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David Edelstein on 'The Best of Youth'

Critic Edelstein looks at The Best of Youth, a six-hour drama first shown on Italian television.

04:40

Other segments from the episode on March 4, 2005

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 4, 2005: Interview with John Travolta; Interview with Elmore Leonard; Review of the Italian film "The best of youth."

Transcript

DATE March 4, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: John Travolta discusses his childhood and acting career
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, sitting in for Terry Gross. John
Travolta has a new movie out today. It's called "Be Cool," and has him
playing once again Chili Palmer, the loan-shark-turned-showbiz-power-player
he first portrayed 10 years ago in "Get Shorty." Both movies are based on
novels by Elmore Leonard, and on today's FRESH AIR, we'll visit with both
Elmore Leonard and John Travolta, starting with Travolta.

In "Be Cool," Travolta's Chili Palmer is moving from the movie business to
the music business. He's found a young and attractive singer he'd like to
manage, and visits a club to confront her current manager, a flamboyantly
dressed poser played by Vince Vaughn, and he reveals his plans.

(Soundbite of "Be Cool")

Unidentified Man #1: Man, the suit!

Mr. VINCE VAUGHN: (As Raji) We talkin' some kind of confession? (Laughs)

Mr. JOHN TRAVOLTA: (As Chili Palmer) No, but if I was, you'd be the man to
see, am I right?

Mr. VAUGHN: Why would you say somethin' stupid like that?

Mr. TRAVOLTA: Well, the way you're dressed. You're either a pimp or a limo
driver.

Mr. VAUGHN: We got jokes? You some kind of weak (censored) comedian?

Mr. TRAVOLTA: Raji, look at me.

Mr. VAUGHN: I'm lookin' at you, man.

Mr. TRAVOLTA: Oh, you say you're lookin' at me, but are you really looking at
me?

Mr. VAUGHN: Oh, I'm really lookin' at you. You got something stupid to say?
Say it, so I can be done with you.

Mr. TRAVOLTA: Linda's quit. She's out of the chicks.

Mr. VAUGHN: You ain't mess me with that. She's got five years left on her
contract.

Mr. TRAVOLTA: Well, I just canceled it.

Mr. VAUGHN: Walking out of her job? Who you supposed to be?

Mr. TRAVOLTA: I'm the one settin' you straight. I'm Linda's new manager.
Come on, honey.

BIANCULLI: John Travolta's movie career has covered a lot of years and a lot
of genres. He's starred in audacious character studies like "Be Cool," "Get
Shorty" and "Pulp Fiction," disco dramas like "Saturday Night Fever,"
lighweight comedies like the "Look Who's Talking" films, and action thrillers
like "Face/Off." Terry spoke to John Travolta in 2003 when he was starring in
"Basic," another action thriller in which he plays a former Army Ranger called
in to investigate a mysterious incident involving Special Forces. Terry asked
him if he had to work out to become as buff as his character needed to be.

Mr. JOHN TRAVOLTA (Actor): I did, only because I actually saw these
ex-Rangers. I went to school with them for a week to do their exercises and a
lot of the senior guys, the guys that were teaching the trainees, were my age
and they were amazing. They were buff and in great shape. And I thought,
`Oh, my goodness, I better get to work.' And I chose to be in a T-shirt and
tight jeans, and I just felt like it would add to the confidence of the
character because this character, like the men I met, were very confident
because they knew they were the best; they knew that they were top of their
form, if you will, you know.

TERRY GROSS, host:

So does it help you if there's a real counterpart for a character, if you
could go to, like, a real Army Ranger for your role as an Army Ranger or, you
know, a real guy from Brooklyn who loves disco dancing if you're playing that
kind of a role? Do you need a real counterpart?

Mr. TRAVOLTA: Yes.

GROSS: So what do you do with a character like "Pulp Fiction," you know, like
you...

Mr. TRAVOLTA: I met with three heroin addicts.

GROSS: Any hit men?

Mr. TRAVOLTA: And, yes, I read biographies of a couple of hit men and I did
know of one person that would allude to this conduct and never admit it. And
I spoke to him. I just heard through the grapevine that this person might.
And I interviewed these people, because I wasn't going to take heroin and I
certainly wasn't going to kill anybody to study these characters. So I said
to one of the heroin addicts that actually was a white-collar heroin addict...

GROSS: A high-functioning heroin addict.

Mr. TRAVOLTA: Yes, I--now, of course, both of these guys that I talked to
in depth were ex-heroin addicts, so...

GROSS: Oh, right. OK.

Mr. TRAVOLTA: ...I should make that clear. But I said to the one that had a
better ability to communicate detail with me--I said, `I can't do this. I
won't do it. As much as I love acting, you know, I'm not going to go the
distance. You must help me understand the feelings here.' And he said, `I
can't. There's nothing like it,' blah, blah. And I said, `Now, Plunk(ph),
you have to. You have to tell me. Tell me from the onslaught.' He said,
`OK. This is what you're going to do. Go home, lay in a hot pool or a bath,
get plastered on tequila, and maybe at the peak of that feeling you'll begin
to feel the bottom level of what heroin is like.' I said, `OK, I'm going to
do that.' So I went home and did that. And I said, `OK, I've got that. Now
tell me where it goes from there. What happens from that point on?' So then
he began to describe the ebbs and flows, the valleys and peaks in dramatic
detail to me, the scratching, the feeling of warmth that came over the body,
and I think crafted the moment that this was happening from the time that the
character took the heroin up through his death. So he's what they called a
chippy, which was kind of like a weekend heroin addict.

