when Mean Streets was out. I'd seen Mean Streets and said, 'What are you doing?!' He said, 'No worries, I've already transcribed them.' I said, 'I can't replace Scorsese!' So we spent twenty minutes going through his bag until we found somebody I felt more worthy with taping over. I think it was some old time Hollywood guy I can't remember." I assured him that, as far as I knew, Scorsese wasn't saved in the digital tape recorder.
The Secret Lives of Dentists
You're always asked about the influence of Robert Altman, but what other directors stimulated your creative development as a filmmaker?
Laurel and Hardy was one of the biggest influences. When I was a kid, my parents bought their first house in the San Fernando valley. Television had just come in. Our greatest thing was Saturday afternoons watching these little black and white things and then we'd go play ball on this stretch of grass next to our house. And one time the ball rolled over to this house about five doors down from where we lived and this nice old man was on his porch in his cardigan - it seemed like he was 150 at the time but he was probably in his 60s. And it was Stan Laurel. He lived there in his last years. This would've been 1950 or something. The relativity of seeing this young man on TV every day and then have it be this guy, it was like an acid trip before acid came in. It was unbelievable. But Laurel and Hardy as a team were an influence. Back then nobody knew who a director was.
Probably the most influential movie from my childhood was the original Invaders from Mars, William Cameron Menzies. It was shot from a kid's point of view; the main character was around my age. He finds out you can't trust your parents or your teachers, and then wakes up and it's all a dream. But then the spaceship lands for real. The mind warp was unbelievable. And again, who knew what a director was at the time.
I'm not a "necro-filmiac" that way. I know the Hitchcock films, the John Ford films, and all of those things, but I don't think they really influenced me. My father took me to British films when I was a kid. Now, they had an impact on me. We'd go see the Ealing studio films (Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers, et al). I still think the Brits are the best fucking filmmakers around - they seemed to have that combination of technique, and the behavior, the acting, just the overall feel of them. One of the most frightening films I remember seeing is Dead of Night, a British omnibus film, very creepy.
You mentioned your father - he was also a director, wasn't he?
Yes, a television director and he also did a few really low-budget films. He was great. When I was maybe ten, he put me into this movie he was directing. It was about a six-day shoot, a kids movie, about a little boy. I was supposed to run across the street and fall down, and a car came up, and this kid with a raygun (the star of the movie, this kid George "Foghorn" Winslow) shot the raygun and stopped the car. And I was lying in the street. The car would go backwards so they could reverse the film and make it look like it had run me over. So there's a picture on my wall of my dad on the set talking to the writer who - in another warp of relativity - was Lenny Bruce. Lenny Bruce wrote this movie. [Note: Rudolph is referring to a film called Rocket Man, a campy fantasy made in 1954.]
Go figure. Now, Trouble In Mind, which is one of my personal favorites of your films, was a reworking of the noir tradition. Are there other genres you're interested in revisiting?
Yeah, Trouble in Mind was the first script I wrote that I could've sold straight out - it had the hook: ex-cop, ex-con out of prison - but I wanted to make it myself. Then I realized, oh yeah, this thing's been done a million times. So we got into the artifice of the surface of things, which I'm interested in anyway, because that means the emotions of things have to be true. And that's really what the audience expects. But some people didn't appreciate that movie because they'd say, "Well when is this supposed to be, what year is it, is this new or old?" And the whole point was to mess all [those conventions] up, so with the things that were familiar, you've kind of found meaning in why they are familiar.
I tried this again later with Trixie and nobody responded to it. With Trixie, the whole thing was: Okay, we're not going to mess with the surface. We're going to give you all the stock characters, everything you know about, they'll all play the same role that they play in the classic versions - but then we're going to fool around with your expectations. But it was all about language and I guess you can't do that these days.