DATE June 7, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Macaulay Culkin talks about starring in the movie
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
If you haven't seen Macaulay Culkin since the "Home Alone" era, you may be
surprised by the kind of offbeat, independent movies that he's making and what
a good adult actor he's developed into. Last year he starred in "Party
Monster," based on the story of Michael Alig, a New York club kid who gave
wild parties and is now serving time for killing his drug dealer. Now Culkin
is starring in the new film "Saved!", a comedy set in a Christian high school
called American Eagle. The film was produced by Michael Stipe's company,
Single Cell. A little later, we'll hear from Brian Dannelly, the movie's
director and co-writer.
The story revolves around the girls in the school's Christian rock band. Jena
Malone plays a girl who tries to save her boyfriend's soul by helping him
prove he's not really gay. Unfortunately, she becomes pregnant in the
process. Mandy Moore plays the school's most preachy Christian. Macaulay
Culkin plays her skeptical brother. As a result of a childhood accident, he
needs a wheelchair to get around. He becomes close with the school rebel who
is also the school's only Jewish student, played by Eva Amurri. In this
scene, Culkin and Amurri are talking at an outdoor cafe just across the street
from the Planned Parenthood office.
(Soundbite from "Saved!")
Ms. EVA AMURRI: (As Cassandra) What's the matter? Scared to be seen in
public with a stripper?
Mr. MACAULAY CULKIN: (As Roland) No. Scared of being seen with a cripple?
Ms. AMURRI: (As Cassandra) I've been seen with worse.
Mr. CULKIN: (As Roland) Hilary Faye's gonna freak out when I'm not there
waiting for her.
Ms. AMURRI: (As Cassandra) Who cares?
Mr. CULKIN: (As Roland) It's just that I don't get out much on my own.
Ms. AMURRI: (As Cassandra) I'm not really a stripper, you know.
Mr. CULKIN: (As Roland) I'm not really a Christian. So how'd you end up at
American Eagle? I mean, you're Jewish, right?
Ms. AMURRI: (As Cassandra) Well, after I got expelled from my last school,
it was either here or home schooling. Figure I could handle these freaks
better than my parents.
Mr. CULKIN: (As Roland) Wow. Lucky me.
Ms. AMURRI: (As Cassandra) Are you playing footsies with me?
Mr. CULKIN: (As Roland) Wheelies.
Ms. AMURRI: (As Cassandra) Hey, isn't that...
Mr. CULKIN: (As Roland) Mary? What is she doing downtown?
Ms. AMURRI: (As Cassandra) There's only one reason Christian girls come down
to the Planned Parenthood.
Mr. CULKIN: (As Roland) She's planting a pipe bomb?
Ms. AMURRI: (As Cassandra) OK, two reasons.
GROSS: I asked Macaulay Culkin why he wanted to be part of the film "Saved!"
Mr. CULKIN: I mean, it was just a smart movie. It was so smart and funny,
and I kind of just loved how it approached issues and I loved just the
structure of it. I loved the fact that it kind of--you know, all these
characters start off as these kind of, you know, almost cliches or caricatures
almost of teen movies or of Christianity even. I love how they kind of break
down or are torn down throughout the course of the film and are kind of
exposed for what they really are. And I just love the subject matter. I
mean, I'm not a very, very religious person, but at the same time, I was one
of those people who was--I was raised Catholic, which means I'm an
ex-Catholic. Ha ha ha. But, you know, I went to Catholic school, you know,
math, English, Jesus Christ; it's kind of part of the curriculum. And so, you
know, it was just something that, you know, I've always found interesting.
So, yeah, I just wanted to be a part of it. And I met Brian Dannelly, the
director, once I got back to America, and he was just, you know--he just
really got it. He was so cute, you know. He was a, you know, first-time guy,
and he had his little notebook of, you know, his vision of the movie. You
know, you could just tell. I could totally picture him sitting Indian style
in his living room with a pair of scissors and magazines, cutting out pictures
and stuff. You know, he had pictures of Jena in there and he had pictures of
me and other potential cast members. He even had, like, a spec-like poster
for the movie. It was really kind of cute. And it was just kind of one of
those moments where I think we kind of just both acknowledged that, you know,
we had the same idea in mind, that we wanted to make the same movie. And it
kind of went from there.
GROSS: What did you relate to about the character that you play in "Saved!"
Mr. CULKIN: Well, I love--you know, he was very cynical, 'cause he's, you
know, in a wheelchair in the movie, and his older sister--or actually younger
sister, Hilary Faye, played by Mandy Moore, is always kind of wheeling him
around like he's some sort of merit badge. Like, you know, `Look how good of
a Christian I am. I take care of my brother who's in a wheelchair.' And it
kind of exposes him to the manipulative aspects of religion, of Christianity,
and so he rejects it basically. And I think by the end, he kind of comes full
circle and he eventually kind of ends up finding how he's right with Jesus
basically and finding his religion.
GROSS: Did you end up going to Christian schools or Christian concepts as
research for the film?
Mr. CULKIN: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, Brian Dannelly, he's very big into
research. I mean, you should see all the things that we got. I mean, just
printouts from Web sites and things like that, conversations he was having
with other Christians who had read the script, and he even sent me some
pamphlets on how paraplegics have intercourse, not that it's ever addressed in
the movie. He just wanted to make sure that, you know, I knew that my
character had a very healthy sex life and things like that. It was very cute.
But one of the things that we always did was we went to Christian rock
concerts, Christian, you know, youth rallies, things like that, and it was
amazing. I remember when I read the script, you know, I was kind of aware
that this world was going on, that there was this kind of modern Christian
movement going on. But to see it first hand, you know, it just made us all
the more want to stay true to it. We went to this big one at Edison Field,
you know, or Anaheim Stadium, wherever the Angels play in Anaheim, and it was
40,000 born-again Christians who were all blonde, by the way, all born-again
Christians who were blonde, and it was amazing. I mean, it was like these
Christian rock bands, like the U2 sound-alike Christian rock band and the
Radiohead sound-alike Christian rock band, and all very uplifting songs, and
the pastor's up there and he's quoting Pink and Madonna as much as the Bible.
