Jaglom's pleasant 'Dreams' explores quest for fame

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"Dreams" director: The quest for fame that drives thousands of young hopefuls to Hollywood every year gives agents and filmmakers as well as restaurant owners an unending stream of talent to pick and choose from.

What these would-be actors and actresses are willing to do or even do without in order to achieve stardom is Henry Jaglom's focus in his excellent new romantic comedy drama "Hollywood Dreams," opening May 18 in New York and Los Angeles and going out nationally in June via Jaglom's Rainbow Film Co. Starring are Tanna Frederick, Justin Kirk, Karen Black, Melissa Leo, Zack Norman, David Proval and Keaton Simons. Written and directed by Jaglom, it was produced by Rosemary Marks.

In "Dreams" Tanna Frederick makes her screen debut as an aspiring actress, Margie Chizek, who comes to Hollywood from Iowa bent on achieving fame and who's quite willing to sacrifice whatever it takes, including love, to become a star. Not only does Margie have what it takes to pull it off, but Frederick does, too. Her performance is one that Oscar and Golden Globes voters are going to be talking about and, hopefully, keeping in mind when it comes time to mark their nominations ballots this winter.

Having greatly enjoyed an early look at "Dreams," I was happy to be able to talk about how it reached the screen with Jaglom, whose movies are typically wonderfully intelligent and entertaining at the same time. His 2002 comedy "Festival in Cannes," starring Anouk Aimee, Greta Scacchi, Maximilian Schell, Ron Silver, Zack Norman and Peter Bogdanovich, is one of my favorite films. Jaglom's account of how Hollywood does business in the fantasy world of Cannes is amazingly dead-on and should be must viewing for anyone who's going to the festival next month and hasn't already seen this movie.

"I've been in Hollywood for over three decades now and I've been fascinated by this obsession with fame," Jaglom told me about "Dreams," "both on the part of the people who seek it and, of course, the increasing fascination among the public with the proliferation of all the (television) programs about people and all the magazines (that cover celebrities). I've been very, very intrigued with the nature of the person who is willing to leave their town somewhere in America (to try to make it as an actor). It seems that there's a person like this in every town and in most schools there's one person in one class or two who is willing to put themselves through such incredible hell and against such ridiculous odds and come to New York or more frequently now to Hollywood in search of this very elusive thing called fame.

"This need for fame, the desperation of the need for fame, is for me a terribly intriguing subject -- why people are willing to put themselves through what seems to be an absurd kind of statistically incomprehensible situation where there are thousands of people vying for one job if you even get to find out about that job, which most people never do. And yet they keep coming. They keep coming to this town, pouring in from every city, from every town in the country and several other countries with that goal in mind. I think that (going back to their childhoods their) something was missing -- that they didn't feel they were getting enough love or attention or support (and that) gives the strength to some people to survive the insurmountable odds they find when they come here."

All of this, Jaglom explained, "crystallized for me when I met Tanna Frederick because she was doing three waitressing jobs at that point, she was caretaking for an elderly ill woman and she was doing part time work during the day. It was just astonishing. She was running from restaurant to restaurant. She seemed to embody in one very, very extraordinary person that theme that I've always been drawn to about what is the obsession with fame. Now the film is not biographical. It's not about her.

"I just used that as a starting off point because she is from Iowa and she did come here and several of the things in the early part of the movie resemble some aspects of her biography, but of course I invented all of the story about the (character's troubled) brother and childhood and all of that. But I don't think those specifics are what are important although I think they can be satisfying to an audience. I'm just fascinated with the overview. I'm fascinated with the need and the compulsion to see yourself up on a big screen and to have everybody talk about you and to read about yourself in magazines and newspapers."

Looking back on how he first met Frederick, Jaglom recalled, "She tricked me. She heard that I was doing a movie and she called a friend of hers, who she knew had had a small part in another one of my movies and said, 'How do I get to see this director about his movie?' And this friend of hers told her, 'You know, Jaglom is a real sucker for a letter written about one of his movies sort of telling him why somebody liked his movie. So just see one of his movies and write him a good solid letter telling him what was terrific about the movie and I'm sure he'll call you in.'

"I didn't know any of this, of course. So she wrote me this wonderful letter and I called her up. She sent it about having seen 'Deja Vu' (his 1998 romantic drama starring Stephen Dillane, Victoria Foyt and Vanessa Redgrave) and she was coming in for 'Festival in Cannes.' She wrote this wonderfully articulate letter, this fascinating letter, with her phone number and I called her up. We spoke for a couple of hours on the phone. She was fascinating, of course, because she loved my movie. I thought, 'What good taste!' I invited her in to read her for the next movie and (as things turned out for) whatever it was she didn't seem appropriate."

