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Dan Fante: Reliving Addictions One Page At A Time.

Novelist and playwright Dan Fante writes about alcoholism, drug addiction and failed attempts at literary success — all of which he has experienced himself. He discusses his novel, 86'd, battling his own emotional demons, and the process of reliving his past on paper.

The story was first broadcast September 29, 2009.

21:39

Other segments from the episode on February 19, 2010

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 19, 2010: Interview with Dan Fante; Review of Hot Chip's album "One Life Stand"; Interview with Matt Damon and Steven Soderbergh; Review of the films "The Ghost…

Transcript

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Dan Fante: Reliving Addictions One Page At A Time

DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of tvworthwatching.com, sitting in for
Terry Gross.

Door-to-door salesman, taxi driver, telemarketer, private eye, hotel night
manager, chauffeur, those were just some of the job Dan Fante held before
becoming a writer. And he had many rough years before he even began to think of
himself as a writer, years as a drunk, years he describes as train wrecks with
off-the-wall, winner-take-all relationships.

Fante is the son of writer John Fante, best known for his 1939 novel "Ask the
Dust," a novel set in L.A. during the Depression. That book was rescued from
obscurity when Charles Bukowski discovered it, helped get it republished in
1980 and wrote an introduction, in which he described John Fante as his god.
John died in 1983.

Now, Dan Fante, his son, is in his 60s, sober, with several novels of his own.
They revolve around his alter ego, Bruno Dante, a character who has held many
of the jobs his creator, Dan Fante, held but who has not yet achieved sobriety.

Two of Dan Fante's earlier Bruno Dante novels have just been republished,
"Mooch" from 2000 and "Spitting Off Tall Buildings" from 2001.

In Fante's latest novel, "86'd," Bruno has left his telemarketing job to work
for a limo service while trying to deal with his demons. Terry spoke with Dan
Fante last year, when "86'd" was published.

TERRY GROSS, host:

Dan Fante, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'd like to start with a short reading from
the second chapter of your novel, "86'd."

Mr. DAN FANTE (Author, "86'd"): (Reading) I have no idea why I am crazy and
angry and edged out most of the time and why alcohol and painkiller pills and
Xanax-type stuff are the only things that help to keep me remotely calm. I have
no idea why I experience my life as pointless and screwed up. And I know that
most people don't pour a cup of bourbon into their milk and oatmeal in the
morning. That's just how it is.

GROSS: Well, thank you for reading that. You know, I'm thinking, you've been
sober for years now, right?

Mr. FANTE: I've been sober - I'll be sober 23 years in December.

GROSS: Congratulations.

Mr. FANTE: Thanks.

GROSS: So it must be pretty weird to be sober after a long time and then
immerse yourself in writing about somebody who's not, to always be going back
to that place.

Mr. FANTE: It's an interesting question, yeah.

GROSS: How does it feel to always go back to the place of needing alcohol and
needing pills and taking too much of both and getting really sick and getting
into constant trouble?

Mr. FANTE: Well, Kafka said a good novel should be like a blow to the head. And
that's - you know, there's something I'm trying to say. There's something I'm
trying to say about the humanity of this character, and it's not yet been
exhausted. So I go there, and I can feel him because that's who I used to be.

GROSS: In your novel, the character starts writing as a result of rehab. In
rehab, he has to fill out a questionnaire, and the questionnaire has questions
like: When you look back on your life, what memories are still uncomfortable
and painful? What incidents make you feel dirty? And what about yourself do you
experience as inadequate?

Did you have to answer questions like that in rehab, and did that inspire you
to sit down and start writing, yeah?

Mr. FANTE: No, it inspired me to hate 12-step programs.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FANTE: No, the - I stumbled on a guy who had many years of sobriety and
recovery, and he gave me this format of writing what's called an inventory in
the 12 steps, the fourth step. And his form of inventory was to write the story
of my life an hour a day for 12 consecutive days at exactly the same time every
morning and not to look back. And when I was done, to call him and read it to
him.

And so I called him, and I said Ken(ph), I want to read this fourth step to
you. And he said: Well, how long are you sober, kid? And I said well, I'm
sober, you know, a year this time, but I've been sober three out of the five
years, you know. And he said - long pause on the other end of the phone. He
said, you know, that's good in baseball. Call somebody else. And then he hung
up.

Mr. FANTE: But what had happened to me, Terry, from that, and I didn't know it
- I'm working on a memoir now about myself and my father, and I'm just at this
part of the memoir. What happened from that, I had 31 typed-written pages,
single-spaced. And it occurred to me a couple of years later that I couldn't
write a novel, but I might be able to write a page a day from that exercise.
And you know, I'm working on my 10th book right now. So I don't write books. I
write pages.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Dan Fante, and his new novel is
called "86'd."