It was quite amazing.
And I remember, you know, I was walking out of there and it was just, you
know, kind of this odd experience. And there were all these people picketing
outside. I couldn't believe there were people picketing and passing out all
these pamphlets saying, `Oh, you're choosing the wrong path and, you know,
so-and-so is the Antichrist or whatever.' And they were Christians. They were
like fundamentalists, like Christians who were kind of just against the
concept of Christian rock music or whatever, and you know, it was just odd to
me that the Christians were picketing each other. And I just remember I
turned to one of my cast mates and said, `You know, if these Christians are
picketing each other, what makes us think we can get away with making this
movie, which is kind of an odd satire on them?'
GROSS: What have you found so far? Did you go to any of the screenings, any
of the advanced screenings?
Mr. CULKIN: I have not seen--I've kind of been hearing more and reading some
of the kind of advanced--I don't know--either reviews or opinions or whatever.
It's interesting. The people who are represented in the movie, kind of the
new-wave Christians, but they're actually kind of digging it. They see it for
what it is. But no, some of the fundament--I mean you should see. I just
came off of a press tour and a junket and one of the things--you know, I
fielded basically every single question I could possibly field about, you
know, my faith and just the movie in general. And one of the things this guy
pulled out was like a printout from this Christian Web site or something. It
was saying about the movie, `Oh, you know, this is going to drive kids to
suicide. This is the reason why teen-age mothers have abortions and things
like that.' And it was just really sad because you could tell the person
obviously had not seen the movie. It's kind of very sad that some people felt
the need to go out there and say those things just because from the surface
we're dealing with these issues. We're dealing with teen-age mothers and
homosexuality, so of course, you know.
But overall, I think, you know, the Catholics love it, of course, you know.
But, yeah, I think overall, I think, you know, it's going to get a pretty good
reaction from everyone.
GROSS: OK. So you go to this stadium concert with around--What?--40,000...
Mr. CULKIN: It's like 40,000 born-again Christians. I mean, it's all types.
GROSS: OK. Right.
Mr. CULKIN: Like I said, there was, like, you know, goth Christians there.
There were, like, you know, kids with, like, dyed black hair and, like, you
know, a crucifix tattooed on the back of their hands and things. I mean,
really all types. It was interesting.
GROSS: What was the reaction to you? Didn't people recognize you?
Mr. CULKIN: Yeah. It was very odd. It's not that normal, like, `Hey, can
you do the face?' or, you know, `Can I have your autograph?' or something like
that. No, I mean, it was actually, like, it was this interesting reaction of
just, like, they were sincerely happy to see me there. They just, like,
almost thought I was one of them or something, you know. But it was this kind
of really cool thing where they were just, like, `Yeah, you're here. Well,
you know, enjoy the show.' And there was this odd feeling of just, like, you
know, they just wanted me to be there, you know. They didn't want anything
from me other than my presence and I don't know, my faith, I guess.
GROSS: Well, I have to say, I think you've made such really interesting and
in a way daring choices in the movies that you've decided to make as an adult.
Mr. CULKIN: Oh, thank you.
GROSS: You know, you took, like, a hiatus of, I don't know, eight or nine
years away from acting.
Mr. CULKIN: Something like that, yeah.
GROSS: Then you did a play on the West End in London.
Mr. CULKIN: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And then your re-emergence in movies was "Party Monster" in which you
played a gay drug-addicted club kid who'd become so adult, he murders his drug
dealer. Let me play a short clip from the movie, and this comes from early in
the film when you're doing a voice-over narration, telling the viewers about
the story of your life, and your narration intersects a little bit with your
mother's description of your childhood.
(Soundbite from "Party Monster")
Mr. CULKIN: (As Michael Alig) Hi. I'm Michael. I grew up in the Midwest.
Usual story: felt different, really didn't fit in, but I wasn't going to turn
the other cheek, no siree. I started selling candy in school, jacked up the
prices several hundred percent.
Ms. DIANA SCARWID: (As Elke Alig) This is my Michael. He was always making
money. He just--he had a knack for it. Yeah. My little candy man. Mr.
CULKIN: (As Michael Alig) Let's see. What else? Oh, once when I was 10, my
Sunday school teacher took me back to his house. He taught me how to French
kiss, among other things.
Ms. SCARWID: (As Elke Alig) He really took my boy under his wing, very nice
Mr. CULKIN: (As Michael Alig) His mother caught us in the basement and she
screamed, `I told you not to bring them here!' And he said, `Don't. You'll
frighten him away!'
Ms. SCARWID: (As Elke Alig) One night Michael gave me a goodnight kiss that
a little boy should not give his mother.
Mr. CULKIN: (As Michael Alig) I thought everyone kissed like that.
GROSS: Now you look and sound and so different in this movie than, say, in
your child movie era. I'm interested in that kind of voice that you got for
Mr. CULKIN: Oh, yeah. Well, you know, 'cause we were playing real people.
We kind of really tried to stay true to who they were. I mean, there's kind
of certain rules that apply to playing a character like that, 'cause you want
to try your best to talk like them. You want to try your best to move like
them, and things like that. And these people were very, very specific about
the way they talked and the way that they just kind of moved their arms and
things, and so we kind of had to play within those rules basically. But, you
know, me and Seth just went out there. And I remember, 'cause when he first
signed on to it, 'cause we kind of talked about doing this and we kind of had
a plan about how we're going to prepare and how we're going to just do all
GROSS: This is Seth Green, your co-star.
Mr. CULKIN: Seth Green, my co-star. And so, yeah, he calls me up on the
phone, he goes, `Hi, you know. Hi, Michael. It's James, you know. I was in
New York, but I'm sorry I missed you, and blah blah blah blah blah.' You know,
he kind of just leaves you this message on, like, a dead-on James St. James
impression. I couldn't believe it. Actually I listened to it on the phone
and replayed the tape, and I couldn't believe it. And I was like, `Gosh, I
gotta get on my game, too.'
