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James Woods and Stephen Chin Discuss Another Day in Paradise
by Ted Murphy
One thing can be said for James Woods: He pulls no punches. Onscreen he has been effective as villains and anti-heroes. During his long and distinguished career, Woods has twice been nominated for the Academy Award, for his brilliant leading turn as a journalist covering the local conflict in the Oliver Stone-directed Salvador and his showy supporting performance as Byron De La Beckwith, the unrepentant racist killer of Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers in Ghosts of Mississippi. He has also won two Emmy Awards for his small screen work. Woods is the kind of actor who can be fascinating to watch and when he’s "on", he’s mesmerizing. On the other hand, when he is allowed to go over the top, he can be a distraction.
The actor gave one of the best screen performances of his career in Another Day in Paradise, the violent story of a charismatic, drug-addicted thief, his long-time girlfriend and the young couple they nurture as proteges. Directed by Larry Clark (no stranger to the milieu), the film was a brutal but fascinating character study of four people on the fringes of society. Woods tended to dominate the film, but he was matched in several scenes by Melanie Griffith, offering a change-of-pace performance that proved she was capable of more than just her usual little-girl shtick. The project was near and dear to Woods as he explained.
When the former secretary to his agent Toni Howard, a woman named Nikki Pfeffer, became a full-fledged agent, Woods sent her flowers. He was one of the few people who acknowledged her promotion and she told him, "I’m going to get you your first great film script. And I’m going to win you your first Oscar!" In her new capacity, she read scripts that had passed through all the hands—and somehow, the script for Another Day in Paradise had found its way to this beginning agent. Pfeffer called Woods and gave him the script. "[I] read the script in an hour and [realized] this is a fantastic part." The only sticking point about the project was that Larry Clark was attached as director; Woods had seen Kids, Clark’s first film and had "reservations" about the film. He recognized that "this script looked like it would give me the possibilities to do something I have not been able to do since Salvador—which is go to whatever dark corner, whatever far edge of the envelope there is. The script was a blueprint for that and if the right people got involved and did it the right way even if it were tumultuous and chaotic and contentious, if we could get to that end, that’s what I was looking for."
Woods met with Stephen Chin, who was producing, and agreed to do the film if he was allowed to partner in the producing. And the actor was no dilettante; he had very specific ideas and was of the "hands on" variety. In the process of financing the picture, there were certain elements required, including a name co-star and the actor suggested Melanie Griffith. (In fact, the script had been sent to her agent who had not shown it to the actress.) Not wasting any time, Woods explained, "I called Melanie and told her ‘This is the movie that is going to redefine you the way Ann-Margaret was redefined when she did Carnal Knowledge. You’re going to play a woman who hit a brick wall called 40, like you were going 100 miles an hour. No more sex kitten."
While she was reluctant to agree to do a relatively low-budget film, Woods encouraged her to read the script and even offered her half of his salary and half of his ownership of the film as incentive.
"You get to a certain position where there are a lot of pressures on you to do really more—and I want to say this in a positive light because I’ve had very positive experiences working in the studio system—much more commercial kind of safe films. And it’s great. You get paid, you get attention and it gives you the power to do the films you want and I’m now because of that in a position to have the power to keep doing that and get paid more or also turn around and be able to be an element that can finance the kind of films that I truly love," he explained. "As far as acting roles go, this is one of the best opportunities I’ve had in years. And better than even some of the biggest films out there that are studio films."
Much ink has been spilled over the conflicts that raged during the making of Another Day in Paradise. It may be a little ironic that out of such turbulence came such fine performances, but Woods has made it clear that he and Oliver Stone had a few dust-ups during Salvador ["Improv is what I do best. Some of the best stuff I’ve had in movies has been ad libs."] He also added that, "Regardless of our differences—Larry Clark would bring a rawness and a reality to this story which, if it were done in another way, would be another dysfunctional family of criminals on the road—which is still interesting but not as interesting as the target that I was going for, which was simply this: we all sat down and because Larry was directing and Stephen writing and I was starring and we were all working together—we were really a collaboration no matter how bumpy it got. And certainly at the beginning at least, we were able to form overall intention—the spirit of what we were going to do. And I said, ‘I would love if we could make a movie about crime that would be, if you didn’t know who James Woods and Melanie Griffith were . . . you would actually believe that someone had gone along with a camera and made a documentary of these people’s lives. This is how they behaved. That put certain demands on how we were going to make this film. We were going to have to be open to improvisation, we were going to have to be open to odd camera angles, to a kind of dirtiness and brutality that was going to be unequivocal."
