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Novelist Robert Stone.

Novelist Robert Stone. His new novel "Damascus Gate" is about the Middle East. Unlike most writers who write about the region, Stone is not Jewish; he's a lapsed Catholic. One reviewer writes of the book that it is "so comprehending of Israel's convoluted workings and its bifurcated culture--where the Biblical fervor of Jerusalem coexists with the disco fever of Tel Aviv--that he makes other writers on the subject seem like the breeziness of literary tourists." Stone is also the author of "Outerbridge Reach" and "Dog Soldiers."

32:24

Other segments from the episode on May 6, 1998

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 6, 1998: Interview with Robert Stone; Interview with James Toback.

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: MAY 06, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 050601np.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Damascus Gate
Sect: News; International
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

As Israel celebrates its 50th birthday and Madeleine Albright tries to prevent the peace process from falling apart, Robert Stone takes a novelist's approach to the conflict in his new book "Damascus Gate."

Stone is perhaps best known for his novel "Dog Soldiers," which was adapted into the film "Who Will Stop The Rain?" His new novel is about a freelance journalist who wants to write about the conflict in Jerusalem, but instead of taking the political approach -- tracking incidents of revenge and counter-terrorism -- he chooses what he thinks will be an easier story. He follows the people in cult groups and on the religious fringe.

But through following them, he's led into just the kind of dangerous story he thought he was avoiding, a plot to blow up a Muslim holy place. Many of the people this journalist has been following suffer from what has been called "the Jerusalem syndrome."

ROBERT STONE, AUTHOR, "DAMASCUS GATE": In the Jerusalem syndrome, as it's defined, foreigners usually -- usually Western Christians, not exclusively -- come to Jerusalem and are moved to believe that they've been brought to Jerusalem for some cosmic purpose, to bring about some divine intention. And -- or else they believe -- they come to believe that they are some divine or saintly personage. And you can see them on the streets of Jerusalem in their impersonations -- wild-eyed and calling out.

There's a special squad of the Jerusalem police which is charged with dealing with them. There is a special hospital, Kafarshal (ph), where such people are confined and dealt with until they can be sort of shipped home.

GROSS: So these people who are -- these are people who are living in the delusion that they're the second coming of Jesus Christ, or they're a saint or another prophet from the Bible.

STONE: The second coming of Christ is a common one, but there was also -- there was, recently I was told, a Samson. A friend of mine went by the hospital. I just talked on the phone to him, and he told me he stopped by the hospital and asked the psychiatrist who coined the term: who have you got today? And the psychiatrist said: "well, just a minute, I'll check."

But that day, they had no -- they had no famous figures from the past. The worst time they've had was with Samson, who was in fact pretty strong. But more commonly, it's -- it's Jesus Christ.

GROSS: Were you interested in trying to find where that line is between deep religious conviction and seriously disturbed religious delusion?

STONE: I don't know that there is a line. I think -- or if there is, the one person who's defined it best perhaps is William James, who talks about being twice born. Being -- I think being deluded about religion is like being deluded about anything else.

You can -- it's an obsession. It's an obsessive disorder. I mean, to speak of it clinically, it's an obsessive disorder and one can collect stamps and -- in a perfectly rational manner. And then, one can collect stamps in a totally deluded and frenzied and obsessed manner.

So in some ways, it's not different from anything else. There is a -- as long as somebody really has a grip on reality, no matter how emotionally they may feel, you can't say that they're deluded. The question essentially is whether -- whether their hold on reality is lost or not.

Now, millions of Christians believe that the world is going to come to an end fairly soon, and the Messiah is going to return, in their view. And according to whether they are pre-millennarian or post-millennarian, there will be the reign of Christ on Earth and there will be -- of 1,000 years -- and there will be a war between the forces of good and the forces of evil.

All this to the rational humanist sounds pretty far out. But the people who believe it aren't crazy. I mean, they're not deluded. When it doesn't happen, if it doesn't happen, presuming that it isn't going to happen, they will simply adjust their belief system accordingly.

GROSS: Not everyone in your novel who has come to Jerusalem thinks that they're the second coming. I mean, a lot of people are there for -- people are there for many different reasons in your novel. Some of their -- some are political activists; some are seekers of one sort of another. Many of the people in the book derive their identity from their religion. Their religion just kind of defines who they are and what they want from life.