And at any rate, he was really wonderful as far as explaining in detail what
this experience was like. And then I went with the street fellow, who was
much more kind of dramatic and kind of communicating in a way that I felt was
just maybe a hair not really how it was. So I took aspects of how the street
fellow talked about it and aspects of how the white-collar guy talked about it
and then I put these things together and designed how this would overtake the
character. And...

GROSS: But there was this kind of hipster character thing you had going
there, too.

Mr. TRAVOLTA: Now the hipster aspect is just baggage from earlier, you know,
roles even. Do you know what I mean?

GROSS: Right.

Mr. TRAVOLTA: So that was the beauty of a "Pulp Fiction" was that you had an
actor who takes very seriously his craft and he automatically has illusions
that are baggage that worked. It was kind of like putting Elvis Presley in an
art film, but all of what he was about helped the imagery. And so the fact
that I was willing to play this desperate character with the willingness to
reveal my earlier illusions helped make that balloon float and turn what would
have been a "Reservoir Dogs" into a "Pulp Fiction," which was much more
commercial and viable.

GROSS: Well, let me maybe give an example of what you're talking about there
which is the twist scene when you're at the '50s diner.

Mr. TRAVOLTA: Exactly.

GROSS: And there's a twist contest which is, of course, an echo of "Saturday
Night Fever" and you're there...

Mr. TRAVOLTA: Or "Grease."

GROSS: Yeah, or "Grease," exactly.

Mr. TRAVOLTA: Right.

GROSS: And you were there doing the twist. And it's an echo to your dancing
roles...

Mr. TRAVOLTA: Right.

GROSS: ...but you're still doing it as your own character.

Mr. TRAVOLTA: But he's high on heroin...

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. TRAVOLTA: ...and he's a hit man.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. TRAVOLTA: And yet, because of the way Quentin staged this...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. TRAVOLTA: ...it was a mix of reality and fantasy that was a stroke of
genius.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. TRAVOLTA: But it was all this stuff. Even with Bruce Willis in his
part, he's an action icon and suddenly he's in a very serious art film doing
the things that he does in more commercialesque-type vehicles. So you really
had a very rare and unusual--and it's probably why the movie made history.

GROSS: I want to ask you about the very beginning of that scene in the '50s
diner. When you walk in, you're looking for the table--or for the car to sit
in, because the tables are actually cars. But anyways, you're looking for the
table and you're just kind of strutting around the whole diner looking at the
posters on the wall. And it's such an interesting strut watching you do that.
Can you talk a little bit about that walk?

Mr. TRAVOLTA: Well, that walk originated from what I observed people to be
high for--I mean, the shuffle. There was a dragging of one's feet along the
ground...

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Mr. TRAVOLTA: ...that the effort was measured and the feeling was like going
through water, you see. And I modified his walk and I pulled the hair down
from the side, because he had been in the car. So I knew that the modified
shuffle, which happened actually at the house even earlier when I pick her up,
started from when the cameras in back--because I knew the camera would be in
back of me watching. And it was all those little touches that Quentin didn't
even notice until he was putting the film together, that shuffle, the heroin
shuffle I call it, you know...

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Mr. TRAVOLTA: ...and the slowness in how he was observing things. And then,
you know, he'd put his hand up like this and kind of...

GROSS: Like with one finger in the air.

Mr. TRAVOLTA: With one finger in the air and just was hitting the music in
his own mind. So it was all like kind of in slow motion.

GROSS: Oh, yeah.

Mr. TRAVOLTA: And that was my version of how he was taking in the elements of
this '50s kind of diner-slash-dance hall.

BIANCULLI: John Travolta, speaking to Terry Gross in 2003. His new movie,
opening today, is called "Be Cool." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's interview with John Travolta. He
returns as the character Chili Palmer in the new film "Be Cool," which is
based on the novel by Elmore Leonard.

GROSS: You grew up in Englewood, New Jersey.

Mr. TRAVOLTA: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Your father owned a tire distribution company. Your mother taught
acting. Do I have that right?

Mr. TRAVOLTA: Yes. She was a director, went to Columbia University. She
taught drama, she directed, she was also a schoolteacher. She taught English
and speech and...

GROSS: Oh.

Mr. TRAVOLTA: She was quite a marvelous character, by the way. She was very
articulate and very elegant and stylish. And my father was a jock and quite
appealing. He looked like Cary Grant and she kind of looked like Barbara
Stanwyck. And they were quite the two in the town when we were growing up.
They were iconic in their own way in our hometown of Englewood, New Jersey.

GROSS: Did she teach you anything about acting?

Mr. TRAVOLTA: Yes, she did. She taught me about stage presence. She taught
me stage manners.

