Interviewing Keith Gordon: From De Palma to ‘Dexter’

Keith GordonKeith Gordon may not drive a Plymouth Fury like his character does in Christine (1983), but he finds other ways to get noticed – right now by directing hit shows for television. In truth, though, he has already made an indelible mark on cinema with sensitively crafted independent films such as A Midnight Clear (1992) and Mother Night (1996), and he is still looking to develop new projects in an arena he helped pioneer. It’s a rare combination that you’ll find in him: an artist who has found success in both the acting and directing realms. Yet he remains as down-to-earth as can be when discussing his trade. In this interview, we talk to him about the business of directing, life’s little ironies and what his father taught him.

You’ve starred in films such as Dressed to Kill (1980), Christine (1983) and Back to School (1986) as an actor, directed movies ranging from The Chocolate War (1988) to The Singing Detective (2003), and have helmed episodes of TV shows like Homeland (2011-present) and Dexter (2006-2013). Were these organic transitions from one medium to another, and can you tell us a little about how you came to make the move from film to television?

KG: The transition from film to TV was really a response to changes in the industry. I was very happy making independent films, and I’m still actively trying to continue making my own projects. The problem is that, during the first part of the last decade, financing changed radically for a number of reasons: the fall-off of the DVD sales market, the lessening of the foreign value of films, the underperformance of smaller independent films with name actors in them, the growth of TV (especially cable in the U.S.) taking over a lot of the marketplace that the independent film world had served. Cable TV became a place for people who wanted adult, challenging, morally complex stories and characters that they used to only get from independent films. People went to the theatres less. All these factors made financing movies in the range that I mostly worked – $2 million to $7 million – incredibly difficult. A lot of financiers and producers got scared off of that range of filmmaking.

The other thing that happened was microbudget digital filmmaking. People started making feature films for $50,000 to $100,000, and the risks were much smaller. Overall, the democratisation of filmmaking has been a wonderful thing, but it is also a reason why larger “small” films have become even harder to make. The problem is, not every story can be told well within that kind of budget. Most of the things that I was passionate about could be done in the small range but not in the microbudget range. Most of the things that I wrote or adapted had too many locations or characters. Now there’s been a continued evolution, and people are starting to make slightly bigger stories on much smaller budgets as digital technology continues to improve.

Keith Gordon ChristineI am now taking some of my $4 million to $5 million proposed budgets and seeing if I can drop a zero off of them in this new atmosphere. I make a perfectly good living directing television, so I could afford to take six months off to do a film where I might make nothing. It takes a month to do an hour-long TV show from the point that you received the script to the final edit. I don’t live that lavishly; I was always aware that this business is very up and down, so I’ve lived in the same house for the last 25 years. I drive a 16-year-old car.

I have a few projects I’m working on, some of which go back many years. At the top of the list is a novel called The Muse Asylum by David Czuchlewski that Peter Newman, who helped produce The Squid and the Whale (2005), brought to me some years back as a book. I fell in love with it; it’s fascinating, cinematic, complicated – all the things that attract me. The agreement is that I would own the rights to the script and he would control the rights to the book, and we continue to work as a team with the hope of getting it made. The nature of independent filmmaking is that you’re a full-time fundraiser who directs as a hobby. The making of the movie is the dessert; the majority of the meal is finding the money to get it made.

Right now with that project I’m working on reexamining the budget to see how much less it could be made for. It takes place in New York City, there is a large number of locations and the story is told from three different points of view, and my whole concept was that each point of view would have a radically different visual style, so it can’t all simply (and cheaply) be shot with handheld camera, Mumblecore-style, because it would undermine the nature of the storytelling. All of those things add to the budget.

The films you’ve directed had an independent feel long before “independent” became a catchword. What are the major differences between steering movies for smaller studios versus working for major production houses?

KG: I’ve never made a film as a director for a studio. I can’t really comment on that experience directly; however, as an actor I was in films for studios. Columbia did Christine. I also have developed a couple of scripts with studios. I found it again much like directing for TV in a different way. You’re a cog in a bigger system, and a lot of focus in the studio world – because the cost numbers are bigger – is on commerciality, on what will appeal to the broadest number of people, on not breaking the rules too much so it can be put in a neater box for selling and distribution. Those are the things that don’t tend to speak to me as a filmmaker. On a certain level, I wish I was excited by doing The Fast and the Furious Part 8 because I’d be very wealthy and making movies all the time. But it’s just not who I am.