So I started kind of messing around with the voice and basically playing
repeat-after-me games with the VCR and, you know, any kind of footage I could
get of him, and I went to a voice person who kind of just literally was kind
of almost phonetically write out some of the stuff. But, you know, `Just talk
like Michael,' you know. `Oh, James.' I called him up. I'm like, `James, I'm
sorry I missed you when you were in town, you crazy,' you know, and just,
like, sending all these weird, you know, like, voice messages to each other.
It was fun, you know. And we really just wanted, like I said, we wanted to
talk like them and move like them as much as possible but at the same time not
make caricatures of them, and at the same time, you wanted enough creative
freedom within the characters to maneuver and do kind of whatever you felt was
appropriate for storytelling. So it's a fine line we tread, but I think, you
know, we pulled it off all right.
GROSS: My guest is Macaulay Culkin. He's starring in the new movie "Saved!"
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Macaulay Culkin, and he started
making movies again after an eight- or nine-year hiatus, and he starred in
"Party Monster," a movie based on the true story of Michael Alig, and now he's
starring in "Saved!", which is set at a Christian high school.
One of the things I found really interesting about your portrayal of Michael
Alig in "Party Monster" is that in one respect, he's the opposite of you, and
here's what I mean. You become a star at the age of--What?--eight or
Mr. CULKIN: Mm-hmm. Yeah, basically.
GROSS: ...you know, in "Home Alone," and by the time you were 14, you wanted
out of that whole star-making machinery stuff. You wanted to stop acting, and
you wanted out of show business, at least for a while, whereas he, he comes to
New York and he wants to be a star. I mean, he is living to be famous. He is
living to be seen.
Mr. CULKIN: Yeah. No, he's spent his entire life running towards fame, and
I spent half my life running away from it.
GROSS: Well, as someone who was a star as a child and who wanted to leave
that whole thing, did you understand what being famous, what being a star
would mean to somebody like Michael Alig? Did you understand what it meant to
be desperate or why somebody would want it?
Mr. CULKIN: It's interesting, because I truly don't understand fame. I kind
of just accept it. You know, I mean, I've been doing this since I was four
years old, and it's just, you know 19 years now, and you know, for a while
there, you know, from when I was about eight years old on, I was playing the
game at a pretty high level overall. And so I don't know. It wasn't like I
was consciously saying to myself, `Oh, gosh, I want to be famous.' You know,
it just kind of like, I had a lot of energy, and I enjoyed the attention that
came with being on stage. And it wasn't about the attention that came--not
all the other attention, like, you know, photographers hiding in your bushes,
you know. I could definitely do without that and could've done even when I
was eight years old without that. It was that fame had nothing to do with it
with me, so it was kind of fun to get in there and kind of just--you know, why
would he want that? Where does this come from?
You know, it was coming from this kind of almost need to fit in almost, and he
kind of took it to this hyperreality basically and created his own world where
he was famous, you know, 'cause in that world, you have to understand, back in
the club days, back in, like--you know, after Andy Warhol basically passed on,
the club scene was basically dead. Before, you'd go to these clubs and, `Oh,
look, there's Liza Minelli. Oh, and look over there. There's Cher.' And that
was kind of the way it was. And so but not they're all gone. All these kind
of club idols were gone.
And so Michael kind of swept in and created these celebrities basically. He
basically just said, `I'm famous because I say so, and I have absolutely no
substance to me whatsoever, but that doesn't matter because I'm famous.' And
it was just this weird concept that, you know, the celebrity without a cause
kind of thing, you know. It was just, `famous because I say so.' You have to
understand, all these people were coming from this world, this high school
world basically where you know, insiders and outsiders, and they were
definitely the outsiders. They were homosexuals, they didn't dress right,
they didn't look right. There was a lot of things wrong with them. And so
then now they come to New York City and they're the kings of the clubs. Now
all the people, all those like people who played high school football and all
those people who were really cool in high school were now standing outside of
their clubs, wanting to get into their world, and they would kind of turn the
tables on the entire world and said, `You know what? No, you're not in.
You're not allowed into our little world.' And it was interesting. It was
kind of more coming from that than almost a need to be, like, you know, famous
and on the cover of magazines. It was more kind of just turning the tables on
the entire world.
GROSS: Now you mentioned that when you were eight, you already had tabloid
photographers hiding out in the bushes.
Mr. CULKIN: Essentially, yeah.
GROSS: Man, what was that experience like at the age of eight, to have the
paparazzi lying in wait for you?
Mr. CULKIN: You know, it was weird. I mean, at this point, it's almost like
I don't know any better almost. I mean it was definitely odd, and I
definitely have a very--I have just defense mechanisms, you know, in my mind
whenever--you know, every time I'm outside, I'm always kind of checking out
the horizon, seeing if there's anything weird out there, you know. I can
recognize a paparazzi by his bag. I swear to God. I mean, it's terrible.
And so I don't know. It's kind of just the way it is, and I accept it and I
try my best to protect myself. And that was one of the reasons why I went
away for so long, was that I couldn't. I didn't want to deal with that stuff,
and even when I wasn't working, they were still out there and they were still
kind of interested in some perverted kind of, you know, way. And so I just
tried my best to protect myself and kind of just stay away from it and, you
know, I just try my best not to have my life end up as tabloid fodder,
because, you know, that's not what it is, you know. I just live my life.
And it's so funny. When someone's a celebrity, even the most normal aspects
of their life become crazy. There's so many things about my life that are
crazy. It's like, oh, you know, I remember when I got married, it was such a
big deal. It was so, wow, you know. Like, you know, isn't he nuts? And it's
just, I was just doing anything a normal human being would do. I went to high
school, I fell in love, I married the girl. Big deal, you know. But it's
just so funny, you know.
There was this story I was actually just telling someone, like, not even an
hour ago. I went to the Michael Jackson big reunion kind of concert he had.