How would you describe your father's writing and the impact, if any, it had on
you as a writer in terms of like, the themes that he would write about, the
stories that he would write about?

Mr. FANTE: Well, it had an enormous impact stylistically, but my father was a
victim of the quote, modern, unquote, literary canon. So I'm a postmodern
writer. My father could not say the things that I say. And toward the end of
his life when he could, in the late '70s, when he was dictating his last book
to my mother - he was blind - he could have been more graphic, and he wasn't.

So he wrote primarily about his family and about his own experience with his
family and about his dog and - but - so our themes are different, I think,
except for "Ask the Dust." I mean, there's a similarity in "Ask the Dust" to my
work, but I think he was trapped in a literary canon of 1931, you know?

GROSS: Whereas you're writing very graphically about drugs and sex and not so -
I mean, I don't want to give the wrong idea. It's not pornographic or anything.
But...

Mr. FANTE: No, it's true.

GROSS: Okay. Right, but I mean, you're writing very much from someone who's
really made a mess of his life. Mr. FANTE: Oh yeah, oh yeah. I don't think -
you know, my dad became a successful Hollywood writer when he was quite young -
22, 23 - and for the rest of his life was seduced back into screenwriting
rather than do what he was - what his sensibility - he was born to be a
novelist. He was born to be a storyteller, but you know, he just couldn't
refuse half a million bucks a year, you know, or the equivalent of that, you
know.

GROSS: That's what he was getting for being a script doctor?

Mr. FANTE: Oh God, he - his first paycheck, the guy walked in - now we're
talking about 1932 or '33 - and the man walked in and handed him a check for
$250, which was the equivalent of maybe $3,000 or $4,000 for a week's work
today. And he got up and went back, he opened his pay envelope and walked back
to the guy and said, you made a mistake. You put a zero on the end of the 25.

GROSS: Wow.

Mr. FANTE: So, he couldn't believe - so in 1932, if you made $250 for a short
story, and you did it every six months, you could live on that. My father was
making that every week in the movie business.

GROSS: So you went from a pretty prosperous home to basically living in the
gutter for a while.

Mr. FANTE: Well, although - yes, I mean, I grew up in Malibu, but Malibu wasn't
Malibu when I grew up there. It was, you know, a beach town. Now it's got the,
you know, the $70,000-a-month recovery resorts and palazzos overlooking the
Pacific Ocean. It was just a big, windswept plateau when I lived there. But to
call us prosperous, we were prosperous when he was working, you know, I guess.

GROSS: Now, you held many jobs during the period when you were drunk and using
pills and other drugs, and one of those jobs was chauffeur.

Mr. FANTE: Yes.

GROSS: And the character in your new novel, "86'd," is a chauffeur in L.A., and
I'd like you to read a paragraph in which your character describes what that's
like.

Mr. FANTE: Okay. (Reading) Working in the limo business in L.A. is a bizarre
way to make a buck, like licking up dog poop for God. The clientele for
DaveCo(ph) in Los Angeles was mostly made up of night freaks and zombies: rich,
cranked-out movie producers; spoiled, rock-star punks; gangster rappers with
their black Glocks tucked into their belts of their pants; alky ex-actors with
too many DUIs; and a gazillion wannabe high-rollers - human beings who exhibit
the most unpleasant personality characteristics common to L.A., too much ego
and way too much money.

GROSS: So is that your experience of what it was like to be a limo driver?

Mr. FANTE: Oh yeah, yeah. No, I drove when I was - I drove Rod Stewart, Mick
Jagger, Ringo Starr. I drove Elton John. I drove John Lennon when he was alive.

GROSS: Gee.

Mr. FANTE: I - you know, we had, you know, it was - we had quite a clientele in
those days.

GROSS: So when you were driving for all these rock stars, were you sober then?
Not that they were necessarily sober, but they'd probably want their driver to
be sober.

Mr. FANTE: Yeah, it - I had a - I knew early on, when I was driving a cab in
the '60s, early '70s, that I couldn't drink and drive. I knew it because I just
- because my inclination is once I take a drink, I don't stop. I have to keep
going.

So I just wouldn't do it while I worked. Now, that held true until I got to
California years later and owned the joint with a partner, and then all bets
were off. Then I started having, you know, I started getting arrested more and
had some problems.

GROSS: Now, you've written about all the odd jobs that you've had over the
years before you became a professional writer: Most of my adult life had been
spent being one kind of pitchman or another. I've always found myself
gravitating toward the jive and shuck - selling. This is strange to say because
by nature, I don't like people, and I'm a loner. So what kinds of things did
you sell over the years?