GROSS: What did she teach you about stage presence? Is that something you
can really teach?

Mr. TRAVOLTA: Well, no. She thought that you could never teach anyone to act
and she never thought you could really teach stage presence. What she did was
that--don't be afraid to take stage, which to me was a stage presence concept,
meaning like if you had stage presence or not is an inborn natural thing.
But when one takes stage, that's skill, you know. You don't deny that you're
on stage. You don't deny your presence, you see. Stage manners--you know,
there's basics that we were all taught and, you know, pretending and acting is
believing and all sorts of things like that I think she liked. It was hard
for her because there would be parents that would want her to teach their
child to act and she'd say, `I can't do that. They either have that gift or
they don't. But what I can do is help hone it and I can give them tricks and,
you know, ideas that will benefit them. But I can't make them an actor if
they're not.'

GROSS: She must have been pretty happy when she realized you had it.

Mr. TRAVOLTA: Oh, my God. She just knew it. She said, `Oh, my God, all my
life I wanted my students to be like my son' and--you know, I think she was--I
was her pride and joy in that way. And she had a lot of depth. I mean, you
know, she had me late and she did have...

GROSS: She was around 42 when you were born, right?

Mr. TRAVOLTA: Yeah, almost 43.

GROSS: Which is a lot older then than it is now for women having a baby.

Mr. TRAVOLTA: Now it's nothing. Exactly.

GROSS: A lot of people do that now.

Mr. TRAVOLTA: Yeah, in that day it was--she--I was her sixth and it was
unusual to have a child--although my aunt had a baby at 46 and so it was
happening.

GROSS: So did you act at home? You know, were there little shows that you
did at home with your brothers and sisters and your mom?

Mr. TRAVOLTA: Yes. We had a theater in our basement and there was wardrobe
and there was music and there was curtains that gave us the framework to
perform in. And we used it like mad. Every day we were in that theater and
we were either lip-syncing to records or we were creating plays or--and, of
course, Mom and Dad were the ultimate audiences. They would sit with their
glass of wine and their cigarette, or cigar in my dad's case, and just kvell
over us. They would just--we were the most genius things that ever hit. And
I just remember hearing the comments and my--`Oh, Helen, can you believe him?'
You know, the cigarette's going. He'd be saying, `Oh, jeez, that's the best
I've seen yet.' You know, and who knows how good we were or not good. I just
know that they thought we were the tops.

GROSS: Did your mother ever draw the line for you and say, `John, you're not
on stage now so just cut it out'?

Mr. TRAVOLTA: No.

GROSS: Like if she thought that you were either getting too full of yourself
or using your acting skills to get one over on her...

Mr. TRAVOLTA: Oh, no, she was...

GROSS: ...or to act sick and stay home from school?

Mr. TRAVOLTA: No, you couldn't bull my mother, do you know what I mean? She
had an innate sense of reality, so she knew that, so you didn't even bother
putting something over on her, you know. So I can't say that. I mean, I was
precocious and demanding and that, but that was real. That wasn't my putting
it on. That was just unfortunately the kind of child I was. I was a very
dramatic child, you know, but...

GROSS: Meaning what?

Mr. TRAVOLTA: Well, I was just a very theatrical child. I would make
demands. You know, if I didn't have certain things done by certain times, my
threats were to run away and to do all sorts of, you know, elaborate, dramatic
things to--and they were so smart. They just let--my dad would always say,
`Oh, he's expressing himself.' I mean, any other kid would get a smack in the
butt or the face, and I was always just, `He's expressing himself,' so I don't
know if it was being the sixth and they just had tolerance in their hearts and
they didn't mind it so much, but whatever it was, at an early age, I knew it
was quite beautiful and that I was getting a big break on this not-so-ideal
behavior.

GROSS: Did you follow through on any of those dramatic threats?

Mr. TRAVOLTA: No, but you know, I was pretty bad. You know, I remember once
running up the stairs and throwing up the window and screaming as though I had
jumped out because something wasn't happening quick enough or something. And
you could hear my mother, bum, bum, bum, bum, bum, bum, bum, and I was hiding
in the closet and waiting to see how it affected her, and it affected her so
deeply that I knocked it off from then on; no more dramatic behavior. It was
the same thing with my father. You know, he was playing the piano one night
in the store that he and his brother owned and this honky-tonk piano, and I
decided I guess I needed some attention from him, so I'm up in the rosters in
the attic of the store and I scream as though something terrible has happened
to me, and boom, boom, boom, he comes running up, just like my mother had, and
he holds his heart, just like my mother held her heart, and these are moments
where you realize how much you mean to them.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. TRAVOLTA: Do you know what I mean? But it was not kind. You know, I was
eight, but nevertheless, I was dramatic and...

GROSS: You grew up in New Jersey, where you watched New York television...

Mr. TRAVOLTA: Oh, yes.

GROSS: ...and on one of the New York stations was "Million Dollar Movie,"
which showed the same movie every day over and over for a week. So of all
those movies--I'm sure you watched it--which were the couple that you
watched...

Mr. TRAVOLTA: Oh.

GROSS: ...the most that really meant the most to you?