It was, like, two or three years ago or something like that, and I brought a
friend of mine with me, and so I introduced her to Michael, and it was kind of
just this, you know, average exchange. She goes, `Hi. Nice to meet you.' And
he goes, `Hi,' you know. And he goes, `Hey, you know, it looks like rain
tonight. I hope it doesn't rain,' and you know, my friend was like, you know,
`Yeah, you know, da da da.' And so after the conversation, I was talking to my
friend. She goes, `He's so weird.' I'm, like, `What do you mean?' She's like,
`Well, you introduced me and then he starts talking about the rain.' I'm like,
`He was talking about the weather.' I'm like, `There's nothing more normal
than that in the entire world. Actually I think it was one of the most normal
things he's done in the last 30 years, is talk to you about the weather.' But
for some reason, it becomes this crazy, outrageous thing because he is who he
is, and I guess a conversation like that couldn't be more normal.
So there's just this weird thing around celebrities that even the simple
things in life are, you know, now crazy. You know, like in Us magazine, you
know, they'll have all kinds of pictures of, like, celebrities going and
getting coffee. Like, big deal. Like, really? You think that's interesting?
GROSS: What are some of the differences for you between acting as a child and
acting now as an adult. Yeah.
Mr. CULKIN: Well, it was interesting. I mean, when I was younger, it was
kind of just more about--I had a lot of energy, and like I said, I enjoyed
attention or at least the good kind of attention that came with being on
stage, and so that was really all it came from. And a lot of the things I did
when I was younger were literally just kind of--when you're a child actor, the
most important thing--the most important thing is you have to know your lines.
It's amazing. That's all they really care about when they're casting a kid,
is know your lines.
And so my father, you know, for everything that he was, he was still a very
clever man, and so one of the things he did for the audition process was, you
know, they'd send me the script and they'd say, `Oh, do scene 22 and scene
12,' or whatever, and they're very, very short, simple scenes. So what he'd
do is he'd go through the entire script and find the two longest speeches and
two longest, hardest scenes and have me memorize, 'cause I had a pretty good
memory and, you know, so I remembered the whole thing. And so when I got into
the room, me being a cute little nine-year-old, they'd say, `Hey, can you do
scene 12?' And I'd go, (gasps) `Wait, but I studied scene 30,' you know. And
they'd go, `Oh, no. It's OK, little kid. Just do what you studied.' And then
I'd go out there and I'd reel off this long thing, and the next thing I know,
I'd have the part, you know. And so like I said, it was more about having a
lot of energy and learning your lines basically, whereas now it's different,
you know. You definitely can't just do that, you know. And so, you know, I
mean, I try to bring more to my work. I mean, I'm definitely a more
experienced human being and so I just try to bring those kinds of things to
the table and just try to, you know...
GROSS: And you get to choose your roles now.
Mr. CULKIN: Yeah, exactly. You know, after a while, I mean, I wasn't
choosing anything. It was just kind of like, `Oh, by the way, don't make any
plans this summer because you're doing a movie,' and things like that. So now
I'm in a position where I'm making my own choices. I'm putting stuff out
there that I want out there, and so it's cool. And so I just try and do
different kind of things, and you know, I just try to, you know, do good work.
GROSS: Macaulay Culkin will be back in the second half of the show. I'm
Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, no dancing, no rock music. We talk with writer/director
Brian Dannelly about the Christian high school he attended which helped
inspire his new movie, "Saved!" And we continue our interview with Macaulay
Culkin, one of the film's stars.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Macaulay Culkin. He's
starring in the new film comedy "Saved!" He's returned to films after leaving
the industry for several years. He became famous as a child for his starring
role in the 1990 movie "Home Alone." Here's a scene from early in the film,
which he's fighting with his mother, played by Catherine O'Hara.
(Soundbite from "Home Alone")
Ms. CATHERINE O'HARA: (As "Mother") Got 15 people in this house, you're the
only one who has to make trouble.
CULKIN: (As "Kevin") I'm the only one getting dumped on.
Ms. O'HARA: You're the only one acting up. Now get upstairs.
CULKIN: I am upstairs, dummy. Third floor?
Ms. O'HARA: Go.
CULKIN: It's scary up there.
Ms. O'HARA: Don't be silly. Fuller will be up in a little while.
CULKIN: I don't want to sleep with Fuller. You know about him. He wets the
bed. He'll pee all over me. I know it.
Ms. O'HARA: Fine, we'll put him somewhere else.
CULKIN: I'm sorry.
Ms. O'HARA: It's too late. Get upstairs.
CULKIN: Everyone in this family hates me.
Ms. O'HARA: Then maybe you should ask Santa for a new family.
CULKIN: I don't want a new family. I don't want any family. Families suck.
Ms. O'HARA: Just stay up there. I don't want to see you again for the rest
of the night.
CULKIN: I don't want to see you again for the rest of my whole life, and I
don't want to see anybody else either.
Ms. O'HARA: I hope you don't mean that. You'd feel pretty sad if you woke up
tomorrow morning and you didn't have a family.
CULKIN: No, I wouldn't.
Ms. O'HARA: Then say it again. Maybe it'll happen.
CULKIN: I hope I never see any of you jerks again.
GROSS: Was it your parents' wishes or your own wishes to start acting and to
go into movies?
Mr. CULKIN: It kind of just happened. It's this weird thing. You know,
when I was six years old--you know, I started when I was four. I did some,
like, local community theater things and things like that. But when I was six
years old we got--a family friend of ours lived around the corner from us and
she was a stage manager at this off-off-Broadway theater called the
Ensemble Studio Theater here in New York. And so what she--they were doing
this play and they needed, you know, a six-year-old boy and so, you know,
there was this--I'm third of seven. I'm this big, Irish family. And so she
figured, `Heck, you know, there's that big family. There's got to be someone
the right age and the right gender for this part.' And so she kind of just
comes on over and plucks me out. And I go to the audition, and I think at
some point I ended up on the table, I think. Just kind of doing my lines,
standing on top of a table. The next thing I know, I got the part. And it
kind of just all went from there, really. It all happened really, really fast
from that point, because I did that--it was, like, a one-month program and
then The New York Time reviewed it and then I did, I think, two or three more
programs with the Ensemble Studio Theater and then, literally, jumped right
into my first movie.
