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Celebrated Photojournalist James Nachtwey.

Photojournalist James Nachtwey. Ten years of his photographs taken around the world In areas of war, famine, and conflict are collected In the new book, "Inferno." (Phaidon Press). Nachtwey has been awarded the Robert Capa Gold Medal four times. The award is the highest honor among photographers and is given to those for the "best photographic reporting or interpretation from abroad requiring exceptional courage and enterprise," and it entails a deliberate decision to go in harm's way.

31:24

Other segments from the episode on March 6, 2000

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 6, 2000: Interview with James Nachtwey; Interview with Frank Whaley.

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: MARCH 06, 2000
Time: 12:00
Tran: 030601np.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Photojournalist James Nachtwey Discusses His New Book, `Inferno'
Sect: News; International
Time: 12:06

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

BARBARA BOGAEV, HOST: From WHYY in Philadelphia, this is FRESH AIR.

I'm Barbara Bogaev, filling in for Terry Gross.

On today's FRESH AIR, we talk with photojournalist James Nachtwey about the photographs he's taken of the human toll of war, conflict, and crisis. Most are difficult to look at, some impossible to forget. Nachtwey has a new book which collects his photographs taken over the past 10 years.

Also, first-time writer and director Frank Whaley. His autobiographical film "Joe the King" won last year's Sundance award for screenwriting. It tells the story of a young boy whose father is an abusive alcoholic. The film is now out on video.

That's all coming up on FRESH AIR.

First, the news.

(NEWS BREAK)

BOGAEV: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev, in for Terry Gross.

For 19 years, photographer James Nachtwey has covered war and the effects of violence on people's lives. His images are not easily forgotten -- dead bodies slumped against walls and shoved by bulldozers into mass graves, children with limbs hacked off, emaciated victims of famine crawling towards aid, faces pitted by shrapnel.

Nachtwey's photos from Northern Ireland, Lebanon, Nicaragua, South Africa, Rwanda, Chechnya, and Bosnia have won him almost every major photojournalism award, including five Robert Capa gold medals from the Overseas Press Club.

One critic writes that his work "reflects an iconic intensity that at times seems almost religious, appropriate for a man so moved by suffering that he cannot turn away from the tragedies he records."

Nachtwey's work of the past decade is collected in a new book, "Inferno." He's also featured in "Magnum," a collection of photojournalism from the prestigious Magnum Photo Agency. Nachtwey is a member of Magnum and is also on contract to "Time" magazine.

I asked him when he first started taking pictures.

JAMES NACHTWEY, "INFERNO": I began to teach myself photography after graduating from college in the early '70s, and I took it up quite seriously from the beginning. It was not an outgrowth of an earlier pastime. I start from ground zero as a photographer and taught myself through reading books on the subject, through going to exhibitions, seeing what other photographers could do, being inspired, being challenged.

There was a time when I would go to bookshops every day, and I did not have enough money to buy any photography books, but I would stand in the aisles daily and study the books of master photographers to gain inspiration. And it became a kind of free university for me.

BOGAEV: Was there one photo or one image that made you decide, This is what I have to do?

NACHTWEY: I couldn't narrow it down to a single image. It was work done by serious documentary photographers that really helped me expand my vision of what photography could be. The initial inspiration, and the tradition in which I wanted to follow, was that of the photographers who worked in the Vietnam War. I actually became a photographer to be a war photographer.

I felt that their work was so important in shaping public awareness of what was going on there that it actually changed the course of history. And I thought that the social value of that kind of work was so great that that seemed the most worthwhile use of photography. And that's what I wanted to do.

BOGAEV: I'd like you to talk about a photo from -- it's actually from Zaire, but it was in the context of reporting on the story, the war in Rwanda. You have -- you shot a photo of a -- in the background is a bulldozer and a man wearing a hygienic mask over his face. And in the foreground is the back of a dump truck. A corpse, a dead woman, is hanging by her skirt cloth off the back of the truck. Her face is mutilated, her arm is hanging down limp.

I'd like you to talk about your concerns when you take a photo like this, whether there's a tension between documenting the brutality and the inhumanity of this woman's death and the way that her body is treated, and also a concern for preserving the humanity of the victim at the same time. Are there tensions at work when you frame this photo?