Mr. FANTE: Oh, God.

Mr. FANTE: Well, I mean, my best gig was, I was a telemarketer. I sold - you
know, when I lost the limo business and hit bottom and was homeless there for a
while, I bumped into a guy who was a recovering heroin addict. And he had a
phone room - and this was in the early '80s - and I began to sell computer
supplies at the beginning of the blossoming of the computer-supply industry.
And I made - oh geez - think my best month, I was averaging about 25 grand a
month.

GROSS: Wow.

Mr. FANTE: And that was in the, you know, the middle '80s. And then I just, you
know, I had a house at the beach and a sports car and an aerobics-teacher
girlfriend. They all got relocated, Terry.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: What do you mean?

Mr. FANTE: When I took that first drink, things changed.

GROSS: Oh, I got it, I got it.

Mr. FANTE: And that was the end of my career in the - but I had about a three-,
four-year run in that industry where I did very well, and then - but that
bottoming out - what happened was - it's very interesting - I couldn't lie to
people anymore. I got sober after, and I just couldn't lie to people anymore on
the phone, just couldn't do it.

So, you know, I wound up homeless again, living in the back bedroom of my
mother's house, with her giving me 50 bucks a week for gas for her seven-
cylinder Chrysler New Yorker that was 10 years old. And I just started walking
to meetings, and I didn't know what to do. So I started to write. That's when I
started to write.

BIANCULLI: Dan Fante, speaking to Terry Gross last year. More after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 2009 interview with Dan Fante, whose
latest novel is called "86'd." Dan Fante is now writing a memoir about his late
father, John Fante, who was a screenwriter and novelist best known for his 1939
book "Ask the Dust," set in L.A. during the Depression

GROSS: I'm wondering if you have any passages from your father's work that you
could quote for us that stand out in your mind and would give our listeners a
sense of his writing.

Mr. FANTE: You know, I have something. I brought "Ask the Dust" with me, and
this is this wonderful quote from the first two or three pages of John Fante's
"Ask the Dust."

Mr. FANTE: (Reading) Los Angeles come to me the way I come to you, my feet over
your streets, you pretty town. I loved you so much, you sad flower in the sand,
you pretty town.

GROSS: Obviously, it's very emotional for you to read that. From reading your
own writing, the sense I get is that you and your father were pretty alienated
from each other when you were young, and it was only later in life that you
really got to...

Mr. FANTE: That's true. Yeah.

GROSS: ...got to know each other well?

Mr. FANTE: No. I think got to accept one another, probably.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Mr. FANTE: So it was - we started out tolerating each - disliking each other
and tolerating each other. And then toward the end of his life, when I started
to write, I once wrote a poem for a guy in upstate New York and - to dedicate
his home.

This guy was a very wealthy - I was a limo driver at the time in New York City
- and very wealthy designer. And he took this 200-year-old farmhouse and
completely redid it, gutted it and completely redid it.

And - so I wrote a poem to dedicate the house. And the guy went to the
Metropolitan Museum of Art, and he had a calligrapher inscribe it on parchment,
and then he had it pressed between two pieces of glass to last 500 years.

And I went back to California and read the poem to my father, and he paid me -
I was probably 38 years old - he paid me the first compliment he'd ever paid me
in writing. He looked at me after he read it, and he said: I couldn't have
written that. So we went up from there.

GROSS: Wow, first compliment at age 38?

Mr. FANTE: Yeah, I guess.

GROSS: He had diabetes, and toward the end of his life he had a series of
amputations? Tell me if I'm wrong, I think it was his toes, then his feet, then
his legs?

Mr. FANTE: Awful. Yeah, and then as a bonus, after those surgeries, he got
glaucoma and went blind in about 10 days. So he had a rough time, and – but
during that time, after he went blind, an amazing thing happened. He was in the
hospital and incoherent, and we thought he was going to die, and he got a call
- phone call from a screenwriter - a director-screenwriter named Robert Towne.
Robert Towne had had a film option on "Ask the Dust," at that time for 20
years. And...

GROSS: Let me just say, Robert Towne's probably best known for writing the
screenplay for "Chinatown."

Mr. FANTE: Correct. So Towne - the phone rang in my father's hospital room, and
I picked it up, and it was Robert Towne. And I said Pop, it's Robert Towne, and
he immediately became coherent, and for the rest of his life, he was - but if
it was business, if it was about his work, he was on the money.

And then blind, a double amputee, he dictated his last book to my mother, word
for word, while I sat there occasionally and listened - word for word, never
paused. And he would do a page or two a day, and in two months, he'd dictated
it and it was brilliant stuff - brilliant stuff.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. FANTE: Oh, my pleasure, Terry. Thank you for having me on and talking about
my stuff and my book and my father's work. It's a great pleasure for me.