Keith Gordon A Midnight ClearI have friends who do that. People don’t sell out just to sell out; there are reasons that people need to make money. Part of the reason I’ve kept my life simple is [so I don’t have] to be forced into things I don’t want to do. My agents and I often see things differently – their take is, if I do a bigger movie, it will make getting my smaller movies made more easy. I’m sure there’s truth in that – if (and it’s a big if) the film is a “hit”. The problem is most films, including studio films, are economic disappointments or failures. To do a bad studio movie that fails would be a year and half out of my life that I would not enjoy and not do much to help my “bankability,” either. Every once in a while I get to read a studio script that’s quite wonderful. But one of two things almost inevitably happens. Either someone with a much bigger name than me also reads it, sees it as special, and grabs it for him or herself – most A-list directors have a whole bankroll of properties. Or the other sad thing that’s even more common is that those special projects simply never get made. The very thing that made them special and unique ultimately scares off the system.

So I would be happy to do a studio film, but I grew up in an era when studio films were Taxi Driver (1976) and A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Klute (1971). My problem is that those were the movies I grew up thinking “that’s what movies are”. Now the industry truly functions more as an industry than as an art form. There’s just not a lot that I want to go see coming out of mainstream Hollywood.

Did you have to adapt your directing style to suit the TV arena, and if so, how?

KG: TV has become a repository of the best dramatic writing. I’m about to do Masters of Sex (2013-present); I feel very glad to be doing it. The writing and acting on the shows I’m lucky enough to get to do is as good or better than anything in the feature world. But the mixed blessing for a director is, it’s not a director’s medium. The show-runner producer/writer is the one creating the arc of the show, the style and the tone, and my job is to convey his or her vision. That’s a little less artistically satisfying than making your own film. That said, it’s also a fascinating challenge because often the show will have a different visual grammar than the one I instinctively go toward. I do feel I’ve learned a lot during that process, going outside my comfort zone, shooting things in ways I might not ordinarily and trying to make things fit the tone and style of a larger whole. But I do miss being the one who sets the tone and style of the larger whole.

Keith Gordon Mother NightHow much control do you have creatively in directing for TV versus feature-length films, and does the script change during production, or does it generally stay status quo?

KG: Every TV show is unique. Some shows are more encouraging towards directors who want to bring their own touch, while other shows are much more rigorous about their artistic rules. Certainly in cable, the more adventurous shows are generally hiring directors that they expect will have some sort of point of view that they’ll bring to the table, but at the end of the day, my job is to make them happy. I try to present them with options but not deliberately go against the DNA of the show. For example, I wouldn’t go into Masters of Sex and do a ton of Dutch angles (when you tilt the camera to the side). The show’s style is quieter, less expressionistic than that. On the other hand, in Dexter, we would use them like crazy because the show had that baroque, stylised feeling. At the same time it’s wonderful to do something they’ve never quite done before, but it has to fit the voice. Among the things I do is an alternate version that’s less extreme if I want to, say, do a particularly odd angle. There are times when I go, “This may not fit that show, so I’ll give them another choice.” At the end of the day in TV it’s more important that they’re happy than I’m happy because that’s what the job is – it’s not about satisfying your own ego. It’s like being hired as an architect. If someone wants a lovely Victorian cottage, you can’t turn around and give them some piece of edgy modernism, even if it’s really good. Because it’s their house, not yours. It would be irresponsible.

Your films are carefully crafted, often maintaining a dark sensibility while conveying a sense of humour as well. For example, A Midnight Clear featured a snowball fight between American and German soldiers in World War II. How do you balance these different sensibilities and ensure the transition between them is seamless?

KG: That mix is always challenging, but it’s also a mix that speaks to me as a film viewer. My favourite filmmakers – Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, François Truffaut to name a few – often had complex tones in their movies. Without thinking about it consciously, I’m just drawn to stories that have sadness and darkness but also have the weird humour of life in them. It’s also the luck of what gets made; for years, I was developing a flat-out comedy … that film actually got into preproduction at one point and then the money fell apart.

Keith Gordon Dressed to KillSome of that is my taste and my personality, and some of that is the luck of the draw. The five features I’ve made happen to show certain parts of me more than others. That said, I do think I’m drawn to complexity of character and tone, so it’s not surprising that there’s often both darkness and humour in certain amounts. Mother Night had more out-and-out humour mixed in than The Chocolate War. I see life that way, so it comes through in what stories turn me on and what I like to express as a filmmaker.