NACHTWEY: There are two things I'm trying to accomplish in terms of photography. One is to document the truth as close as I can get to it. This was a situation in which tens of thousands of people died of cholera in a matter of a few weeks. It was death on a biblical scale following a massive genocide. There was nothing in the situation that could be regarded as in good taste. It was as if the wrath of God had descended upon the perpetrators of a genocide. However, mixed in with the perpetrators were the innocent, and the cholera was taking the guilty and the innocent indiscriminately.

The other is to be able to make a connection between the viewer and what I am photographing. I want a human connection to be established. I want there to be a level of compassion and understanding so that someone very far away from those circumstances can relate to it on a human level.

I don't try to make pictures that pander to sensationalism. I try and make them very human documents.

This is a picture in which people are being buried en masse. The death rate from the cholera epidemic was so high that the bodies were just piling up around the fringes of the refugee camps, and further exacerbating the epidemic. The French army came in and organized mass burials, and people were literally being bulldozed into mass graves. This woman is actually not suspended from the back of a truck, but she's hanging off the front of a blade of a bulldozer.

And as ghastly as it is, I still think you can see something in her in the form, the shape, into which she's been contorted that is still human, that still can help bridge a gap between the viewer and the subject.

BOGAEV: I suppose part of your mission is to show suffering so that whoever's looking at the photo can't look away, they can't excuse it, can't distance themselves from it. But there must be a thin line between forcing people to see and experience suffering on this scale, and presenting it so graphically that people can't look, that they have -- that they overload.

NACHTWEY: Well, this is exactly the balance that I'm trying to strike, in that it's very important to under -- for people to understand the gravity of a certain situation, the depth of the tragedy, the unacceptability of the situation, and yet still make a human statement so that people can relate to it.

But the fact is, it is important to shake people up, because these are not generic situations, they're not illustrations that something happened out there. They are grave, deep tragedies that are occurring to thousands of people. And they have to be portrayed in a strong way, or I don't believe they're honest. I think if a magazine or any kind of publication or a television broadcast portrays these tragedies in a generic way that's easy to look at, then people don't become concerned with them in the way that they should.

It just becomes a commodity, as a kind of news item. And I think that the audience that we are all trying to reach deserves more than that. And I think they can take more than that. And I think they're capable of responding to more than that, and to give them less is to not give them credit for their own humanity.

BOGAEV: You took a photo of another Rwandan man, a Hutu. It's a closeup of his face in profile. His face fills the whole frame. And it looks as if a knife or a machete has slashed four or five gashes into his face, all radiating out from behind his ear. The tip of his ear is cut off. The gashes are healed. Could you tell us this man's story?

NACHTWEY: I can tell it to you as much as I could get it from him. He did not speak English. I did not speak his language, so it -- what I learned was through an interpreter. He could barely speak, he was so badly damaged. But I did understand that he was a Hutu, not a Tutsi. The genocide was directed specifically at the Tutsi tribe by the Hutus. However, this man did not support the genocide. He showed compassion for his neighbors and countrymen despite what their tribe was and was punished for it.

He was put into the same death camp that the Tutsis were in, and he was obviously worked over very badly with machetes, and starved as well. This was the price he had to pay for doing the right thing.

BOGAEV: Did you ask the man to pose that way, or was he saying, You need to take this photo, look what they did to me?

NACHTWEY: The dynamic between us was very interesting. I was in an International Red Cross clinic that had been closed until then. The people who were being liberated from the death camp were being brought there. And I was there when the man was brought in.

And I went over to him and approached him quietly, looked him in the eye, made him aware of my presence, and began to photograph him. He obviously tacitly accepted me photographing him, because he didn't object, he didn't try and shy away. He was allowing me to photograph his wounds.

And at one point, he even lifted his face slightly more into the light with -- through no prompting of my own. It was just something he was really giving me and giving the people who he knew were going to see this picture. He was allowing what had happened to him to speak for what had happened to hundreds of thousands of his countrymen. And it was all done wordlessly.

BOGAEV: My guest is photojournalist James Nachtwey. He is a contract photographer for "Time" magazine. He's a member of the prestigious photo agency Magnum. He has a new book called "Inferno." It documents the victims of war, famine, and crisis from the last decade with photos from Somalia, Sudan, Rwanda, Bosnia, Chechnya, and Kosovo.