GROSS: Can I just ask you one more thing?

Mr. FANTE: Sure.

GROSS: It feels like your emotions are very like, some of your emotions are
very much on the surface - very close to the surface is what I mean and that
you get in touch with your emotions. And I'm wondering, during the period when
you were kind of deadening things with alcohol and drugs, were you as given to
being emotional then, or did you...

Mr. FANTE: Never.

GROSS: Were you killing that off?

Mr. FANTE: I'm sure I didn't cry for 25 years. Sure of it. Not - and even death
and bad stuff - divorces, jail - I didn't shed a tear for 25 years. No, when,
you know, when there's nothing between me and who I am, when all that peanut
butter is gone, you - you know, it's pretty easy to demonstrate emotion.

GROSS: Right. Okay. Well, thank you again. Good luck with the book, and thanks
a lot.

Mr. FANTE: Terry, thank you.

BIANCULLI: Dan Fante, author of the novel "86'd," speaking to Terry Gross in
2009. Two earlier novels, "Mooch" and "Spitting Off Tall Buildings," have just
been republished. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
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Hot Chip Brings Romance To The Dance Floor

(Soundbite of music)

DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I’m David Bianculli in for Terry Gross.

Hot Chip is a British pop music act led by Alexis Taylor and Joe Goddard and a
shifting group of backup musicians. Formed in 2000, Hot Chip has had numerous
dance club hits, but rock critic, Ken Tucker says the group's new album called
"One Life Stand" finds Taylor and Goddard mixing their dance music with
romantic ballads for an earnest new effectiveness.

(Soundbite of song, "Thieves in the Night")

HOT CHIP (Pop musicians): (Singing) My friend once told me something so right.
He said to be careful of thieves in the night. Ooh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh. Baby
I've lost you here in the crowd. Open your arms I want to be found. Ooh, oh,
oh, oh, oh, oh. Maybe I'm calling...

KEN TUCKER: The core British duo of Hot Chip, Alexis Taylor and Joe Goddard,
both sing and play various keyboards, synthesizers, and percussion. Friends
since their early teens, the two men share an eclectic taste for disco, house,
and techno music, as well as soul and gospel. They also admire some of the more
ornate American singer-songwriter-producers from the '60s and '70s, such as Van
Dyke Parks and David Ackles. All of these influences converge on the driving
ballad such as "Hand Me Down Your Love."

(Soundbite of song, "Hand Me Down Your Love")

HOT CHIP: (Singing) Hand me down your love. Hand me down your love. Hand me
down your love. Hand me down your love. Hand me down your love, when I'm
feeling sick, hand me down your love. Hand me down your love, when I'm losing
it, hand me down your love. Open up my love.

TUCKER: Hot Chip layers its songs carefully. The beat in any given song is the
organizing principal; every other element is artfully arrayed around it. Listen
to the title track of "One Life Stand." The song builds from the beat to become
a kind of nuanced flirtation, both with the person being flattered in the lyric
and you, as you get drawn into the allure of the rhythm.

(Soundbite of "One Life Stand")

HOT CHIP: (Singing) Tell me where you've been to. Nowhere that you shouldn't
do. Tell me what you're good for. I can tell you something too. Where have you
been staying? Tell me what you're playing. Hope it's not my conscious. But it
keeps complaining.

TUCKER: I only want to be your one life stand, sings Alexis Taylor there
playing off the phrase one night stand an emphasizing its opposite: this is one
dance-club denizen who doesn't want a night of action — he's looking for
commitment.

When contrasted with music that can be efficient and chilly, such warmth in
tone can be a nice surprise. So it goes as well on the song "Brothers," a pop
hymn to brotherhood that seems intent on proving it comes from the heart.

(Soundbite of song, "Brothers")

HOT CHIP: (Singing) Brothers, I can take it if I know I'll see my brother. And
just step back when I'm dancing with my brother is dancing with me. Brothers, I
would give my life for my brothers.

TUCKER: This lack of irony stands in contrast to the history of British synth-
pop music. To take just the most famous example, the Pet Shop Boys became a
huge success by inserting a languid cynicism into peppy dance tunes. Hot Chip
started out making songs that were hits in their native England trading on just
such upbeat, cheeky cleverness. But now that we're older — as they sing on this
song called "Slush" — they assert that it's straightforwardness — honesty
they've called it in interviews — that interests the Hot Chip boys more
frequently.

(Soundbite of song, "Slush")

HOT CHIP: (Singing) What is the answer? Oh, you know, we'd all like to know.
What is your reason? Oh I know, we'd all long to know. Though there is nothing
else left in our hearts. And what was your question...