Mr. TRAVOLTA: "Yankee Doodle Dandy" meant by far the most to me, period.
And I watched it over and over again, and I'd cry and I'd laugh and I'd sing
and I'd dance, and...

GROSS: That's James Cagney as George M. Cohan, writing...

Mr. TRAVOLTA: Jimmy Cagney is...

GROSS: ...songs at the turn of the century...

Mr. TRAVOLTA: Yes.

GROSS: ...and being in Vaudeville.

Mr. TRAVOLTA: And it was an extraordinary movie. A matter of fact, I did an
expose in The New York Times, five pages, it was the biggest spread they'd
ever done in the Arts and Entertainment section, and...

GROSS: It was part of the `Watching Movies With' series.

Mr. TRAVOLTA: Yes.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah. Did you used to watch "The Hunchback of Notre Dame"?

Mr. TRAVOLTA: That was the other one I loved.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. TRAVOLTA: Of course, that was almost too sad for me, but you couldn't
help but watch it. But it was almost too sad, you know, `Finphony, what
hath'--and the beautiful girl bringing over the water and dripping it into his
mouth, and, of course, we would immediately take that scene and recreate it
and I'd be the Hunchback, and I'd put a pillow on my back and my sister would
come along with a--and drip the water into my mouth.

GROSS: This is after the Hunchback has been pilloried and whipped and
humiliated, and he's just like left there to be made a public mockery of, and
the Gypsy dancer gives him water after he's crying out for water.

Mr. TRAVOLTA: Yes. And they spin him around...

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. TRAVOLTA: ...on that like lazy Susan, like turntable thing, and he's so
grotesque, but he's so sympathetic, and the beautiful girl comes over and
drips the water in his mouth, and that was real filmmaking, truly.

BIANCULLI: John Travolta, speaking with Terry Gross in 2003. He's back as
the character Chili Palmer in the new film "Be Cool," a sequel to the 1995
film "Get Shorty." Both films are based on novels by Elmore Leonard. We'll
hear from Leonard in the second half of today's show, and we'll hear more of
Terry's conversation with Travolta. He tells Terry about filming the famous
opening sequence to "Saturday Night Fever," the sequence that features this
song by the Bee Gees, "Stayin' Alive."

I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of "Stayin' Alive)

THE BEE GEES: Well, you can tell by the way I use my walk I'm a woman's man,
no time to talk. My music loud, my women warm, I've been kicked around since
I was born. But now it's all right, I'm OK, and you may look the other way.
We can try to understand The New York Times' effect on man. Whether you're a
brother or whether you're a mother, you're stayin' alive, stayin' alive.
Feel the city breakin' and everybody shakin' and we're stayin' alive, stayin'
alive. Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin' alive, stayin' alive. Ah, ha, ha, ha,
stayin' alive wherever you are.

Well, now I get low and I get high, and if I can't get either, I really try.
Got the wings of heaven on my shoes, I'm a dancin' man, and I just can't lose.
You know it's all right, it's OK, I'll live to see another day. We can try to
understand The New York Times' effect on man. Whether you're a brother or
whether you're a mother, you're stayin' alive, stayin' alive.

(Announcements)

BIANCULLI: Coming up, more of our interview with John Travolta, and we hear
from crime writer Elmore Leonard. He created the character of Chili Palmer,
whom Travolta plays in "Get Shorty" and the new film "Be Cool." Also, David
Edelstein reviews "The Best of Youth," a six-hour drama first shown on Italian
television.

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross.

We're continuing with Terry's interview with John Travolta, who's newest
movie, "Be Cool," opens today. Travolta was never cooler, though, than when
he strutted his stuff in "Saturday Night Fever," as a disco dance king. When
Terry spoke with Travolta in 2003, she asked him about the indelible opening
music and images from that landmark 1977 movie.

GROSS: Oh, I have to ask you about "Saturday Night Fever," which was a
defining film...

Mr. TRAVOLTA: Sure.

GROSS: ...both for you and for the '70s and for American movies. The opening
of "Saturday Night Fever" is a close-up of your feet...

Mr. TRAVOLTA: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...as "Stayin' Alive" is playing on the soundtrack. And you see your
feet and then you see your feet in a hipper pair of shoes and then you see
your whole body and then back to your feet again. When you're doing that now
classic scene--which has been paid homage to I don't know how many times in
other movies--did you have the music playing behind you? Did you...

Mr. TRAVOLTA: Yes.

GROSS: So you knew the beat that you were supposed to be walking to.

Mr. TRAVOLTA: Absolutely. And there was a debate about it. There was--the
producer, Robert Stigwood, wanted me to not walk down the street to "Stayin'
Alive," but to do my solo, my big dance, to "Stayin' Alive" and to walk down
the street to "You Should Be Dancing." And I said, `I can't do that, and I'll
tell you why.' I said, `"Stayin' Alive" has a slower rhythm.' I said, `I
could walk down the street to "Stayin' Alive," but I can't dance to "Stayin'
Alive." But now I could do the solo to "You Should Be Dancing," because the
rhythms are closer,' you know.

