James Toback Picks Up Camera in Venice for New Documentary Film (Exclusive)

Fabrizio Maltese
James Toback with Alec Baldwin in Cannes

The ‘Seduced and Abandoned’ director also thinks he has a solution for fixing U.S. relations with North Korea.

James Toback is in Venice promoting his new film The Private Life of a Modern Woman, starring Sienna Miller. Before arriving, he had been contemplating the idea of Venice, for a story for Vanity Fair, and what it means about the fragility of art and life, when he decided that the theme would make a great premise for a documentary film. 

In just two weeks Toback secured financing, arriving in Venice with a crew in tow for his new project: Venice Lives. Toback will produce with Brett Ratner, Michael Mailer and Alan Helene under Ratpac Entertainment, Michael Mailer Films and AMPM Entertainment.

The director is following up on his 2013 festival film Seduced and Abandoned, which saw him and Alec Baldwin running around Cannes (unsuccessfully) trying to finance a new film.

Venice Lives is meant to be a much more expansive portrait of a city, exploring the death of art and independent cinema, juxtaposed against the death of Venice, with Europe’s art capital literally sinking into the ground.

Toback has already lined up an assortment of characters to film in Venice, including festival guests Abel Ferrara and Annette Bening, Biennale chief Paolo Baratta and artists Yee Sookyung and Lorenzo Quinn. Quinn is behind the most photographed work at the Biennale this year, a sculpture of giant hands emerging from the Grand Canal that highlight the threat of climate change and its impact on not just Venice, but the world.

The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Toback in Venice about his plans for the documentary, keeping an audience entertained, and his unusual proposal for fixing U.S. relations with North Korea.

What is Venice Lives about?

The creation of beauty and the centrality of beauty with the understanding that it is subject to the laws of nature: birth, growth, death.

We are all sinking. To me Venice is a metaphor for a life and a culture where you are born and you create something — in the case of Venice, thousands of years of beauty — and you start to face the inevitable decline and death of yourself and whatever you are living on, the ship of life. And I thought that as a thematic center, that would be a great film.

And I don’t find that at all depressing; a lot of people flinch in horror at the word "death." I find it actually somewhat of a relief. Who the fuck wants to live forever? The festival seems like a good takeoff point for that because we are celebrating an art form which still has life, but which, let’s face it, is in serious decline. That is, film as a serious form of artistic expression, as opposed to film as a sales mechanism for product and commerce, which is where 95 percent of the money to make movies around the world goes.

What's the goal of this film?

It’s to open up the mind to this whole question of what is the purpose of life. What are we doing here other than surviving? Unfortunately 99 percent of the world doesn’t have to think about it because that’s a tough enough question to answer. I mean, how do I get by today and into tomorrow and take care of my needs and responsibilities and that’s it? But for the 1 percent lucky enough to have other things they can think about: What is it? Is it just indulgence, is it greed, is it accumulation? What are you doing with your time that you don’t have to spend just to get by?

And art, I think, is probably the most interesting answer to that — creating something out of nothing. It will be around after we are dead. So I hope this movie is going to be dealing with that and with enough interesting people coming from a lot of different places that it will be minute-by-minute intriguing with a lot of beautiful music and a lot of beautiful art. 

Are you going to look specifically at what is destroying Venice, such as the cruise ships?

Yes. It’s funny you mention the cruise ships because I’m hearing that over and over again. In fact, we have to remember that, because there is nobody who doesn’t spend a lot of time in Venice who doesn’t mention [the cruise ships] as the bane of the city’s existence, not just the number of them but without being too condescending about it, the nature of the people who are also descending on the city.

Who’s the audience for this type of film?

I always say what is going to happen next, 30 seconds, 10 seconds, two seconds from now? And if you have a good answer all the time, people will watch and stay there. And in terms of making money, the movie is so fucking cheap that if it doesn’t make its money back I’ll shoot myself anyway.

And you started shooting at the Venice Art Biennale?

[We were] talking to this woman Yee Sook-yung today, from South Korea. She said everyone is thinking about the threat of a nuclear attack all the time in South Korea. We were shooting the interview about her work as an artist, but then we got into other stuff and my proposal to bring Michael Jordan to North Korea, which she immediately loved.

What’s your Michael Jordan proposal?

Jim Woolsey, the former head of the CIA, just happened to be in front of the Harvard Club [about a month ago]. I had hit Carl Icahn with it and his response was, ‘Well why would Michael Jordan want to do this if we aren’t going to be able to pay him for it?’ I said that’s the way to do it, let him be part of the delegation. Kim Jong-un idolizes him. So I gave it to Woolsey.

Woolsey after three minutes said "I have to think about it." And the woman he was with said, "That’s a great idea. You should call Trump right away."

Jordan can be part of a state department delegation with Tillerson and whoever else would be there, and maybe make some headway. I think he’d want money — that’s where his head always is: How much can they pay me? But Rodman is a friend of his and Rodman has been over there six times, so Rodman would probably assuage any fears he’d have that he’d be kidnapped.


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