TUCKER: No one is ever going to mistake the emotionalism of Hot Chip for the
naturalistic realism of Bruce Springsteen or even the ballads of Elton John.
But with this album "One Life Stand," Hot Chip earns its ambition and its
stylistic shift. Taylor and Goddard are reaching out to a broader audience in a
way that's more intimate, more seductive than sexy dance-club music can — or
dares — to be.

DAVID BIANCULLI: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large for Entertainment Weekly. He
reviewed "One Life Stand" from Hot Chip.

Coming up, a conversation with Steven Soderbergh and Matt Damon from "The
Informant."

This is FRESH AIR.

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Damon and Soderbergh, An Informative Pair

DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

After working together on the films Ocean’s 11, 12 and 13, actor Matt Damon and
director Steven Soderbergh reteamed for the 2009 movie “The Informant!” It's
out next week on DVD.

“The Informant!” is adapted from a book of investigative journalism about a
price-fixing conspiracy involving the agribusiness company ADM. The book also
focuses on the ADM executive who blew the whistle and alerted the FBI to the
scheme. But the whistleblower had his own secrets, and what he told the FBI
wasn’t always true.

Damon stars as that not-always-reliable whistleblower, Mark Whitacre. Unlike
the book, the movie has an ironic, often comic, tone. Let’s start with a scene.
Whitacre has been working undercover with the FBI while continuing his job at
ADM. The feds have made their first bust, but none of his colleagues have
figured out that Whitacre is the informant. He’s intoxicated by playing the
role of spy, even though he sometimes unknowingly bungles the job. In this
scene, he’s with the two FBI agents with whom he’s been working, played by
Scott Bakula and Joel McHale. They’re talking about the bust.

(Soundbite of film, “The Informant!”)

Mr. MATT DAMON (Actor): (As Mark Whitacre) That was amazing. You guys should
have seen it. Oh, Perry(ph) was so scared, and Mick(ph) and the lawyers, they
were just, they were pissed.

Mr. SCOTT BAKULA (Actor): (As FBI Special Agent Brian Shepard) Yeah, that’s
super, Mark.

Mr. DAMON: (As Whitacre) And the best part is, they thought you guys gave me
the once-over.

Mr. BAKULA: (As Shepard) Who did you tell?

Mr. DAMON: (As Whitacre) What?

Mr. BAKULA: (As Shepard) Who else did you tell about the raid?

Mr. DAMON: (As Whitacre) Well, I had to tell my secretary. Guys, I’m the head
of the bioproducts division. You know, she has to know where to get in touch
with me. I told her months ago. So all I said was Liz, I’m doing some work with
the FBI. I might be out of touch for a while. That’s it. She had no idea about
our case. I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned the name Cathy Dougherty(ph) a time or
two. She is a trusted ally, and I didn’t want her to be scared.

Mr. BAKULA: (As Shepard) Why did you do that, Mark?

Mr. DAMON: (As Whitacre) I trust her. Guys, we can trust Cathy.

Mr. BAKULA: (As Shepard) Who else? Don’t jack us around, Mark.

Mr. DAMON: (As Whitacre) Mmm. Kirk Schmidt. Schmidtty.

GROSS: Matt Damon, Steven Soderbergh, welcome back to FRESH AIR. The character
that you play, Matt Damon, who’s based on a real character, Mark Whitacre,
who's the whistleblower on ADM and a price-fixing conspiracy, he – once he
decides to talk to the FBI and wear a wire, part of that process drives him
crazy, but part of the process is really seductive to him because, you know,
he’s seen the movie; he’s seen “The Firm.” He’s watched the James Bond films.
He kids that he’s 0014 because he’s twice as good as 007. Since you’ve been in
a series of spy films, “The Bourne Identity” films, what was it like for you to
play somebody who wants to be that character and isn’t?

Mr. DAMON: It was a lot of fun. It was, you know, the opposite of doing the
Bourne movies. Yeah, I think – and it was always something that I thought was
interesting about the character, that he did enjoy – you know, he did see
himself as embroiled in the middle of this, you know, this drama, and he did
constantly refer to Michael Crichton novels, and the character actually became
addicted to the movie “The Firm” and saw himself as Tom Cruise in “The Firm,”
and he would tell his wife he was going one place, and he’d go back to the
multiplex and sit there and watch “the Firm.”

So there is that aspect of the character that was, you know, of him, that was
enjoying the work that he was doing.

GROSS: Can you talk a little bit about how you stand or walk or move
differently as Jason Bourne in a genuine spy thriller, and as Mark Whitacre in
“The Informant!” - somebody who is an executive at ADM but is wearing a wire
and really wants to be the spy, kind of, thriller person, but isn’t.