James, we're going to take a break now, and then we'll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.

(BREAK)

BOGAEV: If you're just joining us, my guest is photojournalist James Nachtwey. His photos of war and conflict in such places as Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo, and other nations are collected in a new book. It's called "Inferno."

You said you felt you were documenting something akin to a biblical plague in this -- documenting the cholera epidemic in this camp. Did that raise images in your mind which in turn you find surfacing in your work? I mean, a way of framing, almost in biblical composition? And I'm thinking of a picture of a woman supporting her husband. He has cholera, and she's waiting for him to get treated, to get medical treatment. His head is in her lap, his face fills half the frame. His eyes are just in it...

NACHTWEY: Yes, I know the picture you're speaking of.

BOGAEV: They're inexpressible, they're both dead and alive.

NACHTWEY: I interact very directly with the situations I'm in. I'm not thinking of imagery from the past. I'm not seeking to reproduce motifs that are -- that have been created earlier in history. It's a very direct and immediate relationship I have visually with the events that I'm covering and the people that I'm photographing.

I do find it interesting that quite often, my pictures, as well as pictures of many of my colleagues, can resemble biblical scenes as portrayed by artists in earlier eras. And I have thought about that, and the only conclusion I can come to is that those artists themselves were painting from life, that they were, in a way, sanctifying life by portraying the scenes of everyday people as if they were happening to biblical characters.

And I think that is the source of art, is life itself, and we don't have to go back and refer to something that was portrayed earlier. It's there now. And if the scenes that were photographed in Rwanda look biblical, it's because that was the magnitude of the situation.

BOGAEV: It's interesting that we think of photojournalism as capturing this one moment, and the photo becomes an icon for a whole conflict or a whole people or a whole situation, the experience of a whole nation. But when you look at your book, a book of this length, there are many series of photos. You create a kind of action in the photos.

There's a series of burial photos from countries in conflict all over the world, families burying family members and mourning. There's a series of photos that depicts a body being found in the midst of a fighting situation, of a neighbor stumbling on a dead body, and what happens after that.

You tell stories. When you're shooting the photos, are you thinking of a narrative? Are you thinking of the story as it's in process, and does that affect how you choose what to take a photo of?

NACHTWEY: I'm very interested in creating narrative structures using my photographs, and that is how I'm reacting to those situations when I'm there. I think within each chapter of the book, there are overarching themes. And within those themes there are smaller stories, more intimate stories that I quite often do on a spread of several pictures, where I'm trying to follow what's happening to one individual, so it becomes a story within a story. It's kind of an eddy in the larger stream. And then the book continues on into the larger themes.

BOGAEV: You have a chapter on Chechnya in your new book. There's a photo of civilians pinned down by a barrage of fire from Russian tanks. They're lying down on the ground against a wall. You must be in front of them shooting the picture. You must also, it seems, be somehow out in the open or against the wall. You can see the fear and the tension on the young man's face. It's really -- it's chilling.

Could you talk about how you actually took that shot?

NACHTWEY: This tank barrage occurred unexpectedly, and a few people were killed immediately. Everyone in the area who was out in the open immediately took cover, as much as they could. I found myself pretty much in the open. There was a wall of a building between me and some of the tank fire, but it was coming in very rapidly in a very flat trajectory, and just repeated shelling that went on for quite a long time.

And I was pinned down exactly with these two men who you see in the photograph.

BOGAEV: Do you wear a flak jacket?

NACHTWEY: Sometimes I do. I never really wore one until the war in Bosnia. And I wore one there from time to time, and in Chechnya most of the time, because living inside Grozny for a couple of weeks, it was- -- you very quickly understood that you could be taken out any time of the day, any place you happened to be, there was no safe place. The shells were coming down indiscriminately and seemingly randomly wherever you went. And it was a mild precaution.

BOGAEV: Has your attitude towards yourself or your own safety changed over these decades now that you've covered wars?

NACHTWEY: Facing risk is simply part of the job. It comes with the territory. I understood it very quickly, and have accepted it. Several of my friends have been killed doing this, and I think that we all understand that it could happen to any of us. And it's very important not to be reckless. I think you have to get in tune with what's going on around you. You cannot let fear paralyze you. You have to let it activate your awareness so that you become tuned in and better able to both do your job and survive.