I’m a short-term big-picture pessimist and cynic, and a long-term big-picture optimist. I feel like people are full of darkness and cruelty, and a lot of my films are about systems, religious or governmental, that tend to become very self-sustaining at the expense of those who are ground up in them. But I also think life is beautiful and full of surprises, joy and love. I feel like the world slowly gets better while it’s often horrible along the way, and that has both a sadness and an inherent ironic humour in it.

Most of my films are about people who mean well, but things go badly and they end up hurting people instead. We like to think we control the universe, our fates and destiny, and yet often life goes very differently from how we intend it to go. And I find myself drawn to those stories because that’s been my experience in life. Most of the important things that have happened in my life were not by plan.

We all go around making plans, and the universe chooses to laugh at us a good deal of the time.

Do you encourage improvisation when working from a script, and if so, how much do you like to see?

KG: Often when I’m shooting I will allow actors to play with the dialogue. I often say on the first day of rehearsals or shooting that this isn’t Shakespeare and what matters to me is that what comes out of your mouth is alive and conveys the meaning of the scene. I’m a director first and a writer second. In TV, the words are very often considered inviolable. On my set, it’s much more “Hey, as long as what you’re saying conveys the meaning, you should say it as long as it‘s in character.”

Keith Gordon The Chocolate WarA lot depends on the actors and project. With Waking the Dead (2000), Billy Crudup, Jennifer Connelly and I spent a lot of energy in rehearsal filing in all the blanks ourselves on who these people were, so by the time we started shooting there was this whole complex history of the characters and the relationship that we knew. Given that knowledge, I would often encourage them in the shooting to “mess it up, talk over each other, improvise,” as they were sometimes so polite about my words. And some of the very best moments in the film were not scripted. They had grounded themselves so fully in these people that they could really respond to each other in character.

Some actors do it more than others. Nick Nolte rarely improvised but when he did, it was always brilliant. He tended to stick to the script more. It was just his style in that character [in Mother Night]. Every actor is different.

Your father, Mark Gordon, appeared in many films, including A New Leaf (1971), in which he did a terrific turn as a sleazy chauffeur. He even provided a voiceover in a movie you wrote: Static (1985). What did you learn from him as an actor, and how have you applied those lessons to your craft?

KG: I learned an immense amount from my father. He did direct me in a play at The Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York called A Traveling Companion. It was one of my very first professional jobs; I was one of three characters: a 16-year-old boy going through this traumatic experience of being abandoned by his mother, and this bond grows between an older man and the kid. It was a remarkable experience in terms of the way my father would break down a piece and examine what scenes were really about. He was always breaking things down to both the meta level and the tiny, sort of subatomic level: What is the journey of the whole piece, what is the journey of this scene and even what is the journey of this line of dialogue – why it was there, what each character was looking for in the big picture, and in each tiny moment that made up the big picture. That was a great education in that element of directing.

It didn’t just come from working with him. Growing up with a father who’s a director and an actor and a directing teacher … it’s like growing up with a father who’s a rabbi: You’re either going to run screaming from religion or learn a lot about it sitting at the dinner table. Because a lot of the conversation in my house was about my father’s work. From a very young age he would talk to me about what he was doing and why. I also learnt things I didn’t want to do from him. My father tended to be very tortured in his work. He didn’t have a great deal of fun. I wanted to do the creative things he was doing, but I didn’t want to let it rip me up inside. I tried to keep his approaches and theories, but I tried to bring a much lighter tone to my sets and to my workplace. I try to bring a sense of fun and playfulness and open-ended discovery that my dad really struggled with. He was very serious when he was directing. And he’d get easily frustrated when he felt like he wasn’t getting what he wanted. I felt like that hurt his work sometimes. I tried taking what was best about his work – a wonderful intellectual rigour – but combine it with a fun and openhearted approach that I’d seen other directors have. Often a good actor, cinematographer or writer will be smarter than me. No one does it alone. I always wanted to have that be part of my work process. I need people to feel like they can come to me with ideas. A good idea is a good idea.

Keith Gordon The Singing DetectiveYou’ve worked with actors ranging from Nick Nolte to Claire Danes. Which performers have you particularly enjoyed working with and why?

KG: That’s a tough question because I’ve been lucky enough to work with a lot of great actors. I take casting very seriously. When I choose to work on a TV show, the quality of the cast is a big part of my decision.

