Muscular Contractions

Film still for Muscular Contractions
Close-up of James Toback.

James Toback is one of the few true film mavericks. Here Easy Riders, Raging Bulls author Peter Biskind talks to him about sex scenes in his new When Will I Be Loved.

James Toback is one of the best-kept secrets in a film world that loves novelty and newbies. Toback is neither: he was making indie films - real ones, with no money, no time and no distribution deals, that he both wrote and directed and that speak with the voice of the film-maker - when most of today's indies were in short pants. He was a latecomer to the feast of the 1970s. By the time he arrived, with his 1977 masterpiece Fingers, the bones had been picked clean, and the film, though lauded by Pauline Kael, is only now getting the attention it deserves.

To a degree, Toback has always lived in its shadow, a problem compounded by the fact that his films are walks on the wild side. They aren't 'nice', aren't life-affirming, don't offer characters to 'root for', don't provide 'life lessons' at every turn. But when other 1970s directors gave up or drifted into studio production, Toback kept working, always on his own terms, and by now he has produced a body of work that includes such electrifying pictures as Two Girls and a Guy (1997), Black and White (1999) and Bugsy (1991), which he wrote. He has displayed a genius for discovering young or underappreciated talent - most conspicuously Robert Downey Jr - and for bringing out the best in journeyman actors, and has never lost his ability to offend, to surprise and to venture where others dare not go. His latest, When Will I Be Loved, is very much a 'Toback film', which is to say it opens with Neve Campbell masturbating in the shower and goes on from there. But it is also a departure. Although Toback has created many strong female characters, including Tisa Farrow's in Fingers, Annette Bening's in Bugsy and Heather Graham's in Two Girls and a Guy, here he gives us a woman who plays the tune to which the men dance. And in the process he has transformed Campbell from just another pretty face into an actress.

PB: A lot of women hate your movies. They regard them as misogynist.

JT: Right. A lot of men too, especially these professional women like Andrew Sarris - guys who wish they were women and feel obliged to write criticism as if they were women. Their agenda is usually more loaded and genuflecting before platitudinous notions of feminism even than that of ardent feminists, who are more self-critical. Having grown up with a mother who was the president of the League of Women Voters, who moderated debates on television, and with a nurse who had been an established concert cellist, who introduced me to serious music when I was four years old, the idea of not taking women as seriously as men has always been so absurd to me it never entered my consciousness.

PB: Is this film an attempt to blunt that criticism?

JT: Not really. I'd been writing movies that revolve around male characters who have certain recognisable traits: they exist in a world of extravagance, flamboyance, sexual obsession; they share a sense of drama, a desire to provoke death or at least danger. There's a flirtation with madness, a reckless attitude towards money and social decorum. To take a vacation from that character and centre a film on a woman, which I hadn't done since 1983 in Exposed, felt completely fresh. So I thought, take a young woman whom I describe as post-feminist in the sense that she takes for granted the primary tenets of feminism as I've always taken them for granted myself, take a woman who is adventuresome, sexually preoccupied, orgasmically addicted, narcissistic, hedonistic, and put her in potentially dramatically intriguing circumstances, and see what happens. Because I didn't know what was going to happen. I didn't come up with the ending until half way through our 12-day shoot.

PB: Do you mean that there wasn't a script?

JT: I had a 35-page script. Nobody, including me, saw anything but that up to the first day of shooting. It included some extremely well-worked-out scenes, but those episodic events at the beginning of the movie - which give you a sense of who she is, where she is in her life and her sexual nature - were invented pretty much on the spot. And the conclusion - the effects and consequences of those initial events, which is to say the last quarter of the movie - also came about as a result of having started to shoot and figuring out what would seem right. I call it an existential form of film-making because you take the moment and ask what it implies about what comes next. The next event is the product of the previous event, as opposed to being the product of a well-mapped-out programme which the financier, producer, actors, managers and agents, to say nothing of the writer and director, have all signed off. And it wouldn't have happened that way had Neve Campbell not become a 50-50 collaborator. Without her, the movie wouldn't have been made at all, or certainly not made the way it was made.

PB: You drew a stunning performance from an actress whose best-known picture was Scream. What did you see in her that no one else saw?