Mr. DAMON: In the case of the Bourne movies, one of the examples I use is that
character always stands angled off on whoever he’s talking to because the guy
who was teaching me how to handle all these weapons out in the desert in L.A.
was a former SWAT shotgunner, and he always stood angled off to me. And I
realized that after I’d spent, like, a couple hundred hours with him, and I
said: Why are you always standing like that? I mean, is it to present less of
an angle or something? He said: Well, it’s that, but really I just do it out of
habit because I wear my gun on this hip, and I always keep my body between
whoever I’m talking to and my gun.

So I’m convinced that there are thousands of little things like that that are
signals, that you know – when you look at a movie, and sometimes you walk out
and you know, I’ll say to someone, hey, did you like that performance of that,
you know, whatever actor? And a lot of times somebody will say, no, I didn’t,
not really. And I’d say, well, why? And they can’t quite put their finger on
it. But I’m convinced that there are hundreds of little details and little
signals that you’re sending to somebody who’s watching the performance that add
up to make a performance believable or not.

GROSS: What kind of conversations do you have with each other when you’re
making a film? Like Steven Soderbergh, do you give a lot of directions to the
actors? Do you have conversations about motivation and that kind of stuff?

Mr. SODERBERGH (Director, “The Informant!”): Boy, you know, I try not to.

GROSS: Why not?

Mr. SODERBERGH: Honestly. I don’t want an actor – this sounds terrible – I
don’t want them thinking. I want them just behaving the way the character would
and...

GROSS: Wait, wait, wait, but Matt Damon said he kind of geeks out on the
details, thinking about...

Mr. DAMON: That’s preparing.

Mr. SODERBERGH: You’re preparing so that when you’re in the moment, you’re
responding as the character would respond. But it’s been my experience that
when you can give an actor practical things to do, physical things to do, that
that really helps them lock into the character. And I really don’t like to
engage in philosophical conversations while we’re shooting because I feel like
it puts them in their head, and I don’t want them in their head.

Mr. DAMON: That’s exactly right, and I mean from an actor’s perspective, too,
that’s exactly right. And the things that I geek out over, it’s just when I’m
thinking about it. It’s a totally different stage of the, you know, of the
whole deal.

When it’s happening, you need practical – you know, in fact, I’m working with a
first-time director right now, and I jokingly told him that he was on a shot
clock, that - you know, if he can’t say it in 15 seconds, I just start hearing
white noise.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DAMON: Because – now, if you want to have philosophical conversations,
that’s great, and I’ll go out to dinner with you in pre-production, and we can
talk for hours and hours and hours, and sometimes that’s really helpful and
good to talk about, you know, thematically what’s happening and, you know, all
that’s great. But shooting a movie is a very different kind of stage of the
process.

And to talk about Steven’s direction for a second, I would say it’s how I feel
about a bunch of the directors I’ve worked with who all work very differently.
But, like with Gus Van Sant or Clint Eastwood or Francis - like, their
direction is always necessary and helpful.

So they don’t give me any more direction than I need. But like, an example
would be in this movie, there’s a scene where I apologize. I’m in court, and I
apologize to the community, and I apologize to all of these people right before
I’m sentenced. And on the first take, I did it as I thought he would have done
it. It was this very heartfelt apology. And Steven said cut, and he came over,
and he just sat down next to me and he went, no.

And I said, what do you mean? I thought that was really, that was honest. I
felt something there that felt pretty real. And he goes, oh, no, no, it was
good. He said, it’s just in the wrong movie. The tone of this movie was so
specific that all the actors were really relying on Steven to kind of have the
view from 30,000 feet at all the time - at all times because we can get lost in
a moment or in a scene and go off the rails pretty quickly, and that’s what had
happened to me.

And so I said okay, well, all right, what do I do? And he thought for a second,
and then he said: Do it like an awards acceptance speech.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DAMON: And that was it, and that was my direction, and it’s brilliant
direction, and it’s what – it’s why I love working with him and why I’ve gone
back to work with, you know, Gus and Francis, and I’m going to go back and work
with Clint again. I have such trust in somebody who can give me a perfect piece
of direction that, you know, doesn’t bog me down, that doesn’t take me out of
it but just basically is utterly helpful.

GROSS: Steven, what made you think of an awards acceptance speech as being
like, the right tone?

Mr. SODERBERGH: I guess it’s because I knew that part of him that he liked that
kind of attention. And so I wanted to have a sense of that, of the pleasure of
that, and it contributes to the fact that he’s often disconnected from the
context in which he’s operating.

So it just – I don’t – you’re always trying to find the right metaphor to give
somebody an idea. And for some reason, I just - I thought of him standing up
there assort of with an Oscar in his hand, and what would that sound like?