BOGAEV: You must, though, make decisions about what to risk and what not to. I'm curious what you weigh, and I'm thinking of a photo that's -- was taken of you taking a photo. It's in the midst of fighting in South Africa. You're sitting on the ground. You're taking a photo of a young man with a gun in his hands facing you. You're both out in the open. Your back is to the shooting. And behind you, there are 10, 20 photojournalists lying flat on the ground farther away, but you're sitting up with your back to the firing.

You made a choice to come in close and to take the risk. What was happening in that situation, and how did you make that decision?

NACHTWEY: There was a battle that day going on between the followers of the ANC and the workers in a Zulu hostel. And it was a quite heavy firing. Ten people were killed that day alone in that very vicinity. It was a battle with machine guns. Heavy fire was coming into that area, and that's why you see so many people lying flat on the ground. Actually most of them are people from the neighborhood. There are a couple of photojournalists, but if you look a little more carefully, you'll see that most of the people there are citizens of that area.

And I don't exactly remember the thought process that was going on in my mind when I was making this picture, but I can only say that it must have been some kind of calculated risk. I definitely made myself vulnerable to the incoming fire, and I must have felt there was a very good reason to take that risk at that moment.

BOGAEV: Did that young man that you were taking a photograph of survive?

NACHTWEY: Yes. I don't know if he survived the entire day, but during the time that I was with him, he did survive.

BOGAEV: James Nachtwey. His new book of war photography of the past decade is called "Inferno." We'll hear more of our conversation in the second half of the show.

I'm Barbara Bogaev, and this is FRESH AIR.

(BREAK)

BOGAEV: Coming up, when to put the camera down. We continue our conversation with photojournalist James Nachtwey. And we meet writer and director Frank Whaley. His film "Joe the King" won last year's screenwriting award at Sundance. It's now out on video.

(BREAK)

BOGAEV: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev.

Let's continue our interview with award-winning photojournalist James Nachtwey. He's a member of the Magnum Photo Agency and on contract to "Time" magazine. He has a new book of photos taken in the last decade of victims of war and crisis in such places as Rumania, Sudan, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Chechnya. It's called "Inferno."

I think you said once that you've learned to see in accelerated time, that you don't set things up. Can you...

NACHTWEY: That's right.

BOGAEV: Can you talk about that? What does that mean?

NACHTWEY: I think it's similar to what an athlete experiences. Things happen incredibly fast. They're very chaotic, they're unpredictable. And as a photographer, I try and synchronize my own mental state and my own movements to the pace of what's going on around me. And sometimes I'm able to make a photograph that looks very composed and very studied, and all the elements are in the right place, and there's the right relation between the foreground and background and the proportions are correct, and it all happened in a small fraction of a second. It was perceived, framed, and shot almost instantaneously.

And that's what I mean by accelerated seeing. You're just seeing things faster than normal people would. An analogy might be to athletics, where someone playing football could see a ball more clearly and slower than a normal person could, because of their training and whatever physical abilities they have, and because of the situation they're in.

BOGAEV: Have you intervened in situations when you were taking photographs in order to prevent someone from getting hurt?

NACHTWEY: On several occasions. Most of the time it was effective, and I would manage to save someone. Not always. But there were times when I felt that as a human being, I could have -- I could make a difference. I could actually intervene and save someone from being killed.

BOGAEV: What was an example of a time you put your camera down?

NACHTWEY: Oh, there was a time in Haiti when the American armed forces intervened there, and a lynch mob had -- was chasing a man and beating him and obviously were going to kill him. And I saw a moment when I could actually step into the middle of it, stop them for a moment, and pull the man out, put him in my vehicle, and drive away with him.

They were accusing him of being a government collaborator. I had no idea whether he was or he wasn't. I just knew that I could not sit by and watch them beat this man to death when I had the possibility of doing something about it.

I went back to that neighborhood the next day, and the people told me that in fact he was not a government collaborator, that someone had some kind of personal score to settle with him and had started this kind of witch hunt. And because there was a mob mentality, people were irrational.

There was a time in South Africa when a man was about -- who was already wounded by a mob and was about to be finished off, and I stepped in and put him in my car and drove away with him.