JT: I'd admired her for 12 years, having seen her in several movies that I was tremendously drawn to - Wild Things, which I saw several times, and the Scream movies. The fact that she wasn't taken seriously I regarded as the kind of gang-rape that's endemic in responses to the arts: people get brain-washed into the politically or culturally correct view of the moment. She's articulate, smart, graceful, elegant, sexually open, emotionally complex and slightly unreachable yet engaging. My thought was, if I can create a role for her and with her that uses all of this and gives her something to feel excited about so she becomes a participant, there's a story that can be generated. Same as with Downey. I had no evidence for Downey as an actor when I cast him in The Pick-Up Artist. I saw him in Tuff Turf, which he was in for five minutes, and beyond that he was a second-string regular on Saturday Night Live with very little to do. Then I met with him and saw that he was funny and articulate, quick and freakish, entertaining and likeable. And to me that meant that given a good role, he could be a terrific screen presence. You meet certain people who might have a secret life that would shock you, but they're not going to be able to translate that cinematically. They need to appear capable of anything, so when they do something you believe it. When you find an actor who has that quality you get a huge gift. Downey has that, and Harvey Keitel, and so does Neve.

PB: She feels totally present and spontaneous, as if she were improvising.

JT: I make a distinction between improvisation and invention. If you have a text from which to improvise, you have the security of a map or a template, but invention is more challenging. I express a general intention, but how it is to be achieved I leave completely up to the actor. And that's something very few actors can do. It means being able to handle language not only in a dextrous way, which many actors can't do, but in a way where the content of what you're saying is totally your own. She can do that.

PB: How did you conclude that she would be able to collaborate with you?

JT: We arranged to meet at the Beverly Hills Hotel at 2pm. It was supposed to be a one-hour meeting and it became a 14-hour meeting. By the end of the night it was clear that she had a lot of ideas about what this young woman would be like, how she would speak and behave, what she would and wouldn't do. It was as quick a fusion of player and role as I've ever witnessed.

PB: How much did the movie cost and how did you put together the financing?

JT: Ron Rotholz, who used to be Madonna's manager and was one of the producers of Black and White, called me and said, "I'm in partnership with these three British bankers and we have a million two to spend on a movie. Do you want to make one?" I said "Sure" without even knowing what it was. The bankers didn't wait to see what I would come up with: as soon as I said "Yes" they put the money in escrow and gave me a start date. I had to write a script immediately. Then there were six weeks of pre-production and 12 days of shooting.

PB: How do you shoot a picture in 12 days?

JT: By being massively, even psychotically confident, not to say megalomaniac. That's the psychological answer. The practical answer is to use a Steadi-cam, which means I could shoot a moving frame and then edit in this abrupt semi-jump-cut fashion I've become seduced by. It frees you from using marks, from treating the actors like robots and from the need to check off a list of obligations in terms of shooting and editing that slow you down tremendously and slow down the actors as well. With a Steadi-cam, because I'm not setting up all over again for each shot, I often do 15, 20 takes of one visual idea. This is why - to make a grotesquely immodest statement - actors are much better with me than they usually are with other directors. It's not because I'm telling them what to do - I would keep them from being good if I did - but because I choose actors who like to be let loose. Most directors are worried about time. Downey has told me that he smells it out in two seconds when what a director really wants is just to get the shot in the can - so despite all the lip-service about wanting to be surprised, it really comes down to, "Please, let this get done so we can move on."

PB: You once amusingly compared the relationship between actors and directors to that between hookers and johns. What did you mean?

JT: What does a director do with an actor who has, in effect, let you know, "You and your movie are of so little importance to me that you never would have gotten me unless you paid what you paid"? What kind of poisonous sea is that to be swimming in, even if it's never articulated? It's like a hooker saying, "It's true that I wouldn't have fucked you if you hadn't paid me, but now that you're paying me I really love you!" Not that I don't want to pay actors what they're worth. I feel bad that most actors are getting less than they should be getting. I feel even worse that I'm getting less than I should be getting. But the fact is that today you can't do the movies you want unless you do them at great financial sacrifice. Not just personal financial sacrifice, but budgetary sacrifice, because once you're above the $5-6 million range you're talking about a corporate enterprise that makes a bunch of people nervous, nosy and opinionated. They become part of your life whether you want them or not. It's not as if you can say, "Thank you for the cheque, I'll see you at the premiere."

PB: In the opening shot Campbell is in the shower, masturbating. Did you shoot her from behind because of the potential ratings problem?