Where did your interest in identity and religion as a source of identity come from? Is this a recent interest for you?

STONE: It's not a recent interest. I mean, my characters tend to be -- the characters in all my books tend to be shallow-rooted, transient, of loosely defined identity, looking for their connections to the world, looking for their connections with each other. So that in a way, Jerusalem is a town I would naturally be attracted to because it's so much about identity.

And Jerusalem in a way is ruled by texts. It's ruled by people's interpretation of who they are and what they're doing is conditioned by this -- by this narrative, that they attach to; that they embrace. And it's always seemed to me that I felt a sort of loose attachment to my story in that I always wanted to change my story.

GROSS: Your personal story?

STONE: My personal story. I always felt that wherever authenticity resided, it was somewhere else. If I grew up in New York, then authenticity must be in San Francisco. It had to be where I wasn't. But I wanted it -- I wanted to pursue it.

Nevertheless, when I got there, authenticity had fled. It was somewhere else. But wherever it was, I wasn't carrying it around. My connection with circumstances seemed ephemeral. I could never really see what connected me to things exactly, and I kept my whole life, in a way, inquiring into the nature of connections -- connections between people; connections between place and people.

GROSS: Not to get side-tracked too much here, but do you think one of the reasons why you're so interested in connection is because you spent four years of your early life in an orphanage while your mother was institutionalized for schizophrenia?

STONE: Yes, that is certainly one of the reasons. I mean, I -- the first thing you have to -- you have to do if you're brought up by a schizophrenic is you have to decide what's real and what's not, because you're getting -- if you're a small child and you're in the custody of a schizophrenic person, they're hearing things and they're concerned with things -- very concerned -- agitated over things that as far as you can tell aren't going on.

And so you have to -- you have to break down the difference between what's happening and what's not -- what -- and what concerns you is what's happening, and what's not happening -- whether it agitates your mother or not, it doesn't concern you. That's mom. I mean, she's -- she's doing her -- she's doing her mom thing and this has nothing to do with me. And you -- but this is of course a separation. It's -- it creates a gulf. You really are addressing your parents across a gulf.

And you -- this gives you a hunger, I think, for their presence.

GROSS: Did your mother have religious hallucinations?

STONE: My mother did not have religious hallucinations. They didn't take a religious form. She really was not a religious person. She was -- she was really something of an intellectual. She was a New York City school teacher and she had finally lost her job for being too obviously crazy. But her delusions -- her delusions were sometimes extremely petty and not worth paying attention to.

Rarely did they have any large-scale concerns. I mean, her way of being crazy was not particularly interesting. I mean, she wasn't -- she wasn't concerned with plots to rule the world. She was more concerned with what they were up to in the next -- in the next room; in the next apartment; in the one below you. It wasn't a very lyrical kind of madness, but it was -- it was something that took her away; that I couldn't understand.

But of course, I grew up to it, so I had to make sense of it for myself.

GROSS: Does this give you a sense of connection with people who are mad, whether it's a religious delusion that they have or another form?

STONE: Yes, I can -- I can relate. I think I can relate to certain conditions -- psychological conditions -- very, very readily. And I can also recognize them. There are a lot of people on the street suffering from various kinds of psychological stress, some of it clinical; some of it not. And I can usually recognize it. It's familiar to me from the range of my mother's repertory.

GROSS: My guest is Robert Stone, author of the new novel Damascus Gate. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with Robert Stone, author of the new novel Damascus Gate.

I'm wondering what other forms of extremism you were exposed to during the time that you spent in Jerusalem.

STONE: Well, I was -- of course, I was seeing the -- the Intifada. And at that time, one of the things that was going on every day was the Israeli Army and the border police making a show of strength. And the Shabob (ph) -- the young Palestinian youth -- making a show of strength on their part, enforcing strikes on the merchants of the city.

So, you had an air of intense contentiousness and a great air of kind of strutting and saber-rattling and antler-rattling, if you like. But mainly what we saw was an exchange of threats -- a constant battle for the upper-hand. And what was at stake here was the stones of the city.

I mean, the city which the Palestinians were claiming as home -- the stones which the Israelis were claiming as Jews, the absence from which was the central -- the central part of their identity; something that they were brought up to lament, to the place where they would be "next year" for century after century.

And now they were finally there and they were not about to give it up.