There was, however, "something about her that reminded me of a character I had written in a play 30 years earlier," he said, "which was 'A Safe Place,' which I had done at The Actors Studio (where Jaglom originally trained as an actor with Lee Strasberg) with Karen Black and I subsequently made into a movie (in 1971) with Tuesday Weld, which was my first movie. I said, 'You know, I haven't thought about this character in the play in a long time, but I think I can find a copy.' I found a copy of the play and said, 'You're in an acting class. Do one of the scenes in this. I think it'll be interesting.' Instead, she went out and got a producer, got a director, got a theater, got the financing together -- God knows how! -- and put it on starring in it here in a small theater in Los Angeles. It ran for four months and got great reviews.

"I was able to see her on the stage and realized, 'Oh my God, this is a really astonishingly talented actress.' And that's when I decided, 'That's the person to do the film I've always wanted to do about fame.' First, because she had manipulated me so beautifully and, secondly, because she manipulated everyone else so she was able to get this play done, which is not easy in L.A. for an unknown actor. And, then, she was that good. It took her three and a half years later and (having worked by then with Jaglom on) two plays and a movie and we were even shooting a second movie at that point when she finally admitted to me that she had never seen 'Deja Vu' when she wrote that letter! So it was even more of a manipulation. She had watched the opening five minutes."

Jaglom's reaction, he noted, was, "I said, 'That is the best thing I've ever heard' because for an actor what they have to do to survive is so difficult. It's such a heartbreaking thing to watch these wonderful actors and actresses coming from all over the place and fighting for the terribly slim pickings that there are. I said, 'I'm very proud of you for doing that. That's just wonderful.' She thought I was going to be upset when I learned that. Instead, I thought it was terrific. And then I wrote this movie with her in mind sort of summing up what I've learned over my 30-odd years here in Hollywood about what I've seen and what I've felt about this impossible and incredible dream and the pain that often comes with it to become famous."

Skip this paragraph if you'd rather not know about a key story point late in the film when Frederick's character Margie walks away from the new love of her life, an actor (played by Justin Kirk) who's established himself playing gay parts but who discovers through his relationship with her that he's really straight. Margie realizes it will derail her career if she remains with him and she isn't going to let that happen after all the struggling she's done to get to this point.

"I think often when this is looked at it is looked at in a kind of sentimental way by films about Hollywood," Jaglom pointed out. "I thought that it had to have that tough ending because the reality is they give up so much in the pursuit of (fame) that frequently they're not quite aware of what they're giving up at the time and later in their life they have great regrets and complications -- a lot of people. I'm not saying this is true of everyone, of course.

"But I've just always been fascinated, as you know, by show business as a subject and the movie business, specifically, and what goes on backstage like at the Cannes Film Festival (in 'Festival in Cannes') and I examined it in 'Last Summer in the Hamptons' (his 1995 comedy drama starring Victoria Foyt and Viveca Lindfors). And here I wanted to really look at one of the darker sides, which there's wonderfully funny aspects to in the process. And this girl has the capacity, it seemed to me, to do the kind of broad comedy that reminded me of people (like) Lucille Ball and then switch to the most heartbreaking serious tragic moments in the flicker of an eye.

"So I got very, very excited and I've had my David O. Selznick moment. I actually put her under contract. I've never put anybody under contract before. I locked her up and shot another film (with her), which I am in the process of editing now. It's a completely different kind of film. It's called 'Irene in Time.' It's about the relationship between girls and their fathers and how that affects women for their life in their relationship to men -- how the complicated relationships they've had with their fathers affects their choices in men for good and ill. It's a very different kind of movie and it shows a side of Tanna that I think is just totally different (from 'Dreams') and equally powerful."

Coming back to "Dreams," he observed, "It's very infrequent for me to be driven to do work specifically by an actor, but in this case it was really that. I had always been fascinated by the subject, but I had never found somebody who I thought could really rise to (being) between Judy Holliday and Kim Stanley. I never know how to capture what it is that she does. She just gave me so much. I do write a script. I had a 130 page script. But I encourage actors to use their own language and memory and things that happened to them. And she gave me so very much that I could have made six movies out of it. It was quite a job honing it into the shape that it's in. But, happily, audiences seem to be responding to her. I think she's going to have an extraordinary career. I think she's going to have one of those very lasting Meryl Streep (type careers), one of these real good long careers, but she can also do comedy. It's been exciting to be taken on a ride by an actor rather than to be carrying actors in a different kind of way."