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guests are Steven Soderbergh and Matt
Damon. They worked together on the “Ocean’s” movies, starting with “Ocean’s
11,” and now they’ve worked together on “The Informant!” Steven Soderbergh
directed it, Matt Damon stars in it as a whistleblower at ADM. And it’s adapted
from the true story as reported in Kurt Eichenwald’s book, “The Informant.”

Let me take you on a tangent for a second, Matt Damon. You did one of the
really funny videos. This is really one of the funnier moments of recent TV
history, I think. It was a video that Sarah Silverman made for the Jimmy Kimmel
show, and at the time this was on, they were a couple. I don’t know if they
still are. But anyway, so she comes on his show and says, I have something
very, very important to tell you. And then it cuts to this video, and the video
is her saying, I'm blanking Matt Damon. I can’t say the word, but you’ll get
what it is. It’s a word I can’t say on the radio. I’m blanking Matt Damon.

And then it cuts to you and you’re there, looking very handsome on a couch, and
you say, yes, she's blanking Matt Damon. Then it goes into this whole kind of
song-and-dance video thing and, you know, there’s like parodies of, like, hip-
hop dance videos and, you know, like love scenes from videos. How did Matt
Damon become the person who she wanted to brag to her boyfriend, Jimmy Kimmel,
that she was blanking?

Mr. DAMON: Well, it started – there’s been a kind of a running joke with Jimmy
and me, and I don’t know how he picked me. He told me that - he does this thing
at the end of his show where he says, my apologies to Matt Damon, we ran out of
time, and it’s this running joke that I’m sitting waiting to come on, but I was
basically bumped by whatever guests he has on the show that night.

GROSS: Which is something that typically happens to up-and-coming people or the
writer who’s on the end of the show, the unknown comic, yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DAMON: Exactly, exactly, and they end up doing an extra segment with one of
the people, you know, one of their headliners, and that guy gets bumped. And so
it started because he had such a depressing show one night. He said, I had
like, a ventriloquist and a guy in a gorilla suit, and you know, it was one of
those shows where I had this feeling like, nobody was watching. And just as a
kind of a throwaway at the end of his – you know, when he was saying goodnight
everybody, he said, my apologies to Matt Damon, you know, we ran out of time.

And his producer, who was standing by, you know, on the other side of the
camera, just doubled over laughing. And so he just started doing it every night
because the two of those guys thought it was really funny.

So Sarah called with this idea of - the show was originally, it was going to
air on his - what was going to be his 40th birthday party. But the writers
strike happened, and it ended up being done at a different time. But that was –
but basically, I mean, I can take absolutely no credit for that, you know,
video. It was a great idea that they had. Sarah showed up in Miami. We shot it
in like, two hours because I had to go to a parent-teacher conference, and I
wasn’t expecting it to have even that much production value. There was – I got
there at seven in the morning and they had, you know, red jumpsuits and backup
dancers, and I was like, oh, okay, this is funny.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DAMON: So it was basically just - I was the beneficiary of some very funny
people doing some really good writing.

GROSS: Good luck with the new movie and everything else, and I really want to
thank you both so much for talking with us. Matt Damon, Steven Soderbergh,
thank you.

Mr. DAMON: Thanks a lot, Terry.

Mr. SODERBERGH: Thank you, Terry.

DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

Actor Matt Damon and director Steven Soderbergh speaking with Terry Gross last
year. Their latest collaboration, “The Informant!” comes out next week on DVD.

Coming up, FRESH AIR film critic David Edelstein on two new movie releases from
high-profile directors: Roman Polanski the ghostwriter and Martin Scorsese's
Shutter Island."

This is FRESH AIR.
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Two Movie Islands, One Worth Visiting

(Soundbite of music)

DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

Two mystery thrillers with increasingly paranoid heroes open this week and each
is directed by a filmmaking legend: Martin Scorsese and Roman Polanski.
Scorsese's "Shutter Island," set in 1954, stars Leonardo DiCaprio and a cast
that includes: Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams and Max Von Sydow.

Polanski's "The Ghost Writer," a much more contemporary story, stars Ewan
McGregor and Pierce Brosnan.

Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: The two new movies by Martin Scorsese and Roman Polanski make
for a study in contrasts — an incredibly depressing one. That's because
Scorsese's film is dead on the screen, while Polanski's simmers with a passion
for storytelling. And guess which director is unlikely to make another movie?