There have been several occasions like that. And I think that I didn't do anything that any other journalist wouldn't have done as well. There's a time when you have to be a human being before you're a photographer.

And I think it's a common misconception about photojournalists that we don't help, that we're just taking advantage of a situation. And I think that the facts are quite different, that we're trying to help the situation by virtue of our work.

And most of the time when we're photographing something where someone is wounded, where someone is starving, they're already being cared for by either a humanitarian organization or by their comrades or by a combat medic, and we're -- there's nothing more that we can do. We're superfluous, other than to do our job as journalists.

And I think it's important for the public to understand that.

BOGAEV: There's a series of photographs you took in Somalia of a father tending his starving son at an emergency relief station. And I imagine it must be so difficult for you to keep your emotions in check, to concentrate, because it must take great concentration to do the kind of work that you do. Can you talk about what it is like to focus on -- what it was like to focus on this family in this instance?

NACHTWEY: It's extremely difficult to watch people suffer, and in particular to watch people starve to death. It's an extremely painful process. And it's very hard to watch. And you do have to keep your emotions in check. You have to channel your anger, your disbelief, your compassion into your work so that you can make effective photographs that will reach people, that the emotional content that you're feeling, you're able to put into your work. And it takes quite a bit of discipline, and I think a sense of purpose in order to overcome these kind of emotional obstacles.

BOGAEV: Are there times you turn away? I'm thinking, in this case, the son died, and a moment later there's a photo -- you took a photo of a woman who also looks to be starving to death, who's blind, and her hand is moving over the boy's face who just died.

NACHTWEY: To go to places such as Somalia or Chechnya or anywhere else where there's a massive tragedy taking place, with a camera, assumes responsibility, that you're going there for a purpose. And I believe in that purpose. And as much as I want to turn away sometimes, I would be forsaking my duty if I did turn away.

BOGAEV: Photojournalist James Nachtwey. His new book of war photos from the past decade is "Inferno."

(BREAK)

BOGAEV: Coming up, actor Frank Whaley on directing his first feature film.

This is FRESH AIR.

(BREAK)

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 877-21FRESH
Dateline: Barbara Bogaev, Philadelphia
Guest: James Nachtwey
High: Ten years of photojournalist James Nachtwey's photographs taken around the world in areas of war, famine and conflict are collected in the new book "Inferno." Nachtwey has been awarded the Robert Capa Gold Medal four times. The award is the highest honor among photographers and is given to those for the "best photographic reporting or interpretation from abroad requiring exceptional courage and enterprise," and it entails a deliberate decision to go in harm's way.
Spec: Media; War; Disasters; Violence; World Affairs; Awards

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 2000 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 2000 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: Photojournalist James Nachtwey Discusses His New Book, `Inferno'

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: MARCH 06, 2000
Time: 12:00
Tran: 030602NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Frank Whaley Makes His Debut in `Joe the King'
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:45

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

BARBARA BOGAEV, GUEST HOST: As an actor, Frank Whaley has appeared in many of the top films of the last 10 years, including "Field of Dreams," "Born on the Fourth of July," "The Doors," "JFK," and "Swimming With Sharks."

He recently wrote and directed his first feature film, "Joe the King," which is based on his childhood. Whaley grew up in an impoverished family in Syracuse, New York, with an abusive, alcoholic father.

"Joe the King" won the screenwriting award at last year's Sundance Film Festival. It's just been released on video.

The film stars Val Kilmer, Ethan Hawke, Camryn Manheim, and John Leguisamo, who was also one of its executive producers.

Let's listen to a scene from "Joe the King." Here, 14-year-old Joe Henry, played by Noah Fleiss, is talking with his drunk father, played by Val Kilmer. His father is saying that Joe's shoes stink, and that he should buy himself a new pair of shoes, since he has a job and can afford it.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "JOE THE KING")

NOAH FLEISS, ACTOR: You know what I make?

VAL KILMER, ACTOR: (inaudible), big man, working man.

FLEISS: You don't want to know.

KILMER: Yeah, unless you're (inaudible) tonight. Let me see your wallet. Come here.

FLEISS: Why, you want to borrow some?

KILMER: Are you through? Come on. Come on. You finished?

FLEISS: Every time I turn the corner, it's, When's your old man going to pay me? and Tell your old man I better get my money. (inaudible) everyone else. You (inaudible) pay him, get him off my back.

