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Writer and Director David Atkins

David Atkins directed Novocaine, a new film starring Steve Martin. It's about a dentist who's lured into a life of crime. Atkins is also a drummer and songwriter, and participated in the creation of several songs on the movie soundtrack. He also wrote the screenplay for the film Arizona Dream, starring Johnny Depp, Faye Dunaway and Lili Taylor. It something of a cult classic in the U.S., although it was successful overseas. Novocaine is his feature film directorial debut.

11:54

Other segments from the episode on December 11, 2001

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 11, 2001: Interview with Sissy Spacek; Interview with David Atkins; Review of the television special “The Art of Violin.”

Transcript

DATE December 11, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
been omitted from this transcript

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Interview: David Atkins discusses his new movie "Novocaine" and his
views on directing films
TERRY GROSS, host:

My guest David Atkins is the writer and director of the current film
"Novocaine." It's a satire of film noir. Steve Martin stars as a suburban
dentist who lives in a very clean, orderly, insular world. Everything is kept
in order by his dental hygienist, to whom he is engaged to be married. She's
played by Laura Dern. Soon, his world is in chaos, and he's set up to take
the fall for a murder. The trouble begins when a beautiful patient, played by
Helena Bonham Carter, walks in the door, insisting she needs a prescription
for pain killers for her abscessed tooth. The somewhat dubious dentist offers
to fix her tooth immediately, but she declines while insisting on the
prescription. Soon after giving it to her, he gets a call from the
pharmacist.

(Soundbite from "Novocaine")

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

Mr. STEVE MARTIN (As Dr. Frank Sangster): Dr. Sangster.

Mr. JoBe CERNY (As Wayne Ponze): Hiya, Doc. Wayne Ponze, Lincoln Pharmacy.
We got a 'script here. Name's Susan Ivey. Is she yours?

Mr. MARTIN: Yeah, that's right. A 'script for Demerol.

Mr. CERNY: Fine. Hang on. Whoa. She's a looker, huh?

Mr. MARTIN: Yeah, I guess. Well, goodnight.

Mr. CERNY: By the way, 50 tabs is way over the limit. Next time, I won't
fill it.

Mr. MARTIN: You mean, five.

Mr. CERNY: No. I mean, 50. That's what it said. Demerol, 50.

Mr. MARTIN: Put her on a minute, would you?

Mr. CERNY: She's gone.

Mr. MARTIN: Well, if she's gone, Wayne, why are you calling me to check on
a prescription?

Mr. CERNY: Look, friend, I've got a business run here. So while you were
yammering, I rang her up. Now if you've got a problem, you'd better tell me
so I can call the authorities.

Mr. MARTIN: No. No problem.

(Soundbite of phone dial tone)

Mr. MARTIN: Good night.

GROSS: David Atkins, the writer and director of "Novocaine," is the son of a
dentist and his two brothers are dentists. He did research for the screenplay
by working undercover at his father's office. I asked him if he met any
patients who were really con artists looking for painkillers.

Mr. DAVID ATKINS (Writer/Director): I was there for a month. I met between
six and eight, depending on whether the last two were real or not. And they
would basically do what you see Helena's character in the movie do, which was
basically come in with an open or abscessed tooth that needed immediate
attention, and they'd say something like, you know, `Well, I really am in very
much pain here. Can you help me out?' And so my dad would say, `Well, yeah,
we can get you in and take care of this root canal this afternoon or maybe
tomorrow.' And they say, `No, I can't. I have an appointment or whatever.
And I can't make it till next week. Can you give me a 'script for something?'
And then typically, the dentist in, you know, my dad's case, he wouldn't go
for it, for the most part.

And one final thing, these teeth are like the bait for the drugs. So if by
accident, they are forced to get them fixed or capped or temporary anything,
they just pull it right out again. It's tragic, you know. There's a certain
tragic quality to the whole thing. But when you become addicted, you need the
stuff. And I think at first, you're playing with it, but, you know, Helena's
type of character, I mean, moving from town to town and scoring drugs off of
physicians, that's a pretty serious thing. It's no longer a fun situation
anymore.

GROSS: Now did you bring Steve Martin to your father's office, so he could
learn to look like a dentist?

Mr. ATKINS: Well, my dad and my brothers were actually consultants on the
film. And they were there on the set. There was always one Atkins, Dr.
Atkins, to help Steve or Laura. And the amazing thing about Steve and Laura
is they just, you know--I'd say, `OK, John, you got three minutes to show
Steve a root canal.' And in three minutes, my brother would sit down, go
through the thing, and then Steve would sit down and just have every move
perfect. It was amazing to watch. And both of the actors were spectacular at
that technique.

GROSS: Now the standard look of classic film noire is darkness and shadows.
Your movie is set in a suburban dentist's office, so you have florescent
lights and very clean-looking white walls, and, you know, Steve Martin and his
associates are walking around in white dental uniforms. So you've got all
this, like, brightness and whiteness. How did you work with that? What did
you want to get from that?