In "Dreams" Frederick stars opposite Justin Kirk, who received a supporting actor Emmy nomination and a Screen Actors Guild nod for outstanding performance by a male actor in a miniseries for his work in Mike Nichols' "Angels in America" for HBO. Kirk also received a Golden Globe nom for supporting actor in a television series for Showtime's "Weeds," for which he was also a SAG best ensemble cast comedy series nominee.

Kirk's character Robin Mack in "Dreams" is a seemingly gay actor whose career's on the upswing but faces big problems when he realizes that he's straight and deeply in love with Margie. That, in turn, is anything but good news for his gay producer-managers, played beautifully by Zack Norman (a Jaglom casting regular) and David Proval (Richie Aprile on "The Sopranos"), who are finally on the verge of seeing profits from having established Robin as a notable gay actor.

"I remember very vividly when I came to this town giving a party with my first wife," Jaglom said. "There was a proposition that was on the ballot in California to stop gay teachers from being able to teach. It was in the late '70s. I gave a party to raise funds to defeat this and all my friends in Hollywood (were there). Very prominent actors, writers, directors, producers, one studio head -- Danny Melnick, who was then the head of MGM -- showed up, but my male star friends stayed away completely. They were concerned about coming to this event and some photo being taken of them leaving the party that was for this issue about homosexuality and so on (and) that they'd somehow be misunderstood or taken for (being gay). There was still this incredible fear. I was really amazed that this didn't apply to the female stars and it didn't apply to the executives, but that (the male actors) felt this vulnerability.

"I have seen how much things have changed over the years and I thought I would turn that on its head a little bit and explore this idea of somebody coming to town and being encouraged to be a part of this so-called gay mafia thing. I just liked the switch. I liked the exploration of gender. And that led me to think about (Margie's) brother and the relationship to her brother that might have caused some of her needfulness. I've always been fascinated by gender and the complications of men and women in their relationships. So this gave me an opportunity to explore that, I felt, on an equal footing with the exploration of fame. The two issues seemed to work nicely together. And then I got these two wonderful actors and just put them in bed together (so to speak)."

Jaglom told me he hired Kirk because, "I thought it was interesting to cast Justin for that (role) because I saw him in 'Angels in America' and he was magnificent. He's played several gay characters so people have assumed he was gay, which they do even to this day with people who play gay characters, and it happens that he's not. So he was interested in the examination of that illusion and the reality and (the fact) that even in today's Hollywood how complicated sexuality is as an idea in the public's mind. So he seemed an ideal choice and I think he's a wonderful actor."

The fact that Jaglom is in a position to finance and distribute his movies through his own company, The Rainbow Film Co., is a tremendous advantage, especially with controversial material such as "Dreams." "I would have had a problem trying to finance it in Hollywood, I'm sure," he said, pointing out how his approach to financing production came about. "Orson Welles (taught me) this great positive lesson. I learned a lot of great lessons about making movies from him, including probably the most important one -- that you're going to live with a movie the rest of your life and you might as well make it for yourself as best you can and not worry at the moment what's commercial or not because you're going to live with it the rest of your life.

"The most negative example was watching how Hollywood abandoned him, how he couldn't get films made in the last 10 or 12 years of his life. I had lunch with him once or twice a week for those years and we were constantly trying to get him financing and failing to do that. So the lesson I learned was, 'Do not depend upon Hollywood for your source of financing.' He said to me once, 'Get (your financing) as far away from Hollywood as possible and you'll have no one looking over your shoulder and then you won't have them taking it away from you if you don't do something that they think is commercial in a given moment.'"

Jaglom's early films, he noted, "were big failures over here commercially, but started gaining a great deal of success in Europe. My first movie, 'A Safe Place,' which was a complete disaster here, played for three years in Paris. And my second film 'Tracks' (his 1976 drama starring Dennis Hopper) won a lot of awards in Europe. Suddenly I found that Europeans were willing to put up some comparatively small but secure amounts of financing for distribution in their country and if I put together six or seven countries I could get advance financing for any film without anybody having control or anybody looking over my shoulder. And I got to make the films. So the only tradeoff, which I don't mind, is that I don't have a lot of fancy dressing rooms and a lot of limousines. I have limited budgets, but they give me a totally free hand.

"It's a tremendous trade-off. And yet, you know, I have several friends in this town, good friends with whom I came of age here who became quite successful and commercial and, at different times, (have done) some wonderful work. Eventually they all get sad or frustrated because somebody stops them from doing this project or they can't cast this person or they want them to change the script and so on. One person not so long ago asked me, 'Okay, how do you do this?' I showed them the breakdown and they said, 'Well, where's my salary?' And I say, 'What's your salary?' And usually it's more than the whole budget for my movie. I say, 'Well, you've got to make a choice here, you know?'"