GROSS: As someone who really understands the importance of story, did you find it particularly interesting to talk to Jews, Christians, and Muslims, and hear their different sides of their story of Jerusalem? And also to talk to Arabs and Israelis -- to Palestinians and Israelis and get their different sense of the meaning of Jerusalem?

STONE: I -- well, I did. And I got a lot of that. I was always -- I was always trying to carry water on both shoulders. I was going to dinner on opposite sides of town, or on one side of town, having spent the day on the other side of town -- bringing back what I thought were agreeable stories from that side of town. But my agreeable stories never seemed to go over.

But people, for example, believed -- the people farthest from power were the Palestinians, and they believed rumor, as people far from power will do. They tended to believe all sorts of rumors, that Salman Rushdie was coming to the city; that Woody Allen had been in town and was protesting the behavior of the border police.

All kinds of unlikely things were believed in the -- on the Palestinian side of town, because communications were -- were, you know, less -- less advanced.

GROSS: Were you able to get people to see you as a neutral party, which is I guess the way you wanted to be seen?

STONE: That was the way I wanted to be seen. That was the way I felt, although I felt different ways at different times. I think so. I think people accepted my basic good will. I mean, I think I wanted more than neutrality. I wanted, you know, I wanted to be everybody's pal.

GROSS: Somehow, I get this feeling that you've been to San Francisco in the '60s, Vietnam in the '60s, and Jerusalem in the '90s -- and found some very similar themes in all three places -- seekers, misfits, drug use, drug abuse.

STONE: Well, I think -- you know, I've pursued -- I've pursued those things to some extent. Not -- I mean, it's not that I've gone where I expected to find drug abuse and alienated people. But I'll -- let me put it this way, I mean, if you asked me what attracted me to Jerusalem, it was first the beauty of the city.

And then as I got to know the city better, I saw that around the basic contention between Palestinians and Israelis, there had grown up this milieu -- the kind of milieu that grows up around all the fever points in the world; of young people; young -- young and not so young people; journalists; international social workers; UN officials -- this entire milieu of people who socialize together; who work together; take risks together; party together.

Some of the people in -- working in the Gaza Strip and on the West Bank had just come from Eritrea and from Somalia. Some of them had been to every famine and every war since Vietnam. They'd -- many of them had a history of traveling from Cambodia to the Caprivi (ph) Strip to Eritrea. The young women would decorate their legs with henna in the manner of Somali women. I mean, they would -- sometimes they would party all night. Sometimes they would stay up 36 hours at a time.

They all tended to be tempted to causes. They were idealistic and adventurous. And these people, I think to a novelist, are irresistible. And these were the kind of people I was seeing in Jerusalem. They were the kind of people I had seen in Vietnam and in Central America -- following wars; following emergencies; doing good; and also following their own personal obsessions.

And I ended -- that I ended up there, too, was not surprising.

GROSS: And where do you fit into that milieu? I mean, you've been a traveler all your life. You -- you left high school at the age of 17. You were in the Merchant Marines, the navies. You did a voyage to Antarctica. You've done a lot of traveling in your time.

STONE: Right. Well, I don't fit in anywhere. I have no...

GROSS: You don't fit in anywhere, is that what you said?

STONE: No. Any more than...

GROSS: Even with the people who don't fit in anywhere?

LAUGHTER

STONE: Well, no, there are people like -- I mean, nobody would tend to question, you know: what is he doing here? Because nobody exactly knows what they're doing here in any of these given places. I don't -- but I don't -- it's true. I don't fit in even with the people who don't fit in. I mean, in terms of the task. I mean, I try to make myself useful in one way or another when I'm in such places, but as often as not, I spend my time trying to stay out of the way.

GROSS: Did writing Damascus Gate take you any places psychologically that you hadn't been before?

STONE: I had to really -- yes. One place it took me was into the Lurianic (ph) Caballah, which I found to be an absolutely sublime religious vision.

GROSS: This is a Jewish mystical text.

STONE: It's a Jewish mystical text, and it's partly on caballah that my characters, some of whom are involved in this syncratic heresy -- draw upon. They draw upon caballah for their -- their doctrine. And of course, I had to read a great deal about it; familiarize myself with it. It's mostly been written about by Gerson Shalom (ph).

And I found that entire concept of the absconded God accorded perfectly with everything I felt myself. It -- with -- and even with what Nietzsche has written; what the 20th century theologians have written about the deos absconditus (ph) -- that feeling of the God we couldn't get at.