So "Stayin' Alive," if you remember the beat, you know, you could do a bop to
that, you know, walk and bop, a soulful strut, but "You Should Be Dancing," it
was like triple-time almost, you know. And that was my--he said, `OK, deal.
If you walk down the street to "Stayin' Alive," I'll let you dance solo to
"You Should Be Dancing."' I said, `I'm happy.'

GROSS: So did you have a--were they playing it on the set as you were
walking?

Mr. TRAVOLTA: Mm-hmm. On a little tiny--well, it was--did you ever see those
recording instruments on the set that are kind of small and they're just what
the soundman uses...

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Mr. TRAVOLTA: ...but they're almost portable-looking. And that was the
little apparatus connected to that that looked like a little radio from a car
or something and a reel-to-reel recorder was being used on that, as I remember
it, and it was attached to the dolly that the camera was on.

GROSS: Oh.

Mr. TRAVOLTA: And right underneath the camera was this recording apparatus.

GROSS: So it kind of moved with you.

Mr. TRAVOLTA: It moved with me, yeah.

GROSS: Is it a walk that you practiced, or did you just know what to do?

Mr. TRAVOLTA: It was a walk that I got from school, because it was really a
walk that a lot of the African-American guys that were very stylish used. And
us white guys liked walking like that, so we would walk, too, like that to be
kind of hip and, you know, with it. And I thought, `I think this character
would do that walk that I remembered that we all did in school.' Again, being
in a public school where I wouldn't...

GROSS: Right.

Mr. TRAVOLTA: ...have necessarily gotten that from...

GROSS: From a Catholic school.

Mr. TRAVOLTA: ...a Catholic school.

GROSS: Probably not.

Mr. TRAVOLTA: So all my experiences that I remembered, I did bring into play
there.

GROSS: John Woo directed you in the film "Face/Off," in which you play an FBI
agent and Nicolas Cage played this crazy killer who's in prison. And through
complications much too complex for me to explain now, you trade faces through
cosmetic surgery and trade identities, as well. And so you end up having to
do Nicolas Cage imitations, and he ends up having to do John Travolta
imitations.

Mr. TRAVOLTA: That's right.

GROSS: When I talked to Nicolas Cage, I asked him what it was like to watch
you doing him.

Mr. TRAVOLTA: What did he say?

GROSS: And he said--I wrote down the quote. He said, "His impression of me
is pretty impeccable. He picked up the way I tend to elongate my words when I
talk. I didn't know I did that."

Mr. TRAVOLTA: You know, it is interesting that he didn't know he did that. I
always found that fascinating. And...

GROSS: Like how could he not know?

Mr. TRAVOLTA: In a way, you know. But I found it endeared him to me even
more because I thought, that's why Nick is so kind of wonderful, because he's
not paying attention to himself. He's just being. Do you know what I mean?
He's not self-aware in that kind of egocentric way that one would be aware of
their style, you know, or something like that. So I was pleased, in an odd
way, that he--it was a revelation to him that he did that.

GROSS: What did you hear in him...

Mr. TRAVOLTA: In his...

GROSS: ...that you picked up on in his speech, style or his movement?

Mr. TRAVOLTA: Well, he has a very specific walk, which is kind of--the legs
bow out and they go in front of each other in kind of a--I don't even know
what the comparative would be, but it's a very specific, like, outward swing
that comes and almost--the toes are slightly pointed in when he does it. So
the walk was very specific. And I said, `Nick, we should really just go with
your walk because you have a very distinctive walk,' and I said, `And we
should go with how you enunciate and pronunciate words.' And he said, `Oh,
OK.'

And then I said, (Imitating Cage) `You know, how you will make things like
this, you know. You will talk, you know, and kind of'--you know. And he
giggled in the idea that it was, but he understood it. And so he started to
comment on his own style that was pointed up to him, and then we could ride on
that to some degree. You see?

GROSS: Uh-huh. Uh-huh.

Mr. TRAVOLTA: You know? So it was a fun deal, that whole thing, trading
valences, in a way.

GROSS: Well, he seemed to learn a lot from watching you do him. Did you
learn anything from watching him try to do you?

Mr. TRAVOLTA: Yeah. I learned that I'm a tough guy to imitate because I...

GROSS: That's what he said. He said you were tough to imitate.

Mr. TRAVOLTA: Because he watched all my movies, but what I have is more of a
neutral personality. I don't have a lot of hooks to the way I say things or
do things. And I kind of tune into characteristic traits of others in order
to perform, you know. There's that old English saying about actors, `They
have no souls because'--I mean, obviously, that's not true, but I mean, they
kind of become whoever they are.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. TRAVOLTA: So they have no identity of their own is what the saying is
about, kind of. And sometimes--I mean, I don't feel that, but I understand
that because I do feel neutral often before I go into a part, you know, and I
maybe put a spirit of play that I have, you know, with friends or family into
some aspects of a role or something. But characteristic traits, I don't have
a lot of specific of, and Nick does beautifully.

GROSS: OK. One last question. And if this is too weird or too personal,
just tell me. But you're considered very sexy, a kind of sex symbol in a way.
Does being the subject of a lot of people's fantasies and being this kind of
sexual presence on screen, does that make sex any more enjoyable? I mean,
does that translate to real life? Does that make lovemaking, like, any more
exciting?

