Mark Rydell made a great impression as Marty Augustine, especially in the scene where he threatens Marlowe by callously smashing a Coke bottle in the face of his pretty girlfriend.
He had done The Cowboys with John Wayne, and we were all in London together at the same time with Johnny Williams, working on Images. When I got back to Los Angeles, I asked hiim if he wanted to play Marty Augustine.
I was living at the same house in Malibu that we shot as the Wades’ house. Elliott, Mark, me, my wife and four or five others were in that house all day and we were drunk, ripped and stoned. We planned to go for dinner, but before we left, I came up with this scene with the Coke bottle, and we thought that was great. Then we went up to a beach restaurant, four of us, and there was this waitress who was looking after us. I said, ‘Look at her face, that’s the kind of girl who should be Marty Augustine’s girl, the one he should hit with the Coke bottle.’ So I talked to her and said, ‘I know this sounds silly, but you know who these guys are, Elliott Gould and so on, and we think you’d be perfect for our movie.’ Then, when we were about to leave not one of us had any money or credit cards at all, so I said, ‘You’ll have to trust us with this cheque. I’ll come back tonight with a credit card.’ And she went, ‘Oh God, don’t try that one!’ Anyway, we shot the bottle scene, and in the next scene, she had her jaw wired up and her nose banged up.
After the movie was over, she got an agent, went to MGM, and had a couple of small roles. She played a nurse in the Dr Kildare series or something. Then that petered out and she ended up back on the bar circuit, living down in Malibu. Seven years later, she’s living in a house with four other girls, and she comes home about two-thirty in the morning and these people were all crazy on drugs. She went into her bedroom, closed the door, and one of these guys at this party suddenly opened the door and jumped on her. She started screaming, and he literally bit her nose off. Then jumped out of the window and killed himself on the rocks below. So seven years later, she ended up looking exactly like she had as Marty Augustine’s girlfriend. Now that’s spooky....
Although a film about Gambling would seem perfect for you, I was surprised to discover that before it came to you the script of California Split had been developed for Steven Spielberg.
Yes, it was, though it doesn’t seem likely to me either. The guy who wrote it, Joseph Walsh, was a gambler and still is. [Accurate.] And I was a bit of a gambler, my father was a gambler and I knew a lot of gamblers, and I kind of like that World. I thought those guys I have known were romantic. I’ve had a couple of good wins, but they don’t compare to the losses. People only remember the wins.
The film’s depiction of Gambling situations certainly feels very authentic, but then you, Joe Walsh and Elliott Gould all gambled a lot, and many of the people we see in the games were actual players. I gather most of the extras in the casino were from an organisation of ex-addicts.
Normally the audience sees Gambling set up more dramatically, and what you have in California Split is the stuff you really see in those casinos. The poker club in the opening scene was a set built by Leon Ericksen in some dance hall, and we just set up these Gambling situations and filmed them happening. None of the players’ stuff was scripted. I think this film had the least amount of plot in it of any of my films, until more recent times. It’s about character. And that was the fun of it, getting into these people. George brought a tension to it, because in a funny way he was in over his head....
Given it seems to have informed your career, what is your attitude towards Gambling today?
I think Gambling is just action, and why not? What is there to hoard? I don’t think I’ve ever jeopardised anybody’s existence by my Gambling. Actually, for the last fifteen years or so, I’ve been kind of bored with it, because it doesn’t mean anything – what’s the most I could win? Buying lottery tickets, that isn’t Gambling. That’s just throwing your hat in the ring. I don’t think gamblers want to lose. But there are people who are addicted to it. At one time, I could stand at a crap table for two days – the feeling is like Sex. Compulsive gamblers lie to themselves, to everybody. I think I became embarrassed that maybe I was becoming a compulsive gambler. When I was making Tanner ’88, I bet on every game on every day of the baseball season.
Were you aiming to paint an accurate picture of Hollywood?
What we show in The Player is a very, very soft indictment of Hollywood, an unrealistic look at that arena. It’s really more of a farce, because although we did lift up a few rocks, Hollywood is much crueller and uglier and more calculating than you see in the film. It’s all about Greed, really, the biggest malady of our Civilisation, and it was Hollywood as a metaphor for Society. What’s the accomplishment in making $200 million, as top executives do? But my tongue was firmly in my cheek when we were making The Player, and frankly I’m still very surprised when people say, ‘Oh my God, you really got Hollywood’ – because it’s just a funny conceit, that film, and the truth is much, much worse. [Accurate.] People said, ‘Oh, I’ll bet you’re going to be tough on agents.’ Well, I was – by not including them in the film at all! That’s another story because they really run the business. I cast Brion James as the studio head as he was always appearing in B-movies as a villain, and he of course played a replicant in Blade Runner, so that helped the satire.
As for Hollywood, they sell shoes and I make gloves. So we really aren’t in the same Business, and we’re not dealing with the same audience. I can’t tell you who runs the studios today. What they would want me to do, I’d fail at, I’m afraid I’d be late for Work. When Griffin Mill delivers his Speech about the Art of Films, it’s the same hypocritical Speech they all make, what every studio says every year about how they’re going to be provocative and socially responsible... They’re shameless about it, and they believe it. I asked my son Steve to come up with something really dumb for a motto, and he devised ‘Movies – now more than ever’. Two years later, ABC were using it as their theme. They probably didn’t even know we did it.
I pitched the film and got a certain amount of interest. But there wasn’t any obvious pattern to it; there weren’t a lot of other films you could say, ‘This is like that.’ Having all these different characters touch but not really be a part of the same story... Even in Nashville the arena was tighter, as they’re all getting off the bus with the guitar. And this was Los Angeles, which is spread everywhere, and were dealing with the suburbs – Downey, Compton, Watts, Pomona, Glendale. Carver’s stories were all about Seattle or less populated northern towns, and I felt I had to put them into one venue and then to fracture them, mixing up the nine stories and the poem ‘Lemonade’ was used. But the life we show applies equally to People in non-poor countries like England or France. They were mostly characters who hadn’t made it, losers – in fact, a lot of Carver’s stories are about alcoholics. Carver didn’t make any Moral judgement on these people, neither do I. The Tim Robbins character is an awful misogynist, but he takes responsibility for his family, and his wife stays with him. Audiences can’t make easy decisions about such characters.
Sex is dealt with in the film in a very open, honest way, which is not always comfortable to witness.
Most of it is not overt, but there’s always an undercurrent of it. In Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character’s case, she’s just a woman picking up $15,000 a year doing sex calls at home, apparently with the approuval of her husband. It seems to be without meaning to her, but underneath I believe it has. Even from watching those scenes in the film, I feel that there’s a lot below the surface. I asked Jennier to write all that stuff herself, because she was the one who had to say it. And she went down to one of these jerk-off call centres. I don’t know whether she took calls herself, but she came on the set sand said, Well, shall I tell you what I have? The whole crew were standing around, and she started talking, and then suddenly she stopped and said, That’s all. Everyone was stunned. I would never have been able to write something like that. I said, That’s great. Now change the baby’s diaper when you do this. It was a great comment on Pornography.
How did your association with the writer Anne Rapp begin?
I knew her and her husband Ned Dowd for about seven years, around the racetrack, really, as he was kind of a junkie gambler. On Fool for Love, he worked for me as an assistant director, and I remember she was around the swimming pool... She had been a script supervisor, had worked for Sydney Pollack on a lot of pictures. When she and Ned separated, she quit the business and went to the Unversity of Mississippi and took a course in short-story writing with Barry Hannah, who was a writer I had worked with years before. When I heard that, I called her and said, Listen, I’ve heard you’ve written some short stories, so let me look at them.