In that doctrine, God has absented himself in order to allow the universe to exist. But he's left these shards of light that have somehow to be gathered together and put together, and the balance restored. And possibly then he will come back to us.

And I find this not only sublime, but also tremendously appealing in a personal way, and perhaps it reminds me of trying to get at my mother when I was a very small child, I don't know. Perhaps it -- it reminds me of everything I've felt about not belonging in any one place or to any one group of people.

In any case, it's -- you know, it's a beautiful and breathtaking vision of things.

GROSS: Does that mean that you're continuing to pursue studying caballah?

STONE: No.

GROSS: You got what you got.

STONE: I -- I don't think I -- I mean, I take the question as meaning: will I somehow commit?

GROSS: Right. Yeah, I guess maybe that's what the question was, yeah.

STONE: Right.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

STONE: But I -- I decline to commit. I have always declined to commit. I'm going to keep writing as long as I can, but at this point, I will not commit.

GROSS: Robert Stone -- his new novel is called Damascus Gate. He'll be back in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Back with Robert Stone. His new novel Damascus Gate is set in Jerusalem. It's about an American freelance journalist who's writing about people who've been drawn to Jerusalem by the delusion that they're the second coming or that they're the incarnation of a biblical figure.

Stone is also the author of Dog Soldiers, about a veteran who started using hard drugs in Vietnam and is now entangled with dangerous drug dealers.

Some time in the mid-'60s, I guess, you were in the San Francisco area; you were one of Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters in the early experimentation with psychedelia. And for a lot of people, the early psychedelics brought on an enhanced sense of the mystical qualities of the world. And it was a kind of like deeply secular, spiritual experience for a lot of people. And I'm wondering what those encounters with psychedelics did to your sense of religion or...

STONE: Well, my -- my psychedelic experiences were religious.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

STONE: On -- on acid, I absolutely believed that there was a God. Although it wasn't the God that I'd been brought up to believe in. It was a supreme being. And I felt totally certain of it; totally certain of it. But I was never able to take that much beyond the trip.

I think there's something in there. I think there's something imprinted inside us that -- that makes us somehow fashion a supreme entity. It's somehow in -- in our primary process that we look out for some supreme entity. I think that's why it appears in states like the acid state.

GROSS: You wrote an article that I quite liked a few years ago about reading "On The Road" for the first time when you were on the road. I mean, you were actually at sea.

STONE: Right.

GROSS: You -- you were on this voyage to Antarctica to continue the work of Admiral Byrd, who had died shortly before this trip. And you read On The Road and so identified with this book. And then 10 years later, you met Neal Cassidy, who is the real-life character that one of the main characters in On The Road is based on. And he was one of the people involved with Ken Kesey's group. Everybody was experimenting with psychedelics and you became part of that group.

And once you actually met Neal Cassidy, he didn't compare that well, in a way, to the character in the book. What were the differences between reading the book and reading about this heroic character and actually meeting the person?

STONE: Well, it's always a bit of a disappointment either to meet the writer of a book or a character from a book. Of course, it was 10 years later. But by then, Cassidy -- Cassidy, who is treated as the most hip, as the most perceptive, as the most eloquent -- naturally eloquent cowboy hero in On The Road, was an irrepressible speed freak when I met him. I mean, he was mainlining methedrine. He was mainlining crystal meth.

And he never ate and he never slept and he never shut up. And he went everywhere with this parrot called "Rubiaca" (ph). And you'd walk into a room and someone would say "the last time I was in Denver, those pigs had" -- and you'd turn around, and you never knew whether it was going to be Cassidy or the parrot.

LAUGHTER

So, it was -- Cassidy was a bit of a trial. He -- he had a hammer with which he practiced quick-draw contests. And he was always trying to put acid in everybody's food. So if you didn't watch out, if you didn't watch what you were eating or drinking, you'd find yourself on an extended psychological adventure. So.

GROSS: Which he would talk all the way through, no doubt.

LAUGHTER

STONE: Yes. Or you'd be trapped with -- you'd be trapped with Cassidy and his parrot for 13 hours, and you wanted very much to avoid that. But I wasn't surprised to find myself there, but -- and I guess I knew enough not to be disappointed.

