DATE October 15, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Ron Carter discusses his musical beginnings and career
as a jazz bassist
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest is one of the most prolific and respected bass players in
contemporary jazz, Ron Carter. He's performed on more than a couple of
thousand albums with performers ranging from Eric Dolphy to Aretha Franklin.
He was the leader on about 50 of those recordings. From 1963 to '68, he was
part of Miles Davis' now legendary rhythm section, along with drummer Tony
Williams and pianist Herbie Hancock. Carter played on several Miles Davis
albums, including "Seven Steps To Heaven," "Sorcerer," "Nefertiti," "Filles
Killimanjaro" and "Miles Smiles."
Ron Carter has a new CD called "Stardust," paying tribute to the late bass
player and composer Oscar Pettiford. Before we meet Ron Carter, let's start
with a track from his new CD. This is the Oscar Pettiford composition
(Soundbite of "Tamalpais")
GROSS: That's music from Ron Carter's new CD, "Stardust."
Ron Carter, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Mr. RON CARTER (Bassist): Thanks for the invitation. It is nice to be
GROSS: Your new CD features a couple of compositions by the bass player
Pettiford, including the one we just heard. What's his importance to you as
fellow musician, as a bass player?
Mr. CARTER: Well, Oscar was probably the second most important bass
player/bandleader after John Kirby. One of the reasons I'm glad this record
is getting the level of interest that it is getting is that it makes Oscar
Pettiford known as a wonderful composer. This record "Stardust" features
several of his compositions: "Blues in the Closet" and "Bohemia After
two of the three that we do on this CD. And, again, it's nice to have him
have the acclaim of a wonderful composer as well as a great bassist.
GROSS: Now you play bass and cello. You started with cello, right?
Mr. CARTER: Yes. I was 10, I think, 10 years old.
GROSS: How did you take it up? Was it through school?
Mr. CARTER: Well, you know, in those days--and I'm going pretty far back, I
guess--the teacher for the district would come by with a carload of
instruments, and she would unload them into the auditorium and have everyone
who was interested in music as a broad category visit. And we would have a
choice of what instruments we thought could produce the sounds we were most
interested in. And my interest happened to be the cello.
GROSS: Why did you choose cello? Usually you hear cello on classical
recordings. Had you heard much classical music?
Mr. CARTER: At that time, no. It just seemed like a nice sound that I
make out the instrument that she presented to me. It was made out of
Fiberglas, as a matter of fact. It was a good way of having an instrument
around for a long time who could reasonably reproduce the sound you wanted
could withstand the banging of being lugged back and forth to school and
GROSS: Did you learn classical music when you started to play cello?
Mr. CARTER: Absolutely. I was sharing this music with--these thoughts with
Sir Roland Hanna, my pianist friend, and we were speaking of our early
memories of going to concerts. And my earliest memory of going to a concert
was going to a concert hall in Detroit when I was probably 12 or 13 and
hearing the great cellist Gregor Piatigorsky play the Dvorak "Cello
And I said, `Now if he can do that, I can do that.'
GROSS: Did you have teachers or other adults discourage you and tell you
that, well, you could do that technically, but practically, it was going to
very difficult because you're African-American?
Mr. CARTER: That didn't happen until I got into my later years in high
school. I was 16, 17, I guess. And I looked around and I began to realize
that all the little outside activities that the orchestra participated in
were of a paying sort--they went to everyone else in the orchestra in the
cello section, and then somehow I never got the invitation to be a part of
situation. This was way before, really, the civil rights movement took
in '64. So I'm talking--let's see, in '37--'49--no, '50, '51--1951.
GROSS: And this is in Detroit?
Mr. CARTER: In Detroit, yeah.
Mr. CARTER: So there was only one bass player in the orchestra at the time,
and when he graduated, the logical thing to do would seem to be rather than
become angry, it seemed to me that it put me in the position that they would
have to call me. So I switched to bass my senior year in high school, which
would be January of 1955, '55.
GROSS: And how did you like the instrument, and did you get more of an
opportunity to play in concert settings?