Mr. TRAVOLTA: Well, I mean...

GROSS: Is that a weird question to ask?

Mr. TRAVOLTA: No, I know what you're saying. And, no, I don't have any
self-consciousness about it--the question. Let me try to explain something
about it...

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. TRAVOLTA: ...so you could--I've always been a sexual person anyway, but
not all my characters have had to use their sexuality. I felt in certain key
parts, I've used it, and then in others, I have not. Do you know what I mean?

GROSS: Yes.

Mr. TRAVOLTA: And so all I can say is that in life, I feel that way, but in
acting, I only feel that way if the character feels that way. And if there's
a sexuality about the character then I play it and if there isn't, I don't.
Do you know? And there's been--I mean, you know, there's been a certain level
of sexuality in different parts I've played, and then there's some where
there's just none. Do you know?

GROSS: But does it make you feel sexier in real life knowing that a large
part of the public finds you so sexy? Do you know what I mean? Does it make
you feel sexier, or does it make pleasure more pleasurable?

Mr. TRAVOLTA: I don't know because I think I felt this way before the fame.

GROSS: I see what you're saying.

Mr. TRAVOLTA: Do you see what I mean?

GROSS: I got it. Yeah.

Mr. TRAVOLTA: I never needed the movies to feel sexy.

GROSS: Got it.

Mr. TRAVOLTA: You see? I think that I had the same effect on people before I
even made movies. And if I appealed to them personally, I appealed to them
personally. And I never knew whether it was just because of who I was as a
person or it was a sexual feeling they were feeling or it was an emotional
feeling that they were feeling about me. And it's very confusing sometimes,
because you don't know what station a person's tuning in to you on.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Mr. TRAVOLTA: Is it emotion? Is it spiritual? Is it, you know, sexual? It
is just commonality? Is it common realities, you know? It's a very
interesting thing. But whatever it was is what I had before I started
portraying that on screen.

GROSS: John Travolta, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. TRAVOLTA: You're welcome.

GROSS: Thank you.

Mr. TRAVOLTA: My pleasure.

BIANCULLI: John Travolta, speaking with Terry Gross in 2003. His new movie,
"Be Cool," opens today in theaters. He returns to the Chili Palmer character
he played in "Get Shorty," which, like "Be Cool," is based on a novel by
Elmore Leonard. Coming up, Elmore Leonard himself.

This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Elmore Leonard discusses his style of writing
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

"Be Cool," the John Travolta movie that's out today, is based on novelist,
Elmore Leonard's book of the same name, which he wrote as a sequel to "Get
Shorty." Both books are built around the cocky, charismatic character of loan
shark-turned-showbiz producer Chili Palmer, played on screen by Travolta.
Here's how Travolta approached the character in the first film released in
1995. Chili Palmer is sent to Los Angeles to collect a gambling debt from
Harry Zimm, a producer of B-movies, played by Gene Hackman. After tracking
him down, Chili tries to muscle the money out of Zimm.

(Soundbite of "Get Shorty")

Mr. JOHN TRAVOLTA: (As Chili Palmer) Now, Harry, a marker is like a check.

Mr. GENE HACKMAN: (As Harry Zimm) I know what a marker is.

Mr. TRAVOLTA: And they don't want to deposit yours and have it bounce. That
annoys them. And your dear friend, Dick Allen, has been calling and leaving
messages on your answering machine and you haven't gotten back to him. So he
asked me as a favor to look you up. So I follow you here and I see you in a
window with a woman that looks a lot like Karen Flores, the actress from
"Grotesque." You're not looking at me, Harry.

Mr. HACKMAN: Why do I have to keep looking at you?

Mr. TRAVOLTA: Because I want you to.

Mr. HACKMAN: So now you're going to get rough, huh? I make good by tomorrow
or you're going to break my legs?

Mr. TRAVOLTA: Come on, Harry. ...(Unintelligible).

Mr. HACKMAN: You tell Dick Allen I'll cover those markers in the next 60 days
at the most. If he doesn't like it, then that's his problem. So do you want
me to call you a cab?

Mr. TRAVOLTA: So you make movies, huh?

Mr. HACKMAN: I produce feature motion pictures, no TV. You mentioned
"Grotesque" before? That happens to be "Grotesque, Part 2" that Karen Flores
was in. She also starred in three of my "Slime Creatures" releases. You may
have seen them.

Mr. TRAVOLTA: I've got an idea for a movie.

BIANCULLI: Terry spoke with Elmore Leonard in 1999, when his sequel to "Get
Shorty," "Be Cool," had just been published.