GROSS: During the period when you were doing psychedelics in the '60s -- early on when you were trying it and you didn't know what your reaction would be, were you worried -- having witnessed your mother being kind of sick with the hallucinations of schizophrenia -- were you worried about the dark side of hallucination and that it might sweep you away into a world in which you would be cut off from reality and perhaps not able to return again?

STONE: When I was -- when I took my first trip, I thought that's exactly what I had done. I mean, there was no way I was not going to take that mescaline. We were all taking mescaline. We were going into town. John Coltrane was playing on Broadway. Lenny Bruce was also playing in San Francisco. We were getting together for a trip to the city. Everybody was taking mescaline. I was going to take that mescaline. Nothing was going to stop me.

But once I'd taken it and it began to sweep over me, I immediately knew what I had done. I'd put myself in the place that my mother lived, and that I would never, ever get out of it. But I seemed to have.

GROSS: Did you go back there?

STONE: Oh, I took -- I took lots of psychedelics after that -- for years. I mean, the last...

GROSS: Yeah, so -- I'm sorry. I didn't mean to interrupt.

STONE: I was going to say the last time was about -- was some time in the '70s. I would never -- I don't have the energy for anything like that anymore.

GROSS: What got you to go back there after having this really frightening trip, which you thought you would be cut off forever from reality?

STONE: Well, I think the fact that I didn't get cut off; the fact that I lived to tell the tale and got back made me think. I mean, you -- it's one of those things you, you know, you keep doing it and you think "oh, now I've gone too far." But you -- you -- it clears up and you try it again, because it's interesting and it's fun and it's -- of course, it's dangerous.

GROSS: Did you have good times on it, too?

STONE: I had great times on it.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

STONE: But nothing's free.

GROSS: Right. What do you think the final -- do you feel like there are consequences that you're still paying from having done that? Or the opposite?

STONE: I think I took something away -- something positive; something that I learned and that I use in my work. And I think I probably paid a price.

GROSS: What do you think the price was? I mean, what you took away was insight, probably. Right?

STONE: I don't -- what I took away was insight and the relativeness of things. The price I paid is perhaps a degree of confidence in the steadiness of the reality around me. You know, I don't think I'll ever trust -- I'll ever again trust reality not to turn itself into something unfamiliar and strange and grotesque. That's the price I pay. But what I took with me is useful.

GROSS: I guess that's something you can work out through fiction, too.

STONE: Exactly.

GROSS: Yeah. Right.

STONE: I mean, that's where I work it out.

GROSS: Right. Right.

Robert Stone -- his new novel is called Damascus Gate.

Coming up, screenwriter and director James Toback discusses his new movie "Two Girls and a Guy."

This is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Robert Stone
High: Novelist Robert Stone. His new novel "Damascus Gate" is about the Middle East. Unlike most writers who write about the region, Stone is not Jewish; he's a lapsed Catholic. One reviewer writes of the book that it is "so comprehending of Israel's convoluted workings and its bifurcated culture -- where the Biblical fervor of Jerusalem coexists with the disco fever of Tel Aviv--that he makes other writers on the subject seem like the breeziness of literary tourists." Stone is also the author of "Outerbridge Reach" and "Dog Soldiers."
Spec: Middle East; Israel; Books; Authors; Damascus Gate; Cities; Jerusalem; Religion; Espionage
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Damascus Gate
Show: FRESH AIR
Date: MAY 06, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 050602np.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Two Girls and a Guy
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:40

TERRY GROSS, HOST: The new movie "Two Girls and a Guy" stars Robert Downey, Jr. as an actor who has used his acting abilities to convince each of his two girlfriends that she is the only one. His girlfriends are played by Heather Graham (ph) and Natasha Gregson Wagner, Natalie Wood's daughter. The two women accidentally meet and find out about each other. They decide to team up and confront their two-timing boyfriend with the truth.

Downey's first leading role in a film was in Toback's -- was in James Toback's 1987 movie "The Pick-up Artist." My guest is James Toback and his other movies include "Fingers," "Exposed," and "The Big Bang." He wrote the screenplays for "The Gambler" and "Bugsy."

Toback wrote and directed the new movie Two Girls and a Guy. Robert Downey Jr.'s public image has been tarnished by drug use and a recent stay in prison. But his performance in Two Girls and a Guy has won rave reviews. He plays a compulsive performer -- someone who's always on, even when he's alone in a room.