Most of the leading actors I’ve worked with have been tremendous. Working with Billy and Jennifer on Waking the Dead was an amazing thing – they gave so much to the film. We were all in tears on the last day of shooting. Certainly working with Nolte was amazing; he was the most amazing actor I’ve worked with [in terms of] how he combined the technical and the emotional. He understood cameras lenses and lighting; he really knew film … and yet he could be completely spontaneous as well. And that’s an unusual gift.

Can you tell us a little bit about Masters of Sex, Homeland and other projects you’re working on now?

KG: Recently I had my first day of prep for Masters of Sex; I’m just getting my feet wet. I have to be careful in discussing any story specifics … I know they’re very cautious about letting plot points out. It’s the very start of prep – we’re location scouting, trying to find locations that will work for the period. There’s always this compromise to find locations that are affordable and near other locations. A large part of the process in TV is trying to figure out the puzzle of production, trying to make this hour-long movie in eight days of shooting.

I’m just doing one episode because my schedule has been so full. I’ve been going from interesting show to interesting show for a while now. Very soon after this I’m going to South Africa to do an episode of Homeland. I actually at this point need to take some time off to get back to my own projects. Along with my features, I have some ideas for TV series and mini-series I’m working on with some wonderful people who have been waiting with tremendous patience for me to be available. All those projects need some time and loving care.

Keith Gordon DexterI do love going back to shows, like going back to Homeland; you know the crew, you know the actors. With a new show there’s always a new-kid-in-school feel: how does it work, what’s the pecking order, what’s the protocol? What do the actors respond to? How do the producers want to work? It’s always so much nicer the second time around. You start with so much more trust in both directions when you’re coming back to a show.

Where do you see the future of independent films heading? Of TV?

KG: It’s very hard to predict. The one thing that’s a constant in the arena of film and television, much like in life, is it never goes where everybody says it will go. I know one problem that needs to be addressed: You have all these very interesting films being made not just in New York and L.A., but across the country as filmmaking gets cheaper. But right now there’s no really good distribution model that gets those films in front of people in any large way. So most of those wonderful little movies never see the light of day beyond the festival circuit. And even festivals are being swamped with good material and can’t show everything.

Theatrical distribution as it now exists is very expensive, which is a big part of that problem. There have to be ways to get films out there without spending $4 million on advertising, and still somehow make a broad range of people aware of them. That’s a thing that nobody’s really cracked yet. That’s the next great hurdle for independent film. TV doesn’t have that – not in the same way. The number of channels keeps expanding, there’s a massive growth surge, but there are still only so many channels, and those networks have big bases of viewers already, so it’s easy to catch their attention. For example, show them coming attractions, sneak previews, before and after the shows that are already hits, etc. They don’t have the same challenges that some indie filmmaker in Kentucky has just getting people to know the story exists. I don’t know what the answer is, but I suspect it will involve the Internet in some way. That’s a huge challenge for the independent world … if that’s not solved, it will be harder and harder to make independent films, because it will be harder and harder to make money off of them. Even with microbudget films there has to be a way to make them more monetisable items.

Simon Hardy Butler is a writer and editor living in New York City. He has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek and operates a restaurant-focused blog called Critical Mousse (criticalmousse.com) that showcases his opinions on the culinary arena. He also blogs about anti-Semitism for the Times of Israel. His views and opinions are his own.

6 thoughts on “Interviewing Keith Gordon: From De Palma to ‘Dexter’

  1. Thanks for putting this up Simon. I have to admit I had lost track of Keith Gordon after his early films. I didn’t realize he had been doing so much TV work. It’s very useful hear perspectives like this.

    • Thanks, Jon. TV definitely seems like an environment where the work is, and I think Keith has discovered that. It’s good, though, that he has other projects on the stove, too, though–I always thought he was a talented director.

  2. Pingback: From Skip and Setter’s Creator: And Now, My Interview With Keith Gordon | Skip and Setter's Cinema Blogishkeit

  3. Great interview Simon. Unusually for a film director, he comes across a really nice guy, and he makes a lot of perceptive comments about the current condition of the industry.
    As well as that ‘A Midnight Clear’ is an old favourite of mine, so it was really interesting to read more about the man behind the work.
    Very enjoyable all round, thanks for posting it.
    Best wishes from England, Pete.

    • Many thanks, Pete! Yes, Keith was really affable and candid, especially about his father. I liked A Midnight Clear a lot as well, particularly the snowball fight, which was memorable … he definitely has an affinity for offbeat subjects.

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