(sound of blow)

Ahh!

(sound of body falling to floor)

(END AUDIO CLIP)

BOGAEV: Val Kilmer is an interesting actor, and a lot of people think of him as an action-hero type, or a sex symbol, from his role as Jim Morrison in "The Doors." That was a movie you had a supporting role in.

You've cast him as Joe's father, and he's an alcoholic, abusive, going to seed guy. He plays the janitor at Joe's school. How did he get involved?

FRANK WHALEY, DIRECTOR/SCREENWRITER: Well, as you said, i worked with him on "The Doors." That was some eight years ago. And I was -- I had to have a name actor in this role and the role that Ethan played and the role that John Leguisamo played. In this role, I needed to fill those with somewhat big names to get the film made. That's just how it really works in big or small films. It's all cast-contingent these days, and particularly since the lead character is a 14-year-old boy, like when there's no bankable 14-year-old actors, really, out there.

So I knew going into this that I had to have somebody of his name caliber. So I had -- he was on a list with, like, three other actors that I want, which I was trying to get. And I happened to run into him. He was doing this movie in New York (inaudible) -- he played a blind skater or something, I can't remember really what it was, a film with Mira Sorvino that he was doing at the time.

And I ran into them near where I live in New York as they worked. And I went home, and I ran home and I grabbed the script off my desk, and I just brought it to him. And, you know, we were -- we hadn't seen each other in a long time. And I said, you know, "I'm making this movie. I know you're working. But I'd love to have you in this movie, and it'll only be a short time commitment."

And he read it right away, and he -- as luck would have it, he was just finishing that film that week, and we were starting production about two weeks after that. And he -- it just all worked out. And so he showed up, and he worked three days, and it was great.

BOGAEV: At one point he takes off his shirt, and he's got a beer belly. You just want to run in the other direction. Was that...

WHALEY: Well, people did run in the other direction when they saw that. People were screaming. They couldn't believe that man had gotten so fat.

BOGAEV: That was at your urging?

WHALEY: Well, it -- he -- obviously, he had had -- you know, he's a very rubbery guy. He can somehow put -- make it protrude out really far, you know. His gut is not really that big, but he has the ability, kind of, he slouches, if his posture's just right, it looks like he's got a really big gut.

But he also has a lot of cake and beer in there, evidently. And the trick was -- and it was to get him to take his shirt off, which I didn't think he would do. So I sort of sheepishly asked him, you know, before we shot this scene where he comes -- sort of comes out of his house and yells down the street at his boy after work one day, I asked if he would mind taking off his shirt. And he didn't even think about it, he just did it.

And if I was him, I'm not sure if I would have done it, because he is known for his kind of matinee idol looks, and his action-hero kind of roles. But, you know, he -- he kind of threw caution to the wind, and many of the reviews that have been written about the film and editorial pieces have all -- have unanimously kind of commented on that, I'm really surprised, but, you know, I'm not sure -- I'm sure he realized that -- what he was setting himself up for.

BOGAEV: So you grew up in Syracuse, in upstate New York, in the '70s. Did your family live on the wrong side of the tracks?

WHALEY: Yes. Syracuse, like a lot of cities in upstate New York, (inaudible) made up of two -- sort of two sides to town. Syracuse is a city with a university. Syracuse University's located there. And that sort of side of -- that side of town is made up of, you know, students and people that work at the university professionally. I mean, it's a very wealthy area.

And then the other side of town are the people that work in the factories, at least when I was a kid. There was a lot of factory -- a lot of factories in Syracuse, Carrier air conditioners, Bristol Myers had a large factory there. And just sort of the laborers of the town, you know. And that's -- (inaudible) that's located on the south end of Syracuse, and that's where I grew up.

BOGAEV: How much did your father drink?

WHALEY: Well, he was a pretty good drinker. You know, he was -- he started slowly in his life, when he was young, and, you know, unfortunately he developed into a pretty severe alcoholic by the end.

BOGAEV: Your dad left your family when you were a teenager, right, what, 16 or so?

WHALEY: Yes, about 15 or 16.

BOGAEV: Did he talk to you before he left, give you a kind of parting talking-to?