TERRY GROSS, host:

One of the things that you're famous for, as a writer--and this is the thing,
I think that makes your novels so great to adapt in to screenplays--is your
dialogue. It's lively, it's colorful, it's funny and it reveals a lot about
the people who are speaking it. There's a paragraph I'm going to read. It's
a small thing I want to point out here, but I just really like it a lot. Let
me get to the page. OK. This is a scene in which a few of the characters are
driving to a club that has swing bands performing. And I'll just pick it up
here. (Reading) `Elliot said guys went in there to shoot pool and at night
they had swing bands perform, one of them, Johnny Crawford, the kid that used
to be on "The Rifleman" on TV, Chuck Conner's kid. Elliot hadn't seen the
series. It was before his time, but he knew about it. Raji couldn't remember
if he'd seen it or not when it was on, but he said, "Yeah, "The Rifleman." It
wasn't bad for what it was. You know what I'm saying?"' And I love that the
guy who can't remember at all...

Mr. ELMORE LEONARD (Author, "Be Cool"): Yeah.

GROSS: ...you know--he says, `Yeah, it wasn't bad for what it was. You know
what I'm saying?' There's something so perfect about that. That's kind of
like fooling himself and fooling the other people.

Mr. LEONARD: Yeah, Raji probably believes what he said. Yeah. And he is
certainly--he's loaded with confidence, which is just, you know, baloney.
Just--he's a street talker.

GROSS: And I love the way you added the `You know what I'm saying?' because
to have--to be speaking about something you know nothing about and then ask
for, `That's true, isn't it?' you know, from somebody else, that's great.

Mr. LEONARD: Because I know that I'm going to move my stories with as much
dialogue as possible and this goes way back. I've always paid attention to
dialogue. I've always listened. I've always made sure that each character
has a different sound, an identifiable sound.

GROSS: Now you have pages that are just dialogue; there's really no, you
know, exposition outside of the dialogue. And I think when you write a lot of
dialogue, you get into a lot of substitutions for `He said' and `She said.'
You know, `He retorted,' `She opined,' `He rebuked her.' And I think you try
to stay away from that.

Mr. LEONARD: Far away.

GROSS: Yeah. And sometimes...

Mr. LEONARD: I use only `said.' I learned something from Raymond Carver
about--he said--use of the verb said. And very often, he, Carver, would use,
within a paragraph, `said' two or even three times. And you know it's not for
identification; it's continuing. The dialogue is continuing. But it's in
there for a beat, beats, so you'll just pause a moment before the next bigger
beat than a period, you know.

GROSS: Now you don't have to worry about the `He said' type of thing if
you're writing a screenplay; it's just the person speaking, a colon and then
the dialogue they speak.

Mr. LEONARD: Yeah. Right. Mm-hmm. That's right.

GROSS: Do you like that?

Mr. LEONARD: Well, I don't like writing screenplays, so I stopped doing it.
I had to write screenplays, but selling my material to having it optioned and
bought in Hollywood and then writing screenplays supported by book writing for
15 to 20 years. But finally, I got to the point where I didn't have to write
screenplays, so I didn't have to listen to all the various ideas that came off
the tops of heads at story conferences. And I could just go home them--I
mean, sit home then and write my book without anyone telling me what to do.
And knowing that it's going to sell--I mean, knowing at least that the
publishers going to buy it, knowing that my editor likes what I do and knowing
that I get more satisfaction out of writing a book than I ever will a
screenplay, that was a simple decision to make.

GROSS: If there weren't people telling you what to do in the movie world, and
if you had complete independence, would you want to write more screenplays?
And I ask that because in some ways, you seem perfect for the part since
screenplays are dialogue and that's something you're so good at.

Mr. LEONARD: I know, but it's deceiving. Because when you take my
manuscript, 350-page manuscript, and you bring it down to a 120-page shooting
script, an awful lot of the good stuff's gone. You come down to plot, and
this is what interests Hollywood, plot. And plot to me is not what makes my
book move; it's the characters. The characters are the most important
element; how they interact, who they are, what they think. Even little set
pieces, things that are part of their back stories, those are all much more
interesting to me than what's gonna happen. What happens is not the most
important thing about the book. It's how they get there. It's the ride.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. LEONARD: It's the ride, not the--finally where you arrive at.

GROSS: Is there a scene in any of the recent film adaptations of your novels
where you particularly liked hearing the actor doing lines that are straight
out of your book?

Mr. LEONARD: Yeah. In "Jackie Brown," when Sam Jackson was trying to get--I
forgot who it was--to get into the trunk of the car. And Quentin liked that
so much he even elaborated on it. The scene is longer in the movie than it is
in the book. It's usually the other way around. I thought that worked
extremely well.

GROSS: What did you like about it?

Mr. LEONARD: Well, just the way they were--I just felt that these two guys
were really into it. I mean, they were really doing it. They were really
those characters. They were so believable to me.

(Soundbite of "Jackie Brown")

Mr. CHRIS TUCKER: (As Beaumont) Now you must be out of your (censored) mind
if you think I'm getting into this dirty ass trunk!

Mr. SAMUEL L. JACKSON: (As Ordell) We ain't going nowhere but to Koreatown,
man. You ain't gonna be in here no more than 10 minutes.

Mr. TUCKER: Man, I ain't riding in no (censored) truck for no minute, man.
Why I can't ride up front with you?

Mr. JACKSON: You can't ride up front with me. The surprise element is 90
percent of it.

Mr. TUCKER: I'm sorry, man, but I ain't getting in no (censored) trunk.