And that--and then kind of the next one and the next one and the next one.
And by--you know, I think my fourth movie was "Uncle Buck." And then from
that point on, it was kind of just everything was almost in this kind of semi
cruise control because on the set of that--you know, kind of--John Hughes, who
also wrote the "Home Alone" movies wrote that, and so kind of got the idea for
the "Home Alone" movies from this whole thing, and kind of had me in mind for
it, but couldn't give me the part because he wasn't directing it, and so I had
to meet with Chris Columbus. And, yeah, the next thing I know, I nailed that
one down and the rest is, shall we say, history.
GROSS: You know, it's so easy, I think, to become a praise junky when you're
a kid. You know, if people are praising you...
Mr. CULKIN: I...
GROSS: ...a lot.
Mr. CULKIN: Yeah, I really wasn't so much. I wasn't--you know, my parents
were pretty good overall. Like, they never told me how much money I was
making or things like that. All that stuff kind of was news to me, and when I
turned 18, I kind of--I found out how much money I'd made.
GROSS: Weren't you reading the newspapers? I mean, I knew how much money you
Mr. CULKIN: Yeah, but you know what? No one does. That's the whole thing.
People still don't. You should hear the kinds of numbers people throw out. I
mean, they're either way too high or way too low.
GROSS: Oh. Oh, OK.
Mr. CULKIN: I don't know. There's all kinds of numbers being thrown out
there. I don't release my financial records. It's not something that's all
that important. I mean, yes, it's important. It's--I'm definitely glad I
have the money. But at the same time, it's not like something--I don't
release my numbers to Forbes magazine or something like that. But, yeah--no,
I mean, it wasn't like I was doing it for even the gratification. I was just
having a blast. I--you know, I enjoyed the people on set. You know, I liked
working with Chris Columbus. I liked--you know, I really liked--I loved the
stunt people. They were always my favorite, you know? Like I had a good time
on set. And so it really wasn't...
GROSS: When did that start to change? When did the good times start to not
be as good?
Mr. CULKIN: Well, you know what? I always liked the people on set. I always
liked the hair and makeup people. I always liked the wardrobe. They were
always really cool people, and I always really got it. They understood the
position that I was in, really. And so it wasn't even that. It was kind of
like I needed a break. And I remember--I said this to my father and he kind
of just wasn't listening. And next thing I know, I'm on the next set and then
I sort of told, like, anyone who'd listen, but, you know, obviously I was
wrong because no one was listening, and it was kind of this crazy thing. And
so when my father was out of the picture and I was in a position to say, you
know, `I don't want to do this anymore,' I did. And so I went to whoever was
listening or whoever was out there and just said, `Listen, you can call it
retirement, you can call it a break, you can say I quit, it doesn't really
matter because it's yours now. It's not mine. You guys can--you know, that
Macaulay Culkin public persona is yours, you can do whatever you want with it.
I'm gonna go to high school and I'm gonna do whatever else from there, but I'm
probably never gonna act again, and that's it. You know, I hope you made your
money because there's no more coming from me.'
GROSS: When you were young and getting paid, you know, millions and millions
of dollars for--for movie roles, did you have a sense of what was riding on
you, financially? Not just your family, but like the director's future, the
movie company's future, you know, and all the people working for them? I
mean, the--the movie had to be a success. Your name had to really...
Mr. CULKIN: Yeah, I know. I had--no, there was this weird kind of thing.
People were kind of building this odd industry around me and it was kind of
this weird thing. And I mean, I don't know. I mean, I guess they tried their
best to shelter me from a lot of that stuff, but at the same time you can't
really hide from that, you know, just the overall pressures of it, but it
wasn't anything that, like, made me crack or, you know, shattered me
emotionally or something. It was just kind of--honestly, it was almost at a
point where I almost didn't know any better. You know, I mean, I understood
that other nine-year-olds weren't doing the same things I was, but at the same
time, it wasn't like I knew what Little League was like, you know, or what
summer camp was like. I mean, this is my life, and so I didn't really know
anything else. So, you know, I mean part of it was, like, a little too much
and that was one of the things why I got away, but it wasn't something I was
consciously saying to myself. You know, like, `Ooh, gosh, you know, I really
hope we make that $50 million so the studio will hire me for their next
movie,' because at that point, I really didn't care.
GROSS: You said that your father really pushed you. What are some of the
things you think he did wrong in terms of how hard he pushed you or what did
he push you to do?
Mr. CULKIN: It's funny. You know, it's one of these things where--I don't
know. I mean, people kind of have this weird thing about me and my father, at
least our relationship. They're always kind of like, `Oh, you know, isn't
that sad that, you know, you don't really see your father anymore or anything
like that. And it's like--you know, and that everything turned out the way
that it did.' But what people don't understand was that it was always like
this. That like, you know, he was not a good guy long before we were rich and
famous. It was kind of just a part of his personality. And from a very early
age, I pretty much knew that, you know, I was, you know--either he was going
to be gone or I was going to end up moving out of the house very early. It
was one or the other, and I knew that from a very early age, before fame,
before money, before anything. And so...
GROSS: What was it that he did that made you realize it?
Mr. CULKIN: He just--honestly, I--you know, I wish it was that easy. I wish
I could point out to one incident or one thing and say that was it. I mean,
he was just not a good person. I mean, you have to understand. I mean, later
on, I mean, it was like, you know, I was making who knows how much money and I
was sleeping on the couch in the living room. Like I didn't even have a bed.
I didn't have a room or a bed. I mean, you should have saw his room. I mean,
you should have saw the size of his bed, his television and things like that.
