'Seduced and Abandoned' Director James Toback on Turning the Cameras on Cannes (Q&A)
"I hope I’m not guilty of a horrifying amount of megalomania," says the director, who talks working with Alec Baldwin and meeting Russian billionaires in the Palais men's room.
At last year’s festival, writer-director James Toback and his pal Alec Baldwin made the rounds with a camera crew in tow. What were the two of them up to? Everyone wanted to know. Ostensibly, they were searching for financing for a proposed movie that would star Baldwin and Neve Campbell, but in a meta move, they actually were filming a documentary about what it’s like to hunt for financing in Cannes -- and what the whole process says about the state of the modern movie business. In a preemptive move, HBO has picked up their completed film, Seduced and Abandoned, even before its Cannes debut at a special screening Sunday.
Before leaving for another foray on the Croisette, Toback, 68, who lives in New York with his wife, Stephanie Kempf, spoke with THR about turning his camera on some of the world’s top filmmakers.
The Hollywood Reporter: What inspired this project?
James Toback: It was an odd pregnancy and delivery. I’d only met Alec a couple of times. Once on the set of Woody Allen’s film Alice. Then I ran into him at the Hamptons Film Festival, when my documentary Tyson was there. We had a great talk and agreed to meet for lunch at the Harvard Club. Over six months, we had 30 lunches and dinners. I hope I’m not guilty of a horrifying amount of megalomania, but it became increasingly obvious to me at least that I should shoot these encounters. We talked about different cinematic ideas. And Alec actually suggested a film that really gets to the heart of what’s going on in film today. When I found out he’d never been to Cannes, I said, “Let’s shoot at the Cannes Film Festival.” It could really be intriguing to start with a shot of him arriving at the Nice Airport, which is in the movie.
THR: Why did you decide then to make the movie about your quest to find financing to make another movie?
Toback: That’s what we needed to drive the movie, that’s the MacGuffin. We both got into such a profound level of symbiosis that I don’t know whose idea it was. But that’s what moves us through the movie as we meet all the representatives of film -- executives, conglomerate heads, actors, actresses, directors, as well as foreign salespeople and representatives of various countries soliciting film production. By the way, it’s a humbling experience as you’ll see. It wasn’t as if people were knocking each other over to give us money. But we actually did try, and we’re still trying to get the other movie financed.
THR: So how’d you manage to get a camera into all the events you attended?
Toback: The mayor of Cannes was extremely generous. The tricky thing was getting into the official sections of the festival. [Festival director] Thierry Fremaux cooperated with us and we had an actual designation for festival access, but a limited time to shoot. Much of the time, we just sort of wandered into events and were confused with other crews. We also had a very nice apartment on the Croisette, which we used for conversations with Roman Polanski and several others. We got interviews with Scorsese, Bertolucci. Jessica Chastain and Francis Ford Coppola were terrific. Also Avi Lerner, Mark Damon and Jeremy Thomas, whose HanWay is handling sales for the movie.
THR: The word was that Harvey Weinstein turned you down.
Toback: I never actually approached Harvey, but it was a rather odd situation. I was introduced to Len Blavatnik, the Russian billionaire, in the men’s room of the Palais, and I said, “Would you like to appear in the movie?” and he said yes. He was reticent at first, but then he said, “Why don’t you come onto my yacht tomorrow, and you can shoot me with Harvey,” so I said OK. But the next morning, I got a call saying Blavatnik was canceling. But I actually had no intention of asking Harvey originally, because I felt like there were certain personalities who would throw the film out of whack. We have Ron Meyer and Mike Medavoy and Jeffrey Katzenberg, and we felt that was more than enough of the executive luminaries.
THR: So what did you learn about the current film business?
Toback: The interesting thing one finds in this foreign sales world is that there is not a helluva lot of interest in stories and character. There is almost a single-minded interest in the cast. We were pitching Neve Campbell for our movie, but [Nu Image’s] Avi Lerner wasn’t interested. He said, “Why not someone like what’s-her-name Natalie Portman?” That’s the way it works. It’s like a stock that plummets. First, it’s Natalie Portman, then a year or two later, it’s what’s-her-name Natalie Portman, and then it’s what’s-her-name. You very much get a sense that’s what film financing is all about.
THR: Why the title Seduced and Abandoned?
Toback: That’s one of the things I will take credit for. There was that great film by Pietro Germi with that title, but I loved the idea of that title for a film about Cannes, and when I told Alec about it, he flipped. It encapsulates what the movie business is about: It’s a lover who draws you in, seduces you and leaves you, but you still go back one more time. Much of the film is very funny, but there is also a meditative, elegiac tone to it that I quite like.
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