Mr. JACKSON: I can't believe you'd do me like this, man.

Mr. TUCKER: Do you like what, man? I just ain't climbing in no...

GROSS: Now how much of that was improvised? How much of it came right out of
the book?

Mr. LEONARD: Well, I was on the set when they were shooting that scene and
they were--they started to improvise and Quentin said, `No, do the--stay with
the lines as they're written. You can improvise later.' And he made sure
that the characters stayed with his dialogue. Then he would let them try
things.

And it was the same way with Barry Sonnenfeld in "Get Shorty." The actors had
to stay with the words as written. Because what happens is when actors begin
to make up their own lines, they're usually lines that you thought of and
discarded as being, you know, trite or too obvious. And it's funny. In story
meetings, the studio executive will come up with what he thinks is a great
idea. And he doesn't realize that in writing a book over a period of six or
seven months that you've thought of all these ideas. You discarded them and
you've come up with what you believe is the best idea to make the story work,
you know.

GROSS: Elmore Leonard, thank you very much.

Mr. LEONARD: Thank you, Terry.

BIANCULLI: Elmore Leonard, speaking to Terry Gross in 1999. His book "Be
Cool" has just been made into a movie starring John Travolta, who played the
same role in another Elmore-inspired film, "Get Shorty."

Coming up, David Edelstein reviews "The Best Of Youth," a six-hour epic from
Italy.

This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Italian television series transferred to film, "The Best
of Youth"
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

"The Best of Youth" is a six-hour epic originally made for Italian television.
It was transferred to film and has been wowing audiences at film festivals
ever since. "The Best of Youth" won a special jury prize at Cannes. It
opened this week at the Film Forum in New York, and will open wider in the
coming months.

DAVID EDELSTEIN reporting:

Marco Tullio Giordana's six-hour saga of two Italian brothers and their
extended family is one of those projects that American filmmakers occasionally
attempt but never quite bring off. "The Best of Youth" takes place over 40
years. It's a story of individuals who grow and change amid momentous social
upheavals. But there's no one-to-one correspondence between the personal and
the political. I mean, it's not 1967 and the protagonist is a pot-smoking
hippy, and then it's 1982 and he's an investment banker. The characters'
attitudes and fashions do shift with the times, but the developments are
subtle and unpredictable. More important, these character struggle to change
society; they have too much integrity to let society change them.

The brothers are Nicola and Matteo, played by Luigi Lo Cascio and Alessio
Boni. It's the sharp-cheekboned heartthrob Matteo who seems the more
interesting at first. He's an A-student who feels injustice more deeply than
anyone else, and he develops a fixation on a lovely institutionalized girl
named Georgia. He ends up springing her from a mental hospital, where she's
on a steady diet of electroshock, and tries to bring her to her father. But
Matteo fails Georgia and abandoned his brother and two other friends who
planned a post-graduation trip north, to the North Pole, in fact. In despair,
he joins the army and then the police force, while his brother, the medical
student Nicola, becomes immersed in the activist counterculture.

No, it's not what you're thinking--brother against brother; one a fascist, the
other a Communist hippy, nothing so cliched or allegorical or extreme like
Bertolucci's "1900." Both brothers remain friends, if distant ones. And both
hold true to their idealism. By the fourth hour, Nicola is a psychiatrist
successfully fighting the harsh conditions and outright torture of mental
patients, while Matteo is none to successfully battling the entrenched culture
of crime in Sicily and growing more and more emotionally crippled.

Giordana depicts Italy as a beautiful, but intractably corrupt place, and yet
the characters continue to work towards transforming it. One of the brothers'
friends, Carlo, becomes a banker, but one who works toward an economic system
that's transparent instead of cloaked. At the other end of the spectrum,
Nicola has a daughter with a beautiful woman named Julia, played by Sonia
Bergamasco. Julia drifts into radicalism and finally goes underground with
the violent Red Brigade. She's working to change the system from without.

`Six hours,' you think, `Wow, that sounds endless,' but there isn't a boring
millisecond. "The Best of Youth" isn't an art film; it's a miniseries with
the sweep of a classic novel with tons of plot. The scenes are short but
penetrating, the tiniest exchanges can explode and the five-year leaps are
amazingly fluid. There's a kind of forthright lyricism in the way Giordana
handles the landscape and the characters' yearning for connection, for
meaning, for the high spirits of their youth. It's that yearning--reminiscent
of Checkov--which holds the episodic narrative together. The suspense at
times is killing and there is one terrible shock, but there's also a fair bit
of sentiment. By the sixth hour, Giordana is proving he can grapple with the
harshest reality. You won't begrudge him his rather honeyed resolution.

Obviously, "The Best of Youth" poses distribution problems. It's going to
screen at art houses in two parts. You'll want to catch both in one day.
Failing that, you can eventually see it on DVD. It was made for Italian
television and won't suffer much. But if possible, see it in the theater.
It's the sort of movie you'll recommend to friends and they'll go, `Six
hours?' and then thank you later. You don't need to thank me. I'm just an
idealist doing my bit to make the world a better place.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for the online magazine Slate.

(Soundbite of music; credits)

BIANCULLI: For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
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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