Here he is calling his agent, while seated at the piano.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "TWO GIRLS AND A GUY")

ROBERT DOWNEY, JR., ACTOR, SINGING IN ITALIAN

DOWNEY JR.: It's Blake. What is it -- like 4:30 there?

DOWNEY JR., SINGING IN ITALIAN

DOWNEY JR.: So, what happened with this job? Did I get it? No? Why? Too talented, as usual? What do you mean -- what is -- what's going on? There's all these blowhards working. I can't get a job.

SOUNDBITE OF GROAN

So what else. You -- what about, like, anything? What else?

Really? Wow. And that's in the Catskills, huh? God, you know, I know a lot of -- no actually, I don't know anyone who's made it in the Catskills. What is it -- what's -- what are they paying me? Wow. Yeah, that'll cover the drycleaning.

What about, like, a TV spot or something? I can't even believe we're discussing this, John. This is ridiculous. It's like you don't know who you're dealing with here. And -- have you been drinking quite a bit again?

I'm sorry. No, I'm just kidding. I'm just -- I'm just a little -- you know, hold on, let me think about it for a second.

SOUNDBITE OF PUTTING PHONE RECEIVER DOWN

DOWNEY JR., SINGING: Call me daddy, call me daddy
Bend over, and then squeal like the pig
That you are
For offering me this job

Ah, no, I'll take it.

GROSS: James Toback, I think that Robert Downey was in between rehab and prison when you actually shot the movie with him. Tell me why you wanted to work with him, knowing the problems that he had had with drugs.

JAMES TOBACK, DIRECTOR, "TWO GIRLS AND A GUY": Well, I think that Downey's whole history had included drugs, obsession, addiction -- so that it wasn't as if all of a sudden somebody who had been functioning smoothly and well picked up a habit which might change his reliability or affect his talent.

I think different people handle things different ways. And I'm not suggesting that it's a good thing or a bad. I myself quit permanently any kind of pharmacological indulgence when I was 19 years old. But you take people as a whole, and Downey was and is a fascinating, complicated, talented, interesting guy, who also was a friend.

GROSS: The character that Robert Downey plays is someone who hasn't really made it as an actor. He's a struggling actor. But he's a born performer and although we don't see how well he performs on stage, and we don't know if he's a very good actor on stage or not, we see him performing compulsively at home -- performing in front of the mirror, performing on the telephone, performing in front of friends. He doesn't quit.

And Downey is so much fun to watch in this role as this compulsive entertainer. What was well-suited about this part for Downey, do you think?

TOBACK: Well, I wrote it for Downey. I -- I took what was the essence of his nature, which is that of the charmer, the seducer, the entertainer, the verbally and physically facile enjoiner -- and then worked into that a consummate layer of deception, which is also central to Downey and creates some interesting drama.

And then in addition, felt from watching him after he'd been arrested and had gone into rehab a bit earlier, worked in this kind of dark and desperate side of his character, which I felt, having seen him on television after that arrest, he would be ready to reveal in a way that he hadn't before on screen.

GROSS: I think this role kind of captures the self-absorption of a lot of artists, which ends up being both their strength and their weakness. Their strength is because they have this -- this inner-talent to always draw on, but that self-absorption is their weakness, too, because if you're friends or lovers with someone like that, you know, after a while it's "but enough about you." You know, enough performing -- just relate to me as a person.

And I think that really comes across in this movie -- this, OK, you're a really fun performer, but stop already. Is that something you intentionally wanted to write in? Is that something you've seen a lot in either Downey or other actors?

TOBACK: Absolutely. I think it is -- it is central to the nature of most performers that I've met, and certainly central to Downey's being. Here and there, you'll meet an actor who is fairly free of that, but not often. And the need to please; the need to be watched; appreciated; the need to fascinate; the need to delight -- I think that is probably the deepest motivating force in most actors and in most entertainers.

And it certainly is in Downey. I think in his case, he almost doesn't care whether the camera is running or not. He's running all the time.

GROSS: Give me a sense of what it was like to work on an improvised scene with Robert Downey.

TOBACK: Well, in Two Girls and a Guy, towards the end of the movie, there is a scene in which secrets of the two girls are revealed. And those secrets emerge only after a final assault on Downey and his duplicity. It was the only scene in the movie the writing of which I felt was unsatisfactory from the day we started shooting.