Nonetheless, Jaglom's very happy making movies the way he does: "This way I get to make the films. They all make a profit. Sometimes a fairly handsome profit and sometimes they just barely get by, but they make a profit. The distributors are happy because in their territories they all do quite well and they leave me alone. The thing to do is not to just yearn for bigger budgets. I don't see the need for it really. My films are so actor driven and I try to find centralized locations. Like the house in this case is Zack's house so I got it free of rent. You try to tell the story as much as you can in terms of characters. So there is a tradeoff, a wonderful tradeoff."

Clearly, Jaglom knows how to shoot on a lean budget and still get it all up there on the screen. "I write a very detailed script of what has to happen in each scene," he explained. "I need that as a guideline. But then when I'm working with the actors I say, 'Look, you have to get from Point A to Point B. This is what's happening in your character's situation in life. How you get there (depends on you). These are some of the words that I need for the story, but for the rest of that use your own imagination, get familiar with the character.' They go out and they make notes on their character months before the movie and then I shoot the scene many, many different ways. Rather than shooting it over one shoulder and over the other, I stand behind my cinematographer, whisper in his ear, 'Let's go over to her, don't go over to him, now pull back for a two shot.' I'm always planning how I'm going to have to cut this while I'm shooting it because I don't have the money (to shoot endlessly). I have to get on with it. I've got tight budgets and tight schedules."

Thinking again about how Welles influenced him as a director, Jaglom shared with me a "great quote Orson said to me at lunch that I have hanging over my editing machine. I was complaining to him one day on one of my movies that I don't have enough money and I don't have enough time and working this way, yes, it's creatively freeing but it's frustrating and look at what these (other) people have and all of this money they can spend. He said to me, 'The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.' And that just hit me. He said, 'If you have no limitations about money and time you're going to not create art. You're going to throw maybe some kind of technological solution (at) a problem. You're going to have all the money you can to shoot it endlessly. You're not going to find a creative solution. But if you are limited -- if you've got the limitation of time or money -- limitation can force you to a creative solution. So never be mad at yourself or your situation that you've got limited time or limited money. Use that to find a creative answer to the problem rather than an economic answer or a time-consuming answer.'

"It was just the most liberating thing because now whenever I'm sitting by myself on the set thinking, 'How am I going to do this? I have to finish this section today and I've got only this (time in which to do it).' I am able to throw away a couple of pages. I am able to get an actor to turn on a dime and change some things. And that gives me tremendous freedom then in the editing room to invent my film from what the actors have given me rather than to rigidly stick to what I prepared. The result is that I think I'm very much an actor's director because I follow them as much as possible. I give them guidelines but then I follow what they give me and when you see the actors be wonderful it just gives me a rich series of choices rather than being confined to a very narrow kind of conventional set up. It was a great, great gift he gave me to encourage me to embrace limitations rather than to be frustrated and angry at them."

Filmmaker flashbacks: From May 11, 1989's column: "Thanks to videotape, the old restrictions about now being in two places at once no longer apply. As a result, for the next two weeks I'll be doing television interviews both here (on The Hollywood Reporter's weekly Movietime cable show) and in Cannes (on tape during the daily show at the festival).

"In one of those interviews, I asked Menahem Golan, chairman and CEO of 21st Century Film Corp., and Mark Damon, chairman and CEO of Vision International, to rank Cannes among film markets. 'No. 1,' declares Golan. 'It involves glamour and business and show and media -- television and newspapers from all the world. This is the place where people hear about a movie in every corner on earth immediately. You get your first exposure for your product.'

"Damon shares that view, explaining, 'Sometimes things are invented at the festival. At the last festival, I was looking for a hot picture. I saw a movie and that gave me an idea for a picture. The director of the movie was Zalman King. I said, 'Zalman, here we are in Cannes and you have a picture that's showing, but you don't have a new picture to announce. Why don't we do something together?'

"'In the space of about half an hour we invented a story. I sold it right there and the presales allowed me to go ahead and finance the film. As a matter of fact, this week the film is starting shooting -- 'Wild Orchid' with Mickey Rourke and Jackie Bisset. It was invented literally at the last Cannes Film Festival because we felt we had an ideal opportunity to sell a picture.'

"Golan is famous for doing deals at Cannes with contracts written on cocktail napkins: 'It's true. I signed Jean-Luc Godard on a napkin to do 'King Lear.' And I signed Andrei Konchalovsky on another napkin 15 minutes after I met him. Yes, things happen very fast in Cannes. Cannes creates an atmosphere of motion picture making and motion picture business. Cannes is an inspiration...'"

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com.
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