And it wasn't--you know, it wasn't about making me, you know--it was kind of
more just putting you in your place and making sure that you knew who was in
charge of the whole thing. And it's kind of like--and he played those games
with you and he was always playing those games with you.
And so, you know, even from a very early age, I knew what kind of person he
was and I knew--you know, I watched him very closely. I wanted to make sure
how I wasn't with my children and how I did not want to treat my wife and
things like that. I mean, I knew that from a very early age. I mean, I
remember he was the first person I ever cussed at, ever. I was like four
years old and, you know, he's--I don't know. I forgot what he was doing or
what I was doing, but, yeah, I told him to F off. I couldn't believe it, you
know? Like, wow, I didn't even believe it then. I was like, `Wow!' I was
like three or four years old and that came out of my mouth. It was just
like--but that was our relationship, that was the way it was.
GROSS: Do you worry that as you say this he's listening now and feels bad
Mr. CULKIN: There's a distinct possibility, you know, and that's kind
of--that's a part of it. You know, I mean, I try--you know, it's just one of
these things where it's like it's hard not to talk about him because
everyone's always asking and I'm not going to--you know, I don't hold back.
Mr. CULKIN: You know, I talk very candidly about him, but at the same time,
you know, I don't want to encourage him, you know, because he's far away and
that's a good thing.
GROSS: You know, there's so many child stars who just are emotional cripples
by the time they reach adulthood. You seem to have, like, emerged OK.
Mr. CULKIN: I guess so. I don't know. I mean, I--yeah, I understand that
I'm a part of, like, some weird fraternity in some weird kind of convention
or, you know, group of cliches or whatever and, you know, I understand that.
But at the same time, I don't--you know, I'm aware of it, but I don't try
to--I don't fight it. Things are not...
GROSS: Are you really OK?
Mr. CULKIN: Yes, I'm fine. Don't worry about me (pretends to sob). No, no,
man, I feel good. I think--you know, and a lot of that had to do with me
taking some time off and me getting away from everything, you know, and
just--I think--I feel like I'm a good--I'm a strong person because of it. I
know what I want out of life and I'm not kind of just doing this because I
don't know any better. I mean, I see a lot of--you know, not a lot but, you
know, there's a good amount of these child actors or former child actors who
c--trying to make that transition into adulthood, but never really took the
time to live and never really took time to exist. And so how do you expect
someone to act like a human being when they've never had the chance to be a
GROSS: Well, we're out of time. I want to thank you so much for talking with
Mr. CULKIN: Well, thank you for having me.
GROSS: Macaulay Culkin is starring in the new movie "Saved!"
Coming up, we'll meet the writer and co--coming up we'll meet the director and
co-writer, Brian Dannelly. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Brian Dannelly discusses his film "Saved!"
TERRY GROSS, host:
We've been talking with Macaulay Culkin, who stars in the new film "Saved!," a
comedy set in a Christian high school. My guest, Brian Dannelly, directed and
co-wrote the movie. Reviewing "Saved!" in the Chicago Reader, Jonathan
Rosenbaum wrote, quote, "Brian Dannelly's first feature is audacious and
likeable, not only for its satirical treatment of fundamentalist Christian
teen-agers and a couple of their elders, but also for its sympathy toward
them. It's been a long time since I've seen a teen movie as lively, as
unpredictable, as generous and as tough-minded as this one," unquote.
"Saved!" was produced by Single Cell, a company co-founded by Michael Stipe of
the band R.E.M.
Brian Dannelly, welcome to FRESH AIR. What gave you the idea of doing a high
school comedy about cliques and gender confusion, teen pregnancy, a rock band,
but setting it at a Christian high school?
Mr. BRIAN DANNELLY (Director/Co-writer, "Saved!"): I think we sort of
attacked it from a lot of different angles. I had to write a script while I
was a grad school at AFI, so one of the first rules about writing is you
GROSS: The American Film Institute.
Mr. DANNELLY: American Film Institute, yeah. One of the first rules of
writing is you write about what you know. And I had gone to a Catholic
elementary school, a Jewish summer camp and a Christian high school, so I was
sort of familiar with this world, and that was interesting to me. I also
had--you know, it was right about--around the time that Columbine was
happening and Bush was getting elected and so that was interesting to me, and
I realized sort of all these kids sort of were expressing their faith really
openly in sort of mainstream America. And that was different from when I had
gone to a Christian high school. And the other sort of approach was loving
teen movies, having grown up on John Hughes movies and sort of taking the idea
like what if you did sort of a John Hughes-style movie and had subversive
undertones and, you know, sort of had everything in the movie that you would
never have seen in those movies? So it was kind of--that was how we
approached it when we started writing it.
GROSS: Now it's interesting. I mean, you're satirizing religion in it, but
the people at the end of the film, I mean, they still have faith. What you're
really satirizing in a way is the self-righteousness and the way that certain
religious people use their faith to justify selfishness, jealousy and pride,
saying that it's all for the sake of Jesus.
Mr. DANNELLY: Well, it's really, you know, taking a look at fanaticism and
zealotry, you know, and sort of putting it in the micro-cosmo of the high
school, which seemed like kind of the best way to address that, because when
you're young, you're sort of more open to a lot of different ideas, but you're
also more vulnerable. So that's sort of where that came from.
GROSS: When you were going to Christian high school, were most of the
students in the school--did they want to be there? Did they want to be, like,
full-time Christians, if you know what I mean, or were they often rebelling
against the teachings in the school?
Mr. DANNELLY: There wasn't a lot of rebellion. There was the--a lone Jewish
girl that went to my school, so...
GROSS: Oh, there's a character like that in the movie.
Mr. DANNELLY: Yeah, Cassandra. Everything in the movie is based on fact,
personal experience or extensive research, which was really, really important
to me when I was making the film. But there was this lone Jewish girl, and,
you know, people were always trying to get her saved, and she was very tough
in this atmosphere. I have no idea why she went to this school, probably a
similar circumstance to my own, but--so that was sort of interesting. And I
remember there was this other sort of rebellious girl who--you know, she was
the first girl I ever kissed, and, you know, five years later she turned out
to be, you know, a big lesbian. So it's kind of a very interesting
environment to grow up.