Mr. ATKINS: The first caveat I had about making the film was just do
everything opposite from what the genre dictates and the shadows and the
darkness so on. Well, I've seen that a million times. I wanted to make a
noire that was going against that, to a certain extent. And that applies to
everything that I did and many of my decisions, most of them. But I had an
image in my head of how this film should go.

And it started off in bright white light, but it's a very artificial and
sterile white light. And, you know, it was a graphic image in my head before
I even started the script. I saw this white light and then a spiral, almost a
DNA helix, spiraling downwards and getting darker--more progressively darker
until it becomes a noose around this little sort of a two-dimensional graphic
of a man's neck. You know, a man is there in this picture in my head. And
the spiral comes down and strangles him like a noose.

And then he climbs out somehow of this spiral that's now going up like a
ladder, and it's getting brighter and brighter. And at the end of the film,
at the end of this diagram, suddenly we're in bright, beautiful light again,
but now it's natural. And so that was sort of a metaphor for the arc of the
character.

GROSS: Well, what about the genre of film noire speaks to you in the first
place?

Mr. ATKINS: I love the gritty quality. When I was a teen and in my 20s, I
was looking for that world. I was attracted to it. I still am. I think
everybody is. You know, what happens if I would have--what would have
happened if I had taken a left turn instead of a right with my life? And, you
know, I mean, when I was younger, I was definitely involved in petty crime as
a goof, like I think a lot of kids are. And it gave me a rush, and it was
exciting to me. I find myself drawn to people who are, you know, down and
out. I find that they are very interesting. You know, in New York City, we
don't see them as much anymore, but the homeless people lying on a bench in
the subway. And I always would go by them, look out the window as I'm
shooting off into the darkness, and think, `How did they get there?' You
know, that's intriguing to me.

GROSS: There's a Web site for your movie "Novocaine." And on the Web site,
you have a few quotes. And one of them is that, you say you've always had
this fear of accidentally killing somebody. Tell me more about this fear.

Mr. ATKINS: You know, I kind of color myself to be, `Oh, I'm interested in
all the bad people,' and, you know, I have a wife and a baby, and, you know, I
go about my life. And so I'm not trying to necessarily get back to my
criminal roots or anything like that. It's just it's good for drama
sometimes. Yeah, it's the wrong man idea. It's what happens specifically in
things like "The Wrong Man." Hitchcock's film--Henry Fonda's just a bass
player. And all of a sudden, he gets fingered and he's the wrong guy, and
suddenly he's in the system.

What would happen if--you know, I think to myself, `What would happen if I
accidentally--you know, somebody confronted me, and it was a do-or-die
situation, and I was sitting there grappling for my life, and then, you know,
I got the upper hand, dead is the guy. That I, you know--and now there's a
dead man, and suddenly, either I'm the run or I'm in the system.' And it's a
scary thought that just a tiny moment can suddenly send your life in the
completely opposite direction then you had planned. You know, some people
have fear of spiders or snakes or darkness or heights. This is kind of my
fear. And I play with it.

GROSS: Did you ever come close to having that nightmare actually happen where
you felt that you were in danger of accidentally killing somebody, either in a
fight or even just losing attention while you were behind the wheel of your
car?

Mr. ATKINS: I'd say absolutely, you know, both. I'm out of the fighting
game now, because I'm terrible at it. But I came from Boston during this
particular time, and I grew up with two older brothers. And I guess, you
know, growing up, you just--I was taught, you just don't back down from a
fight. You can't back down. And so I found myself in situations occasionally
where it was just, you know--it's sudden and it's violent and it's
frightening, and it's either you or him. And most often, quite frankly, it
was me. But the last time I ever duked it out was in the mid-'90s in LA, and
it was frightening and scary. And it gets to a point where it's--you know,
you got to say, `Whoa. OK. We'll leave this to the younger people here.'

And driving, you're tired, you've been on the road for 10 hours. You're in
Des Moines and you're lost, and you're looking for numbers and stuff like
that. It could just accidentally happen. And, bang, you're in a whole
different situation.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Atkins. And he wrote and
directed the new film "Novocaine." It's a satire of film noire. And it stars
Steve Martin.

Now I understand that you gave some of the actors prosthetic teeth to wear to
alter their look. Who did you give that to?

Mr. ATKINS: Helena and Laura each had prosthetic teeth. And this was in
keeping with the idea of making them diametrically opposed. Laura is all
about the surface. And she's a very--you know, it's about superficial aspects
or qualities initially is how I was envisioning it; therefore, not a hair out
of place, color-coordinated outfits, including, you know, the purse and the
shoes. And the teeth had to be perfect. So we went with the Farrah Fawcett,
"Charlie's Angels" look.

With Helena, we went in the opposite direction, although a little bit too
subtly, quite frankly. She came in with some teeth from London that her
dentist made. And they were "Planet of the Apes" teeth basically. They were
just too much. You know, it was going to make the whole movie really goofy.
So we kind of, you know, went through a little argument period, because she
loved her goofy ape teeth. And finally, backed it off and I think too much,
but they're crooked. They're chipped and they're discolored--her teeth.