WHALEY: We had some -- we had some words, but there's this scene in the film between Val Kilmer and Noah Fleiss, who plays Joe, that sort of mirrors a conversation I had with my father. In the movie, it takes place before the boy is about to go away to juvenile hall. And, you know, in my experience it was different than when I was going away to college, which would effectively be the last time I would see him and be -- and sort of the last time I would see that town, at least see that town in that way. I would come back, you know, for Christmas to see my mom (inaudible), but not much.

He tried, you know, in his own way to kind of give me some advice.

BOGAEV: Like what?

WHALEY: Just simple advice, simple advice, to sort of -- to try to be good and to try to avoid the sins of -- that he committed, the sins of his -- of my father, to try to -- no matter big or small, the accomplishment in life, to try to hold onto it. And, you know, at the time it didn't really have an impact on me. But later on in my travels I realized what he meant.

And I'm not sure if he even knew the profound notion of what he was saying. But it impacted me later, and obviously it had enough of an impact for me to write about it.

BOGAEV: You got in a lot of trouble as a kid, I gather. Did you -- were you a petty, petty thief, opportunistic thief?

WHALEY: Yes, it was -- I was a pretty prolific thief when I was young, I was real kind of -- But it was out of necessity, for the most part. You know, I didn't have any money, and if I wanted a new pair of sneakers or something like that, I'd just go and take them. And fortunately at some point I kind of went straight and learned -- I somehow learned the very difficult but valuable difference between, you know, the lesson, the difference between right and wrong.

But I was a quick thief, a prolific thief, and good. And, you know, I was a real con man when I was a kid. And so I kind of graduated throughout my childhood from slight petty crimes to more elaborate kind of schemes.

BOGAEV: So what made you stop?

WHALEY: A series of circumstances. My older brother, Robert, who's in my film and also scores the film, he -- at some point in his late teens decided to become an actor. He was going to join the -- you know, he joined the drama club, and, you know, he finished -- when he got in his senior year of high school, he researched the program at the time, which was called the Educational Opportunity program, which sent poor kids and minority students to college. And he decided for some reason that he was going to study theater, to be -- he was going to study to be an actor.

Like everything in those days, I kind of did what he did, and I entered into this whole new world of performing. And once I got there, all that other stuff sort of disappeared. I mean, I still had the same -- you know, the same problems getting stuff, but I just worked harder, and I don't know, I found it -- I sort of started to -- at some point, you know, what I think was the result of becoming an actor, or pursuing knowledge about acting, performing, gave me a higher regard for myself, and I didn't want to do these bad things.

And then when I went away to college, I entered into the same program, and it allowed me to go for free to state university and study theater in English, which was what I went into in college. I never really looked back at my town or at my criminal acts.

BOGAEV: My guest is actor, writer, and director Frank Whaley. We'll be back after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(BREAK)

BOGAEV: Frank Whaley is my guest. He wrote and directed the film "Joe the King," which has just been released on video. Whaley has appeared in such films as "Born on the Fourth of July," "The Doors," and "Swimming With Sharks."

You were in "Swimming With Sharks" with Kevin Spacey. He's a -- he plays a despicable, abusive Hollywood producer, and you are his punching bag, his gofer, on the way up. You take him hostage in the movie. It's very intense, the movie is told in flashbacks during this hostage situation.

Kevin Spacey is so inventive in fleshing out this character. Did you learn things from him on the shoot?

WHALEY: I learned to stay away from him, mostly. No, I'm just kidding. I learned -- yes, he's a great actor. I think we learned a lot from each other. You know, you know, watching him, you always learn from good actors. You can only learn from other good actors, and, you know, and I had known Kevin throughout the years, you know, I'd worked with him onstage and I'd seen him in -- his work in the theater. And, you know, he is -- as you said, he is very inventive, and a wonderful actor.

And it was a lot of fun playing off each other, you know. It was not easy at times because of the nature of the two roles, you know, when he wasn't torturing me, I was torturing him on screen. So it was -- it wasn't an easy film, it was also -- the film was also made in 18 days, for a very low budget. And it was set to be 21 days, but that huge earthquake -- I think it was 1996 we made that film, whenever that Northridge earthquake hit. The first day of shooting, the earthquake hits, we lost all four days of shooting.

So the film was made under very excruciatingly low budget and no time. So we had our work cut out for us.