Writer-producer Stephen Chin added, "Larry Clark . . . comes from the world of still photography so he’s more of an observational director. He’s not the kind of director who says ‘I want you to hold your hat this way or turn your body this way. He’s much more of feeling the vibe on the set and watching and not saying anything which I think is really challenging for actors. Part of what we got with Jimmy & Melanie were people who had a huge body of experience and the other thing, and the reason we were very, very excited about having Jimmy involved—I was excited on a producerial side—obviously brilliant and obviously able to tap into a whole different side than I was able to—it was a very nice collaboration. . . .There’s a warmth and a charisma and a humor that you rarely [see Woods display in film]" That aspect of the character was necessary for two reasons: one, audiences rarely see that side of a sociopath, and two, it established the character’s fall from grace.
Woods added, "With Larry, we had the problem of, you want to feel free but do you trust that he’s not going to use the part where you say some outrageous, ridiculous thing. Part of the improv process, 70 % of it may work if you’re really lucky and 30% is really terrible."
"You also don’t want to spend 7-8 hours a day improvising your first scene when you’ve got four scenes to shoot that day," Chin pointed out.
"Larry, of course, would love it. He’d leave the camera running forever," the actor added
Woods detailed a particular instance. There is a scene in the film where two college students arrive with the intent to purchase drugs from Woods’ character Mel. One of them happened to be dressed in a Hawaiian shirt, so in character, Mel asks the kid if he surfs a lot. Flustered the young man replied, "Tulsa. No ocean." While the scene did not make the final cut of the film, it inspired Larry Clark to use obscure surf music on the soundtrack "An actor comes up with the inspiration, a director sort of goes with it and the writer-co-producer [Chin] says oh okay and is at four in the morning out [looking for surf music]" Woods explained. "You can see kinda going what the fuck is surf music playing for in this scene and then when the scene gets into the surf references, it sort of works and that to me that is the unbelievably plus side of this kind of filmmaking, The dark side is when it sort of doesn’t work and now you’ve lost a day. That’s why you need collaboration, some of which was sorely lacking at times that things went awry. So, it a very iffy process; with the budget constraints, the producer in you is saying, you know what, fuck it, let’s just do the scene as written. On the other hand, it’s a great departure point, and I love the script so much where you just stick with it, but there were other times when it was a great way to go."
Another problem was with co-star Vincent Kartheiser. Woods began, "Larry met Vincent and took an instant liking—[turning to Chin] you do it, you do this, I can’t handle this properly."
Chin replied, "Oh thank you, very much!"
Woods added, "You’re the Yale lawyer, slither around this, partner."
Tactfully, Chin explained, "I don’t know to what my colleague is referring. Originally, Larry wanted to hire unknowns for those two parts. We wanted a Native American, originally we had written Rosie as a Native American and we had every casting director . . . There was a young actor named Vincent Kartheiser who had been in children’s movies Alaska and Indian in the Cupboard who I had met through ICM and I thought he had exactly the right kind of curiosity about sort of the other world. He had been raised in a nice suburb of Minneapolis. I thought he had a certain kind of beautiful, youthful androgyny and the sense of curiosity of the dark side. I introduced him to Larry and Larry took an instant . . . [formed a] strong bond with him."
Woods did managed to explain his frustration with the younger actor, "We needed to make the point with [Kartheiser] that he needed to be prepared. There was a little confusion on his part between being loose and improvisational and showing up on time and being prepared."
"For actors," Chin cut in, "working in this way for very little money with a very radical filmmaker with a very tough script and subject matter required enormous courage. Because these people are trusting that all of this is going to turn out well. We’ve got the period, gunfight scenes are very difficult, and car chases, and we’re doing a lot of it in 34 days. What can I say amazed me particularly about Jimmy and Melanie is that they never even in moments when the chaos and the craziness and the insanity really felt like they were threatening to overwhelm the movie, never lost their professionalism and knock out some of their best work in years. . . . For the young actors, that was really inspiring. Natasha never flagged in her faith in Larry and in her faith in what the movie was about and Vinnie, as you mentioned who was much more open to ‘whatever’." But there was an incident when Kartheiser showed up to the set three hours late and a pivotal scene of Woods’ was lost.
"To sit and wait for any other actor," Woods said, barely concealing his anger, "I wouldn’t wait for Robert De Niro for three hours. Then again Robert De Niro would never be three hours late. . . . You will never get me to concede that anybody has a right to keep anybody else waiting for three hours. I will never concede that. I have been a professional actor since September 5, 1968 and I have never in my life been more than 15 minutes late and then only because the driver got lost or something. I have never missed a day’s work except once when I was in the hospital with double pneumonia for nine days. I personally find no excuse for that just like I find no excuse for people lying under oath."
Next on the agenda for the actor are co-starring roles in the thrillers True Crime, with Clint Eastwood and The General’s Daughter, alongside John Travolta. Woods also reteams with Oliver Stone for the football-themed Any Given Sunday. While he does not discount a return to the stage, if the proper vehicle could be found, Woods does harbor hopes of making his feature directorial debut with The Shrine at Altamira, which he also adapted from the novel by John L’Heureux.
Courtesty of Hollywood.com