And on the day we were shooting it, having not made the necessary adjustments myself, I approached Downey and suggested that -- well, he actually said to me: "you know, this scene isn't nearly as good as the rest of the movie." And I said: "I know that." And I said: "why don't you write something yourself that you like."

And he went off for about an hour and came back with what was a rather self-serving passage. Quite interesting and workable, but it was just kind of the beginning of the scene. And I said: "well, this is good, as a start. Let me show it to Heather and Natasha" -- Heather Graham and Natasha Wagner.

And I showed it to Heather, who turned purple as she was reading it and said: "I would never let him get away with this." And I said: "well, then don't." And she said: "what do you mean, don't?" I said: "don't -- don't let him get away with it. Say whatever you want. Come back at him with whatever you want to come back at him."

And she said: "really?" I said: "yeah." She said: "you mean anything?" "Yeah, anything."

Because up until then, the improvisation in the movie had been kind of riffs on what was written, with certain parameters to be observed. And then I said to Natasha: "and you're gonna be there, and whatever you want to come in with, you come in with whatever."

So by the time we started, we didn't rehearse it. We just sat down with three -- with a whole array of mirrors so it had a kind of very interesting fractured effect, splintered effect. And we got several different camera angles. And it actually was a fascinating scene to edit, because what I was left with, then, was 200 minutes of footage to cut into a 10-minute scene.

GROSS: I want to ask you about another scene. I want to ask you about the scene that we opened the interview with, where Robert Downey is on the phone with his agent. How much of that was written? How much of that was improvised? Did you have him, like, singing on the phone, as he put the agent on hold?

TOBACK: It was about half and half. The singing was his invention totally -- "call me daddy, call me daddy -- (Unintelligible) -- the pig that you are." That was Robert's invention -- and "for offering me this job, yeah, I'll take it" -- he has very, very good timing and good instincts about how to go off and how to come back.

I mean, I'd worked with him on The Pick-up Artist, as I said, 10 years ago. And there wasn't anything like that kind of confidence in his instincts then. And here, he just zoomed away every minute with what he instinctively felt was right, and pretty much knew exactly when to come back, as in that scene, where he kind of goes off and steps right back into the -- the line of the scene.

GROSS: Well, the premise of Two Girls and a Guy is that a man played by Robert Downey has told two women, played by Heather Graham and Natasha Wagner, that each of them is the only one he is capable of loving emotionally or physically. And of course, each of these two women think they are the only one, until they accidentally meet outside his loft.

I personally think you finally let him off the hook. I won't -- I won't give enough of the plot away to explain why I think -- you know, how I think you let him off the hook, but I do think you did that. So...

TOBACK: You mean, let him off the hook in the sense that I justify his behavior?

GROSS: Yeah. Mm-hmm. That you offer some kind of like emotional justification for his behavior.

TOBACK: I don't think so at all. I think that -- that it's very clear that the -- that if the movie is taking a position, it's taking the position that the women take. I mean, I think their attack on him is so ferocious and so clear and so justified, until of course the twist at the end, which doesn't in any way mean that he has been right. It's just that there are complications in them, too.

But I think he is shredded in this movie. And I think that, you know, to suggest that his movie justifies his behavior, when in fact it shows how it has devastated two people and been fundamentally dishonest. I mean, the fact that Downey happens to be very charming and engaging is -- was I think a necessary component in the casting. If not, the audience would have wanted to stab the guy halfway through the movie.

But I think the virtue of the movie is precisely the opposite of that. I think it makes it very clear that this is a guy who is a liar and is a deceiver and is not emotionally ready to face up to the consequences of his actions; that all he does when he's called on something is tell another lie and spin-off into another deception.

And in no way anywhere is there an authorial point of view that says: this is a proper and acceptable way to behave.

GROSS: My guest is screenwriter and director James Toback. His new movie is called Two Girls and a Guy. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

James Toback is my guest. He's the writer and director of the new movie Two Girls and a Guy.

I want to ask you about what has been, for obvious reasons, the most controversial scene in your movie, which is a sexual encounter between the character played by Heather Graham and the character played by Robert Downey.

And this is a scene that the Motion Picture Association asked you to re-cut, or else they would have given you an NC-17, which would have seriously restricted your ability to advertise and to screen the movie.

Tell me what you wanted out of this scene?

TOBACK: Well, the scene is -- was designed for the psychological intentions of the characters. And you almost have to have seen the movie, but what Heather Graham does at that moment, which is a bit cruel towards the other character -- towards Natasha -- is to seduce Downey, to pull Downey into the bedroom with the intention of getting him off, and then of leaving.