JT: No. I was able to deliver an NC-17 if I wanted to. I wanted it to appear as though she were actually coming. Whether or not she did, to this day, I do not know. But I did know that watching the muscular contractions from the back - and it's a very beautiful back and very beautiful calves - one can believe it, in a way that if it had been done facing the camera, it would have been faked and clearly faked. From the front I felt the camera would detect the fraudulence and create a major embarrassment.

PB: Your pictures are known for outré sex scenes. Do you feel you have to excel yourself?

JT: I never allow myself to succumb to the temptation to think outside the movie itself. I never ask, what will people say about this? Only, what would this character believably do next?

PB: You've said that the way people have sex reveals character. In some of your films the men take the women from behind - what does that reveal?

JT: It's what those two people would be doing.

PB: That's it?

JT: If the position were the woman hanging from a chandelier and the guy on crutches, I would say, this is some fetish of somebody's, because it keeps appearing and hardly anyone does it. But from my extensive experience in my life, starting from when I was a kid, that is by far the most preferred position for both men and women. I might have had the most aberrationally unusual range of acquaintances, and there are quite a few other positions as well. I'll be happy to supply a list upon request.

PB: Have your actors ever balked at doing sex scenes?

JT: I have never had an actor do anything faked or real, sexually, on the screen, that hasn't been in complete harmony with what that actor wanted to do or would believe he or she would be doing in the context of the character and the scene. The reason most sex scenes in movies are dreadful is that they're almost always mapped out in this hideously predictable way where actors are told to stick out their tongue, and put a toe on a nipple, and make this sound or that sound, or flip over and show half a tit. I will always go 180 degrees the opposite route. Contrary to what these retarded, reductive, bigoted critics of mine might think, I would never in a million years tell actors what to do. Once in a while, if I think something is going to ignite a particularly revelatory moment, I will suggest it. I suggested to Downey that he lick Heather Graham's asshole in Two Girls and a Guy, which he found very amusing as a prospect, and he did it. But had Downey said to me, "Oh my god, I don't want to do that," or had Heather said, "Yuck, that's disgusting," it wouldn't have happened.

PB: What was the dramatic significance of that scene?

JT: It was taking a character who is primarily oral, an oral entertainer, with a secondary phallic presence...

PB: What does that mean?

JT: His area of excitement, exhibition, control, power and confidence is his mouth, not his dick. Downey's mouth is the key to him, in life. My thought was, when you're really dextrous with your mouth, you do as much with it as you can. So first he kisses her, very well: the nicest interchange of tongues I've ever seen in a movie. It beats out that great tongue interaction in Les Cousins, the second-greatest tongue-kiss scene in movie history. He does it with the mouth to mouth first, then the mouth to asshole, then the mouth to pussy. His mouth is his organ of success, of confidence.

PB: You've solved the production end of making movies quickly and cheaply. But what about the rest of it? In Nick Jarecki's documentary about you, one of your producers says your movies are impossible to market. What happens when you get to that stage?

JT: The people who've financed me have come out way ahead. My record of returning money to investors is much better than 90 per cent of directors. No one's got rich, but no one's taken a bath. And some people have made a lot of money. But where I get screwed is in distribution and marketing. It's not that my movies are impossible to market, it's just that when the distributor doesn't make a huge investment, the easiest path for them to take is not to spend much money. The entire business now is geared towards DVD and cable anyway, so the prevailing practice is to establish a profile by opening the movie theatrically, but except for extremely expensive movies, not to spend so much that you're going to get hurt. And make your money on DVD and cable.

PB: So you depend on DVD and cable to get your films to the audience?

JT: The reality is that far fewer people see my movies than I would like. The way I deal with that, psychologically, is that in most cases the movie is the movie I wanted to make. That's far more important to me than if I'm offered $10 million to direct a movie I don't even want to see. If a studio told me I could make $20 million a year if I directed Collateral, or the prequel to The Exorcist, as Paul Schrader just did, or Brian De Palma making Mission: Impossible I wouldn't even be tempted to think about it, let alone do it. To say nothing of the fact that I'd be lousy if I tried. My grandfather had a massive amount of money, so even though it wasn't mine, money was demythologised. It was never a big deal to me, and it isn't now, whether I have a lot or none, and I've been in both places several times. It's much more important for me to have artistic freedom.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012