BOGAEV: So those circumstances helped to create that intense atmosphere, hostage atmosphere?

WHALEY: Yes, absolutely, yes, it did. It was a tense atmosphere all around on that set.

BOGAEV: And when you...

WHALEY: (inaudible), I was actually really surprised that the film ever got finished. It was one nightmare after the other. But it's turned into a kind of a cult, real cult favorite.

BOGAEV: Well, let's listen to a scene in which you are holding Kevin Spacey hostage. And this is my guest, Frank Whaley, performing with Kevin Spacey.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "SWIMMING WITH SHARKS")

KEVIN SPACEY, ACTOR: You're just like any other punk kid out there looking for a way in, any way in. And you need me.

WHALEY: Does that give you the right to belittle people, to abuse people? What gives you the right? (inaudible)...

SPACEY: Because I earned it. What, you think someone just handed me this job? I've handled the phones, I've juggled the bimbos, I've put up with the tyrants, the yellers, the screamers. I've done more than you can even imagine in that small mind of yours. I paid my dues.

WHALEY: I didn't spend one year (ph), and I spent 10. Damn it, it's my turn to be selfish. It's my turn.

SPACEY: You see, that's the trouble with your (bleep)ing MTV microwave dinner generation. You all want it now. You think you deserve it just because you want it? It doesn't work like that. You have to earn it. You have to take it. You have to make it yours.

But first, guy, you need to decide what it is you really want.

WHALEY: I want you to stop calling me in the middle of the night. I want you to stop sending me to the (bleep)ing office for your goddamn phone numbers for your (bleep)ing sunglasses. I want my life back!

SPACEY: What life?

(END AUDIO CLIP)

BOGAEV: You have a kind of baby-faced look, white skin, little pudgy, if you don't mind my saying so. With your looks, I would think that you would get typecast as a baby face. What do they call you in the movie "Swimming With Sharks," with Kevin Spacey, Farm Boy, right?

WHALEY: Right, right.

BOGAEV: But you've really had very differing and different roles in the course of your career. You've been a band member in "The Doors," you were a Hollywood wannabe big shot in "Swimming With Sharks," you were a drug-addicted vet in "Born on the Fourth of July." Do you get typecast as an actor, and do you have ways of skirting the typecasting, or using it to your advantage?

WHALEY: Well, no, I've never been. I'm lucky in that I've -- in my career's (inaudible) I've done some 35 movies at (ph). I've never really repeated one role twice. That's really lucky, that I have been able to get such an eclectic group of roles offered to me. And I'm not really sure why it is. But I prided myself on being a real character actor.

And that's sort of worked against me in some ways, because they'd like to be able to put you in a certain category, you know, it's the same thing with films, you know, that they're -- if something is different, it's much harder for them. You'd think they would like something different, but they kind of get uncomfortable with it, because they don't know where to put it.

And that was what was sort of characteristic of my acting career, and I wasn't characterized as a leading man or as a comic actor or as a, you know, or a dramatic actor, because I had done -- I was fortunate enough to get roles where I was able to do all of those different things.

So I wasn't in -- and sometimes I've kind of wished I was, but I've been able to do a lot of stuff, and that's been a good -- the good part of it.

BOGAEV: Frank Whaley, thanks very much for talking to me on FRESH AIR.

WHALEY: My pleasure.

BOGAEV: Frank Whaley wrote and directed the film "Joe the King," which is just out on video. He's written a second screenplay, and it's currently in preproduction.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our engineer is Audrey Bentham. Dorothy Ferebee is our administrative assistant. Roberta Shorrock directs the show.

For Terry Gross, I'm Barbara Bogaev.

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 877-21FRESH
Dateline: Barbara Bogaev, Philadelphia
Guest: Frank Whaley
High: Writer and director Frank Whaley is making his debut as such with the semi-autobiographical film "Joe the King," which won this year's screenwriting award at the Sundance Film Festival. The film takes the viewpoint of a child who strives to contend with his lousy circumstances: raised by an alcoholic and abusive father and a withdrawn mother. The film is produced by John Leguisamo, who also has a part In the film, and it stars Val Kilmer.
Spec: Entertainment; Movie Industry; Awards

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 2000 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 2000 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: Frank Whaley Makes His Debut in `Joe the King'
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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