The second moment -- the transition...

GROSS: So this would be a way of, like, asserting her power over him or...

TOBACK: That's right. And showing it to herself, to him, and to Natasha. And then leaving.

Then, as she's trying to leave, he stops her from leaving. And at that point, he's on the spot, because obviously, he's not going to get anywhere by simply showing that he's physically stronger than she is, so what he needs to do at that point is to get back to the point, which he certainly knows through a 10-month history with her, where he can excite her and get her off, which he then does.

Then, the coda is that she, in effect, recovers from having allowed that to happen, and still leaves. And in effect, says: "even though you got that -- that was a Pyrrhic victory, 'cause I'm gone." Then of course, she comes back, and the question -- and I think it's one of those mysteries which is not only true in life, it's true in the film -- you don't really know, and I don't really know -- if she had just gotten him off and left, would she, as a character, have gone back?

My suspicion is that she would not have.

GROSS: So when you realized that your choices were NC-17 or re-cut the movie, did -- was that a choice for you? Did you ever consider the NC-17?

TOBACK: Well, I didn't re-cut. I really just trimmed. I mean, I would have -- ultimately, if you get bald about it, I would have to do whatever I had to do to get an R. Fox Searchlight bought the movie and owned the movie, and was not going to release it as an NC-17. So, I had to get an R. And what I did was resubmit 14 times, each one with some shots a little shorter than they'd been before. I never actually took a shot out.

I mean, given that they were going to take the position they took, I thought: what difference does it make if someone is exposed to the terrifying sight of this sexual act occurring for seven seconds as opposed to four seconds?

GROSS: We talked about casting Robert Downey in the movie, and in fact writing the role for Robert Downey. I also wanted to ask you about casting Heather Graham. I think it's such an interesting contrast to her role in "Boogie Nights."

In Boogie Nights, she plays somebody who is in her own way really naive and not very smart, outside of maybe a little street smart. And in your movie, she's somebody who has a lot of -- you just imagine this character having a lot of depth; a lot of -- she seems very self-contained; very smart; very focused.

Tell me what you saw in her when you cast her. I think she's really a fine actress.

TOBACK: I think Heather's a great actress and I think she's a terrific personality and she's very appealing and interesting and mercurial. She has a kind of surface beautiness, with a quiet, subtle intelligence, and a kind of natural goofiness, which work very well in combination, because they're sort of -- it's a surprising mix.

I talked to her with Downey for about 15 minutes, and I think we both knew that she could do it. We didn't read her. It was just that she was impossible to shock or offend, and...

GROSS: Was that part of the audition? Trying to shock and offend her?

TOBACK: It was with her. I -- it wasn't with -- it wasn't actually with most. It wasn't so much trying to as -- given the nature of this material and given the fact that we were going to be shooting for 11 days, and that we were going to need actresses who could go wherever we -- wherever they wanted to go, wherever Downey wanted to go, wherever I wanted to go -- we needed free-wheeling people who were not easily upset or offended. It was just a practical decision.

On a normal movie with a normal shooting schedule, that's -- I don't want to say irrelevant, but it's not a major consideration. In an 11-day shoot, where you have to make use of every minute, you can't coddle people of delicate sensibility. And you're dealing with a movie that is dealing with kind of raw and dramatic personal and sexual issues and themes. It was essential to get people who could handle whatever came up.

So it wasn't that it was a conscious plan, but I think both Downey and I felt that, if we inhibited ourselves while talking to these people we were interviewing, it would not be doing them a service or us. And Heather, of all the people we talked to, responded as freely and openly and kind of one-upped us. So, it was very clear off that 15 minutes that she was ready to handle anything that came up.

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

TOBACK: Thank you.

GROSS: James Toback wrote and directed the new film Two Girls and a Guy.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: James Toback
High: Director James Toback. He wrote and directed his new film, "Two Girls and a Guy" about a love triangle, and an unfaithful boyfriend. It stars Robert Downey Jr. Toback's other films include "Love and Money," "Exposed," "The Pick-Up Artist," and "The Big Bang." He wrote the screenplays for "Bugsy" and "The Gambler."
Spec: Movie Industry; James Toback; Two Girls and A Guy
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Two Girls and a Guy

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