GROSS: What were some of the rules that you had to follow in your high
Mr. DANNELLY: In my high school, we couldn't dance, we couldn't be more than
10 inches from the opposite sex, you know, girls' skirts had to be three
inches from their knee if they were kneeling. So it was pretty strict. It
was much stricter than the current movement, you know, sort of the Jesus rocks
movement, which is--you know, it's such a mirror for pop culture.
There's--it's really hard almost to tell the difference sometimes if you're,
you know, attending one of these assemblies or one of these rallies or rock
concerts. So that's a huge difference from my experience.
GROSS: Were there school dances in which you were allowed to get closer than
six inches to someone of...
Mr. DANNELLY: No.
GROSS: ...the opposite sex?
Mr. DANNELLY: No dancing allowed. Our senior prom was a puppet show at the
Peter Pan Inn, so we were safe.
GROSS: My guest is Brian Dannelly, and he co-wrote and directed the new
movie "Saved!," which is a comedy set in a Christian high school. I want to
play a scene from "Saved!," and this is a scene in which the whole student
body is assembled in the auditorium. The girl band, the Christian girl band
has just performed, and now Pastor Skip is coming in and he's the pastor who
thinks he's really down with the young people, and he comes in by doing a kind
of a somersault, by doing a flip, and then he starts, you know, talking in all
this hip-hop language because he's so hip. So let me play that scene.
(Soundbite from "Saved!"; cheers and music)
Mr. MARTIN DONOVAN: (As Pastor Skip) Welcome to the first assembly of the
year. Give it up for Jesus, who's in the house!
(Soundbite of cheers)
Mr. DONOVAN: All right! All right! All right! Let's get our Christ on.
Let's kick your Jesus style. Y'all want to rap with the ultimate rapper,
right? The ultimate CEO?
Unidentified Student #1: Yeah.
Mr. DONOVAN: The biggest celebrity of them all? Who's down with G-O-D?
(Soundbite of cheers)
Unidentified Student #1: Down with the G-O-D! That's right! Whoo!
Mr. DONOVAN: All right! Jesus rules!
Mr. DONOVAN and Students: (In unison) Jesus rules! Jesus rules! Jesus
rules! Jesus rules!
Mr. DONOVAN: All right! All right!
GROSS: And that was Martin Donovan as Pastor Skip, a scene from the new movie
Brian, did you ever see anything quite like that?
Mr. DANNELLY: Absolutely. That character in that sort of assembly is a mix
of actual assemblies and also sort of larger Christian, you know, rallies,
youth groups, Christian concerts, that there is a certain set-up that's very
similar to all of them, and Pastor Skip character is sort of a creation of a
bunch of different sort of young youth pastors. A little bit of Carman, who's
on TBN. He's sort of this pastor who, through the years--he's been around for
maybe 15 years, but who like with every sort of change in pop culture, he
changes with it. Like he was hip-hop, he did rap, he did disco. He's sort of
kind of all over the place, and so I sort of found that fascinating.
And they do. You know, like I said earlier, it's such a mirror for pop
culture that they really sort of have adopted so much of the language and the
style of, you know, contemporary culture that you do find a lot of the
preachers kind of talking in this awkward cool, you know, language.
GROSS: There's a lot of pop culture that has its parallel in Christian pop
culture, so there's, like, a lot of Christian rock bands and metal bands and
punk bands and there's probably Christian hip-hop bands.
Mr. DANNELLY: All of it, yeah.
GROSS: All of that, yeah. What were some of the surprising things that you
found in Christian pop culture when you were doing research for the movie?
Mr. DANNELLY: I think one of the sort of--I don't know if ironic's the right
word, but you know there's this whole sort of concept of not idolizing anyone
because it's a sin, but you go to these concerts and you have these bands and
you have all these kids sort of screaming for the band, and a lot of the
bands, because they're really conscious of that, don't have pictures of
themselves on the T-shirt. They use symbols. So it's sort of a way of
addressing that, but I sort of found it an interesting conflict, you know,
within that community.
The other thing that's really important to say about this film is the
fundamentalist community is so varied that it's really hard to say
fundamentalists are like this, because we'd go to a Christian rock concert,
say, in Anaheim, and there'd be Christians protesting the Christians inside,
and you know you have, you know, Jerry Falwell just called the movie the most
hateful movie to come out of Hollywood in years. But I just did an interview
with Christianity Today with, like, a pastor, a teacher and a student, and
they loved the movie. So it's a very--you know, it's a very diverse community
that I don't think there's a hard-core center of it.
GROSS: Now I read that scenes that you wanted to shoot in a church--after the
church that you had selected as a location found out more about the script,
they asked you to leave?
Mr. DANNELLY: It's funny. I always tell this story, but somehow--somewhere
early on, someone asked Michael Stipe what the film was about and he said it
was like a vampire movie, but the Christian teens are vampires. So that was
all over the Internet. So when we were, you know, actually shooting the film
and looking for locations, and if people typed in "Saved!" that was the quote
that came up and, you know, we lost locations and we lost, you know, Christian
music because of it.
Sometimes it wasn't the script. Sometimes it was just the scene. And I can
understand anyone reading a certain scene out of context could be disturbing.
And also it's really hard to tell the tone of a film by reading the script, so
I think that when people see the movie, I think they're actually surprised at
how it's funny but it's also gentle, it's sweet, it's very affirming. I
always say it affirms and offends. You know, it has sort of a mixture of both
those things. But, yeah, we definitely lost locations.
GROSS: So what church did you finally get?