Scorsese's "Shutter Island" is closely based on Dennis Lehane's novel about a
Boston detective, played onscreen by Leonardo DiCaprio, who travels to an
island hospital for the criminally insane to investigate the disappearance of a
female patient. The novel is a slight but engrossing doodle about illusion — or
delusion — versus reality, a bit like Paul Auster but more Freudian. For Lehane
it was a breather between "Mystic River" and his panoramic "Any Given Day," but
Scorsese draws it out to two hours and 19 minutes of tracking shots and
bombastic music and shrieking storms and detectives in long coats and fedoras
trudging past leering mental patients.

Without giving anything away, it's fair to say what seem like over-the-top
tropes from forties' and fifties' noir are meant to evoke old movies — to seem
artificial. But even when the Hollywood-detective-story foundation begins to
crumble and the gumshoe protagonist is wracked with visions of concentration
camps and bloody children and Nazi experiments, "Shutter Island" is still
suffocatingly movie-ish.

Many filmmakers when they hit their 60's pare down their styles and strive to
be simpler and more direct. But Scorsese has become more impersonal, more like
the big-budget studio director he so palpably wasn't when he helped transform
American cinema. Here, he visually invokes a score of movies from "The Cabinet
of Dr. Caligari" to "Laura" to Frederick Wiseman's graphic asylum documentary
"Titicut Follies," and there isn't an image that feels organic. Despite a lot
of heavy emotional lifting by DiCaprio, and fun turns by Mark Ruffalo and Ben
Kingsley as an oddly paternal head psychiatrist, it's all like window displays
in a movie museum — or a movie morgue.

Polanski, whatever his off screen travails, both as victim and victimizer, is
all there in "The Ghost Writer," an audaciously timely paranoid political
conspiracy mystery. Ewan McGregor plays a writer-for-hire who's drafted at the
last minute — his predecessor mysteriously drowned — to rework the much-
anticipated memoirs of an ex-prime minister named Lang: obviously Tony Blair
and played by Pierce Brosnan.

Lang is reviled by his countrymen for hitching his country to the U.S. invasion
of Iraq, and he's now under investigation by an international human rights
tribunal for turning over suspects to the CIA for torture. The media descends
on his U.S. refuge on an estate in an empty, wintry Martha's Vineyard, where
the P.M. - his severe wife played by Olivia Williams and perky aide played by
Kim Cattrall - consider the most prudent course of action.

(Soundbite of film, "The Ghostwriter")

Ms. WILLIAMS: (as Ruth Lang) If it suits them they will hang you out to dry.
You need a lawyer. Call Sid.

Mr. PIERCE BROSNAN (Actor): (as Adam Lang) Get Sid on the line.

Ms. KIM CATTRALL (Actress): (as Amelia Bly) And what about the media?

Ms. WILLIAMS: (as Ruth Lang) Issue a holding statement - something short.

Mr. BROSNAN: (as Adam Lang) Oh, I was (unintelligible) Mike.

Ms. CATTRALL: (as Amelia Bly) I'll write something.

Ms. WILLIAMS: (as Ruth Lang) Let him do it. He's supposed to be the writer.

Mr. MCGREGOR: (as The Ghost) Hang on minute.

Mr. BROSNAN: (as Adam Lang) I should sound confident; not defensive, that would
be fatal. I shouldn’t be cocky. No business, no anger, and don’t say I'm
pleased with this opportunity to clear my name or any balls like that.

Mr. MCGREGOR: (as The Ghost) So you’re not defensive but you’re not cocky.
You’re not angry but you’re not pleased.

Mr. BROSNAN: (as Adam Lang) That's it.

Mr. MCGREGOR: (as The Ghost) Then what exactly are you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WILLIAMS: (as Ruth Lang) Told you he was funny.

EDELSTEIN: The title character is funny, and Ewan McGregor has never been
better. He's cheeky yet also watchful, increasingly edgy; and his eyes are as
alive as Polanski's camera. The movie, based on a novel by Robert Harris, is
perfect Polanski material. The loner hero is spiritually isolated, trapped in
vast spaces — on dunes and rain-swept beaches, under low, threatening skies —
and unable to move without being watched. There's an undercurrent of lust, too
— a ghoulish attraction between McGregor and the seething, joyless Olivia
Williams.

"The Ghost Writer" is not especially realistic in its depiction of anti-war
protesters descending on the British P.M., everywhere in the U.S. — such
protests didn't come near to major politicians, even in the war's heyday. But
Polanski's touch is so sure that the film is entrancing to the last tumultuous
frame. There's more than a touch of Hitchcock, but Polanski makes the fluid,
paranoid style his own — an organic expressionism that dwarfs Scorsese's third-
rate horrors in "Shutter Island."

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVID BIANCULLI: You can download Podcast of our show at freshair.npr.org. And
you can follow us on Facebook and find us on Twitter at nprfreshair.

For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(Soundbite of music)
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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