VOD Spotlight: David Morse & Martin DonovanJuly 09, 2012
In a career that has spanned more than thirty years, Martin Donovan has toiled in the fields of indies with Hal Hartley, studio features with Christopher Nolan, and grass with Mary Louise Parker on Showtime’s WEEDS. Now, at 57, he reinvents himself yet again as a director with the feature COLLABORATOR, which he also wrote and in which he stars. A tight two-hander that has the texture and timbre of an off-Broadway one act, COLLABORATOR co-stars David Morse, whose own work includes ST. ELSEWHERE, JOHN ADAMS, and co-starring with Bjork in DANCER IN THE DARK.
On Demand Weekly sat down with Donovan and Morse to discuss COLLABORATOR, which is currently available on demand.
ODW: What is the genesis of COLLABORATOR?
Martin Donovan: The writing, directing and being in the film was just meant to be. It took me a very long time do it. I’ve struggled all my life to write, but I willed myself into completing a screenplay and then sent it to producer Ted Hope.
ODW: What kind of perspective did you bring to the screenplay?
MD: I’m 57 and I was a child when the upheaval of the 60s was happening. I was a young observer to all this – I could remember the Kennedy assassination, Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy. Part of this film is a distillation of the post-Vietnam period, from a young boomer’s point of view. It’s not what the film was about, but it’s all kinda in there.
ODW: How would you describe gus, the character played by david morse.
MD: Gus is based on a character I knew in my neighborhood: slightly older than myself, who died in a SWAT team standoff in a house across the street, after I moved away. He wasn’t shot, he OD’d. And I had moved to New York and I was living the life of the actor – I don’t want to be pejorative about Gus. I have a lot of respect for him. I wanted to get those two guys in a room: the playwright, the “intellectual type,” with someone who lives in a more visceral moment. And see what they have to talk about.
I’m also interested in the political vs. the personal, very much. Walter Mosley said, “A story that doesn’t have a political or a social context is a fairy tale.” And that made great sense to me.” Throwing all that out, I just wanted to write something that would keep people in their seats. I wanted to write something compelling.
ODW: Many actors have directed themselves. How did you approach it?
MD: All I know is that I’ve been acting for thirty years and I was ready to do direct. I wrote a part with me saying the words. It’s seamless. I can’t pull it apart. It’s all part of the animal, the heart the lungs, one beast. I would not have been able to do this prior to this point in my life. I wouldn’t have had the confidence, the guts, the clarity of mind. It’s taken me decades to get clear.
The whole thing, the acting and directing, it’s all tied together. It’s a process of studying and suffering, and whatever. It’s an inquiry. We’re asking questions, if we’re alive. And so this just feels as if it was inevitable.
ODW: what was the casting process?
MD: Katherine Helmond is incredible and we sent her the script and she jumped on it. I was very excited to get her. She’s just wonderful. Both Olivia Williams and David Morse were two actors I had in mind years ago. We had to go through some steps with Gus, because of the financing. I had to accept the dictates of the marketplace, and we talked about some names, but I had David in mind since the very beginning. And I was thrilled to get Olivia.
ODW: Was COLLABORATOR difficult to get produced?
MD: It took years to get off the ground. It’s never been harder, as I’m sure your readers know, in the indie world. It’s pretty well dead, compared to what it was in the 90s. It doesn’t exist anymore. Hal Hartley cast me in TRUST in 1990, a $700,000 film, which would be about a million and a half now. I had done almost nothing. You couldn’t do that now. You couldn’t cast a young Martin Donovan in the lead of a $1.5 million movie. You have to get a name that means something.
This film was financed because I’m a permanent resident of Canada. I’ve lived in Vancouver for the last ten years. The interiors were shot in Sault Ste. Marie and we got tax breaks and funding that came through Canada, because I was the writer, actor, and director, it indicated Canadian content. Under the government’s point system, we qualified for funding. This film never, ever would have been made in the US. Maybe if you had Sean Penn or Johnny Depp playing Robert. But not with me in it.
ODW: What’s next?
MD: I’m developing another script with Ted Hope and it’s a really hard slog. I can’t just toss something off. I need to be proud of it. So I have a feeling it’s going to take a while.
ODW: How did you connect with Martin Donovan?
David Morse: He was doing “Weeds” on Showtime with Mary Louise Parker, and she and I had done the play “How I Learned to Drive,” in New York, and he was writing the script for COLLABORATOR while he was doing “Weeds.” Mary Louise was very enthusiastic about me and Martin working together. So the seed was planted there, and then when it came time to start casting it, I was still in his mind, and, surprisingly, he sent me the script.
ODW: Who is Gus?
DM: I feel I sort of betray him when I say he’s a victim. He wouldn’t like to think of himself that way. But he’s a victim of the world he was born into there in the San Fernando Valley. A lot of people are born into tough situations, but he was born into one that he couldn’t get out of: 57 years old, still living in the same house with his mother, that he’s been in his entire life. And he really does not have a life.
ODW: What is the dynamic between Gus and Robert?
DM: Robert has managed to escape the world he grew up in. Not that Robert had such a great upbringing. No way that you’re living in the SFV and thinking that “I’m going to become this great playwright in New York.” He manages to actually do that. Apparently, not very successfully. Gus thinks of him, literally, as a movie star, and Robert hangs around with movie stars, so for Gus, it’s just thrilling to be in the presence of somebody like that. And he’s his neighbor. And he knows him. And he can have beers with him. It’s just great for Gus. But they’re both kind of trapped.
ODW: what is the experience of being directed by an actor like?
DM: I’ve had this experience a few times (Morse starred in THE INDIAN RUNNER, directed by Sean Penn.). I’ve also worked with actors who direct on television. I just did a few episodes of TREME with Tim Robbins. The combination of it being MD’s first film as a writer and director: there’s kind of a gift, that someone gives you something they’ve worked so hard on and says “I trust you to take this and run with it.” At the same time they’re in a vulnerable position.
As actors, we’re always just in our own heads as our characters. Now, Martin’s outside of his head. He’s thinking about shots, my performance, lighting, the quality of his writing. His mind is in so many different places and has to be doing its best work in each of those places. It’s a really tricky situation to be in. So as his companion in all that, it is a responsibility on my part, but it’s also a real gift if someone trusts you.
ODW: Did it feel playlike?
MD: Yes, very much, especially because we shot pretty much chronologically, which is pretty rare in movies and television. The experience in that house of the weeks of shooting was much like the experience of a play.
Chris Claro is a contributing writer to On Demand Weekly. He is a former Director of Promotion for Sundance Channel and now works as a writer, producer, and media educator. He is a regular contributor to dvdverdict.com and contributor to the Eyes and Ears section of huffingtonpost.com. He blogs at http://disconcertingglare.blogspot.com. Follow Chris on twitter @cgclaro.
COLLABORATOR (Tribeca Film) can be found on demand.
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