Mr. DANNELLY: It was a Unitarian church, and those guys were great. I mean,
we shot the exterior of the church and we shot the interior scene where Mary
sort of questions the validity of the Virgin Mary, you know, having a
GROSS: My guest is Brian Dannelly. He directed and co-wrote the new movie
"Saved!" We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of a cappella song)
Group of Singers: (Singing) Do do do do do do, do do do do do. Do do do do
do, do do do do do. Holy, holy, holy! Lord God almighty. Early in the
morning our song shall rise to thee. Holy, holy, holy, merciful and mighty.
God in three persons, blessed Trinity. Holy, holy, holy! All the saints
adore thee, casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea; cherubim
and seraphim falling down before thee, who was, and is, and evermore shall be.
Holy, holy, holy! Lord God almighty. All thy works praise thy name in earth
and sky and sea. Holy, holy, holy...
GROSS: My guest is Brian Dannelly. He directed and co-wrote the new movie
"Saved!," a comedy set in a Christian high school.
Has "Saved!" been a difficult film to market because it could be perceived as
very controversial by some Christian fundamentalists? On the other hand, I
could see a lot of Christian fundamentalists, teen-agers particularly, really
Mr. DANNELLY: I think it's been a real challenge for MGM/UA, and I think
they've done a pretty amazing job. I mean, sort of their approach has been,
we've been at like every single film festival. It's been screened for, you
know, gay kids. It's been screened for cinephiles. It's been screened for
the religious community. It's been screened for, you know, regular, you know,
average Joe people. We've screened for--you know, we've done everything we
can to get the word out--or MGM's done everything they can to get the word out
about the movie, and it's a little bit confusing 'cause, like I said, the
Christian community is so diverse, I know that they've gotten some slack for
presenting the film to a Christian audience, but what I don't think people
realize is that there is a large portion of that audience that really embraces
GROSS: Do you think that "The Passion of the Christ" is affecting the
marketing of the film or affecting how the film will be perceived?
Mr. DANNELLY: You know, I think absolutely. We had no idea about "The
Passion of Christ" when we made the movie, and because of "Passion of the
Christ" we've gotten so much attention that I'm not sure we would have had had
it not been released. So I mean, I think we got--we didn't set the release
date because of "The Passion of the Christ." It was all sort of very
coincidental. But I notice like on the chat boards a lot of people from
"Passion of Christ" chat boards are on the "Saved!" chat boards, so there's
definitely this dialogue going on that I think that that opened up for us.
GROSS: What's the dialogue been like? Have you heard...
Mr. DANNELLY: It's--the dialogue, it's amazing. We're getting like--what's
really kind of amazing to me is we're this little $5 million film that we shot
in 28 days that no one made any money on, that I don't think people were even
sure how it would be received into the world. So like right now we're at,
like, the number seven top movie on IMDb, and that's sort of with no
advertising and not a lot of awareness about the movie. The dia...
GROSS: That's the Internet Movie Database.
Mr. DANNELLY: Yes, which I--because it's my first film, I obsessively
(unintelligible) everything about the film every single night, literally every
night. It's sick. But the dialogue is really interesting, because most of
the controversy is coming from people who haven't seen the film. But sort of
beyond the film itself, a lot of the dialogue is between, you know, Christian
kids and kids who are secularists and, you know, there's just sort of this
dialogue going back and forth, like, `Well, I went to a school like this. My
friends are Christians and they were really cool.' Or, you know, `I went to
school like this and Christians were really mean and it was awful and'--I
mean, it's just back and forth. I think we're getting hits like every 20
minutes now on the Web site, which is--and some of the stuff is scathing and
mean and, you know, talking about this film was made by, you know, a New York
Jew and Michael Stipe, who's an atheist and, you know--it premiered at the
Jewish Music Fest in Park City and just like really anti-Semitic stuff. And
it's a very bizarre thing to read at night.
GROSS: May I ask you about your faith, if you consider yourself to have
faith, to practice any form of religion?
Mr. DANNELLY: You know, it's always changing. I wouldn't say after--it's a
really odd experience, because I had a lot of faith when I was making the
film. I mean, I literally would pray every day. I had this very close
connection, making sure I was always doing the right thing, that I wasn't
going too far, that, you know--so I felt like I had this really close
relationship with, you know, God, while I was making the movie. And then,
like, 9/11 happened and the war happened and I started, like, reading
different books about, you know, Iraq and different policies, and really I
just totally lost faith, which was really interesting to me, because, you
know, I was like, well, your first job as a human being is personal
responsibility and kindness, and that you shouldn't rely on being punished or
going to hell or, you know, going to heaven. Like, you just have that--it's
an innate responsibility that you have to be responsible for. And so it was
kind of weird for me to live in a world where, you know, for a period of time
I didn't believe in God.
But, you know, the whole time you think you don't believe in God, you're
constantly having dialogue with him, so it's like kind of a strange
experience. And it's only been recently where, you know, I've just sort of
opened myself up to it again. It's a very--you know, I find it very
GROSS: Hmm. And is the fact that you find it confusing one of the reasons
why you wanted to make the movie?
Mr. DANNELLY: Absolutely. Because I think there are so many different
religions in the world and, you know, you--again, I go back to that line,
`They can't all be wrong, but they can't all be right,' you know. I mean,
`They can't all be right, but they can't all be wrong,' right? Because it
just makes so much sense to me, and I think it's so dangerous to say that
there is just one way to find God, and to judge people on that.
GROSS: Brian Dannelly directed and co-wrote the new movie "Saved!"
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
We'll end with the closing credit music from "Saved!" performed by Mandy
Moore, one of the film's stars, and Michael Stipe, one of the producers.
(Soundbite of "God Only Knows")
Ms. MANDY MOORE: (Singing) I may not always love you, but long as there are
stars above you...
Ms. MOORE and Mr. MICHAEL STIPE: (Singing) ...you never need to doubt it.
I'll make you so sure about. God only knows I'd be without you.
Ms. MOORE: (Singing) If you should ever leave me, well, life would still go
on, believe me.
Ms. MOORE and Mr. STIPE: (Singing) The world could show nothing to me, so
what good would living do me? God only knows what I'd be without you.
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