Normally when he's on tour publicizing his movies, writer-director Alan Rudolph likes to plan his day around tying one on. Relieved from the responsibility of writing, handling actors, and working with the cinematographer--but with the added stress of a hectic international travel schedule--he likes nothing better than to knock back a few and talk. Drinking and talking, he proclaims, are two of his favorite pastimes. But perhaps because he has to keep the former to a minimum during our dinner interview--he's popping antibiotics every few hours to get rid of a nasty sinus infection and wants to make sure they take effect--his mouth goes into overdrive. There isn't a topic introduced that he doesn't attack with the enthusiasm that would normally be shared with a bottle of Chianti.
"The first thing I asked when the doctor gave me these was, 'Can I drink?'" he says. "And then I got the bad news. Being told you can't drink takes all the fun out of being an adult."
If it's true, as was reported in the bio Jumping Off the Cliff, that Rudolph's mentor Robert Altman was deeply influenced as a filmmaker by a good cannabis high, then Rudolph's movies seem to slur, intoxicated by the self-infatuation that heartbreak offers. From the Beverly Hills industry parties of his debut film Welcome to L.A. to Eve's Lounge in Choose Me to the '20s New York speakeasies of Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, the adults in his wry, languid dramas drink constantly, listen to jazzy tunes, trade war stories from love's battlefield in quippy, flippant dialogue, but never seem to have much fun.
His latest film, Afterglow, may be the closest he's made to a screwball farce, with its sometimes delirious depiction of two marriages that collide on the skids, but there's a restless, tragic yearning at its core. And the favorite response of the characters involved is self-medication.
"My films are about adults playing at being adults," Rudolph confirms. "They're about people trying to connect but retain their poses. They usually don't succeed, and then these childlike emotions take over."
The comic showdown in Afterglow takes place at a hotel bar, but the makeup on the sad clown faces of its characters is smeared. An incandescent Julie Christie plays Phyllis, a retired B-movie actress married to Lucky, a carpenter and all-around fix-it guy (Nick Nolte) with a sizable libido. Self-pity and sorrow over a runaway daughter they haven't seen in years have cooled Phyllis' sexual fires; she permits an otherwise devoted Lucky to indulge on the side. He strays into the ice storm of a marriage between Lara Flynn Boyle's Marianne, who desperately wants a child, and Jeffrey (the excellent Jonny Lee Miller), a self-destructive corporate climber whose prowess in the boardroom has siphoned energy away from the bedroom.
There are desperate couplings and clumsy attempts at couplings and a hilarious fisticuffs finale, but it is Christie's anguished grandeur, waiting for the adult daughter Rudolph hints may appear at any time throughout the movie, that crystallizes the film's themes of stagnation and emotional decay. Its morose atmosphere, Rudolph submits, was no accident.
"I wrote Afterglow in the midst of a deep depression over the financial failure of Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle," the filmmaker says, referring to his last picture, the first (and probably only) collaboration between Fine Line and Miramax. "I was, and continue to be, very proud of that film. But nobody knew how to market it, and some people at the top didn't want to market it. Bob [Altman, producer of both Mrs. Parker and Afterglow] said the companies' collaborating on that film was an example of sex at gunpoint. Everyone involved did it because they thought they had to, and then everybody bailed when it was over."
Rudolph says Mrs. Parker "caused me to be graylisted. After that, people said all I wanted to do was make movies where people sit around and talk. But that's what most of my movies have been. I finally wound up scouring the trades for film companies who were about to go under. They seemed to be the only ones interested in my work."
Don't pity Alan Rudolph too much; it's not everybody who can snag Julie Christie in the midst of their doldrums. Although Afterglow bears the lyrical slow-zooms, tracking shots, and idle character development Rudolph learned while working as an associate director on such Altman classics as Nashville (where he first met Christie), it's safe to say that much of the film's strong critical reception is due to the director's showcasing Christie's undiminished movie-star grace so reverently. Since this interview several weeks ago, she won the New York Film Critics' Circle Award for best actress, and is a sentimental long shot for an Oscar nomination.
"Julie is professional, but actually, she's very shy," he confides. "Because she's so talented and beautiful, that can come off as aloof. She didn't mix much on the set and stayed a lot in her trailer between takes. But all the actors fell in love with her as soon as they started working with her."
Rudolph's movies will probably always belong to cultists, because his characters tend to be so infatuated with their own wounds, and they often spout self-consciously "clever" dialogue that, at its most extreme, can make you wince. His flair for melding scene and moment, environment and folly, is wholly his own, but the dialogue in his films, at least when he writes it, can become intrusive. (A detractor of Choose Me, still Rudolph's biggest box-office hit to date, described the film as a 90-minute pickup line).
Ironically, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle may have been the strongest script he's ever worked on, lifting as it did whole passages from Dorothy Parker's poems and stories. Afterglow is firmly entrenched in the stylized, pretentiously chatty Rudolph canon, but the actors are so appealing and Rudolph's camera so confident and sensual, the occasionally silly dialogue starts to take on a noirish charm.
"Ask me about my next project," Rudolph gushes, "because it's about people talking and doing." After a 20-year wait, he's finally adapting Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions with Bruce Willis as producer and star. Rudolph claims he and Willis have been discussing it off and on ever since they clicked on the set of Mortal Thoughts. As aggressively non-mainstream as his vision has always been, he's not too proud to work with a big studio and a big star. To him, that's part of the real definition of "independent filmmaker"--the flexibility to work with all people and all budgets.
"Who's the most independent filmmaker you can think of?" Rudolph asks, and then answers the question. "Stanley Kubrick. He works every few years only on projects that he wants to, he never flies anywhere he doesn't want to, and he always works with major Hollywood studios."
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Don't even get Rudolph started on the new definition of "independent cinema" and the '90s breed of Sundance celebrities enfant who purvey it.
"There are no 'independent' film companies anymore, or you certainly won't find them at Sundance," Rudolph says. "Young filmmakers are the pet projects of gigantic corporations. It's great to have money to make your movie, no matter where it comes from, but there are international corporate strings attached to the 'independent' visions of these young people. Talented directors are instantly heralded as masters in the 'indie' world, so they don't have time to grow, to make mistakes and develop a vision. The instant they lose money, or the buzz dies, they're dropped. They never learn how to fight for their careers."
Spoken like a man who has done nothing but for as long as he and the bottle care to remember.
Written and directed by Alan Rudolph. Starring Julie Christie, Nick Nolte, Jonny Lee Miller, and Lara Flynn Boyle. Opens Friday.