GROSS: Have you always been very conscious of teeth because your father's a
dentist?

Mr. ATKINS: I have, yeah. I mean, I was interested and attracted to and
titillated by the idea of a dentist who is attracted to a patient with
asymmetrical dentition, you know, a chip or, you know, I find personally a
space between the front teeth really sexy. And so we couldn't do that really.
It was harder to do with prosthetics. So we did the chip in the tooth. But
the idea of a dentist who's trying to achieve perfection dentally, and yet,
he's drawn, he's attracted to, somehow almost a morbid fascination with a tiny
chip in a front tooth.

GROSS: David Atkins wrote and directed the film noire satire "Novocaine,"
starring Steve Martin. Atkins also plays drums on the soundtrack with the
band Penny.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) I remember that party back in '95. You walked in
on the arm of another guy. We said, `Hello. How you doing?' `Fine.'
`Where's my coat? Got to go.' `Yeah, it's time to drive.' The past can't be
buried. The truth can't hide. There's a deep rift. Planting season is the
highlight of a tortured life. I stumble. I'm reeling. I realize I'm
bleeding. The meaning shows up as a spot on my favorite tie.

Unidentified Man and Chorus: Now that you're over him...

GROSS: Coming up, classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz reviews the PBS
special "The Art of the Violin." This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

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Review: New documentary "The Art of Violin"
TERRY GROSS, host:

Tonight on many public television stations, "Great Performances" presents a
new documentary called "The Art of Violin." It's also available commercially
on DVD. Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz had a review.

(Soundbite of music)

LLOYD SCHWARTZ reporting:

According to Ida Haendel, one of the violinists interviewed on the
documentary "The Art of Violin," I could have been a great violinist. At
least she says that to become a violinist, it's absolutely essential to start
when you're a child. I was five when I started violin lessons. Unfortunately
for my future career, I stopped when I was six. Itzhak Perlman talks about
how the violin is much harder to master than the piano. A pianist only has to
hit the keys to play in tune. A violinist has to worry about where to place
the finger, how much pressure to put on it and on the bow, how much of the
bow to use and how fast to move it. As Perlman and Haendel agree, with all
these technical complications, no two violinists make the same sound. Of
course, you can also say that about pianists or singers. For me, these
technical demands explain why more violinists seem to be virtuosos, athletes
of the fiddle rather than profound and probing musicians who happen to play
the violin. Near the end of the documentary, the late Yehudi Menuhin says
that as much as he applauds virtuosity, quote, "When musicianship doesn't feed
virtuosity, virtuosity destroys itself."

The film raises a number of engaging musical and historical issues. But the
joy of it lies in the remarkable archival footage director Bruno Monsaingeon
has unearthed and assembled. From Hollywood film clips to rare home movies
made even before the advent of sound film, we can see legendary performers
like Eugene Ysaye, who was born in 1838, and hear their recordings on the
soundtrack, in some cases frighteningly well-synchronized. One moving segment
is about young virtuosos whose careers and lives were tragically cut short.
There's Joseph Hassid from Poland, who became schizophrenic in his teens and
died after being lobotomized at 26. And Michael Rabin, who died at 36 of a
drug overdose. He's seen on a clip from "The Milton Berle Show" in 1951 when
he was 15, playing Fritz Kreisler's "Tambourin Chinois," mostly with his eyes
closed.

(Soundbite from "The Milton Berle Show")

(Soundbite of music and applause)

Mr. MILTON BERLE: Well, let me tell you something, ladies and gentlemen,
this is really one of the great wonders of show business. And I believe that
young Michael Rabin has a great future.

SCHWARTZ: Inevitably, I suppose, the most serious musicians get the shortest
shrift. Some outstanding artists were never filmed at all. But there are
splendid selections by my favorite living violinist, Ida Haendel, and the
great French violinist Jacques Thibaud, one of Pablo Casalas' favorite
partners. With his slicked hair and gigolo mustache, he's not at all what I
imagined he'd look like.

The most profound 20th century violinist, Joseph Szigeti, is seen only in a
minor but characterful little encore piece that still manages to speak.
Here's that clip from the 1944 movie "Hollywood Canteen." The person making
the introduction is Bette Davis.

(Soundbite from "Hollywood Canteen")

Ms. BETTE DAVIS: Mr. Joseph Szigeti.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. JOSEPH SZIGETI: We are going to play "The Bee" by Francois Schubert.

(Soundbite of applause)

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of applause)

SCHWARTZ: Maybe the most remarkable clip is of the French violinist Ginette
Neveu, who was killed in a plane crash in 1949 when she was only 30. In this
passage from “Chausson’s Poeme,” her huge eyes are riveted on the
conductor, like a lioness about to pounce. I don't think I've ever seen
anyone with such an intense expression of concentration; a look that combines
loss of self with something like ferocious ecstasy.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor of The Boston Phoenix. He
reviewed "The Art of Violin," airing nationally tonight on many public TV
stations. It's also available on DVD.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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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