Mr. CARTER: Well, I liked the sound. And again, the sounds have always
important to me, the tone quality of the instrument. And I enjoyed it. I
liked the way the orchestra sounded with the bass player playing the bottom
part of the chord. And in the summer of 1955, George McKell(ph), who was a
teacher at the Eastman School of Music faculty, was holding auditions in
Detroit for the coming school term, '55, at the Eastman School of Music. So
arranged for an audition and he suggested that, if I was interested in
continuing my education, that I should enroll in the Eastman School of Music
because they had a great bass teacher there, Oscar Zimmerman. And I took
advice and enrolled in the school with a full scholarship, September of
had four great years of study with the prominent and wonderful bass player
lovely human being, Oscar Zimmerman.
GROSS: So how far did you get in the classical world, and how did you start
Mr. CARTER: I found I got about eight steps, I think.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: And that's officially not far, right?
Mr. CARTER: Well, it's far enough to have them tell me that, `We love the
you play, but the orchestra's not ready for African-American players,' which
is actually pretty far.
GROSS: Did people actually tell you that?
Mr. CARTER: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Yeah, I was told that several times.
Mr. CARTER: And at the time I was in school, my friend and I, who was a
saxophone player, started a little jazz posse at the local nightclub called
the Pithot Hall(ph), which was across from the emotional other side of the
tracks. He turned out to be, eventually, the saxophonist who did the
arrangements for James Brown, all the big hit records he had, "Cold Sweat,"
Feel Good" and so on. We started a jazz posse there, and so I would play
there during the evenings, during the late nights, actually, and get up in
time for my 8:00 theory class at Eastman School of Music. So I was already
aware of the jazz community and starting to earn money for continuation of
education through my little jazz gigs.
The spring of 1958, Chico Hamilton rolled into town with a jazz packet show
that featured Miles Davis' band, Dave Brubeck Quartet, Lambert, Hendricks
Ross and the Maynard Ferguson Big Band. And Chico Hamilton's band had at
time a cello player, Nat Gershman, Eric Dolphy, Dennis Budimir playing
and Chico, and they were looking for a cello player. So I had an audition
the band, and he told me that since I had a year to go in school, I should
finish school and see him in New York, which would be the following year,
Well, I did finish school and graduated from Eastman and went to New York
August of '59. And when I arrived in New York, Chico was working at the
Birdland, which was then on 52nd Street and Broadway. And the bass player
the band had decided to leave the band. So he asked me would I want to join
the band as a bass player. And, of course, I said yes, and we left the next
week, going on a three-month tour of the States.
GROSS: Well, let me play a recording from early in your career. And we
talking about how you started with cello before changing to bass as your
Mr. CARTER: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: This is a 1960 recording that you made with Eric Dolphy, on which
play cello. Georges Duvivier plays bass. It's a composition called
"Feather," and we're going to hear Eric Dolphy on alto saxophone, you on
cello, Duvivier bass, Roy Haynes on drums. Would you say something about
recording? It's a classic.
Mr. CARTER: Yeah. Well, Georges Duvivier is one of the two or three people
who I've met who have put the bass performance level on such a high
professional standard. I always call Georges Duvivier and Milt Hinton my
musical uncles, because they really opened the door to all that the jazz
players today are privileged to have the chance to do. They played great
notes, they played really well in tune, they were always on time for the
they always wore suits and ties and they had their instruments in prime
to perform whatever music they were being called to play on. And I think
those five items makes a bass player today have a great height to aspire to.
A lovely man, and I'm sorry he's gone.
(Soundbite of "Feather")
GROSS: That's "Feather," recorded in 1960 with Eric Dolphy on alto
my guest Ron Carter on cello, Georges Duvivier bass and Roy Haynes drums.
I often think that Dolphy's playing was a little sharp, and it gave him this
literal cutting edge that just kind of cut through anything and then just
stuck out in a real ear-catching way. Was he sharp, and if he was, how did
that affect your intonation?
Mr. CARTER: Well, he always played sharp. I think guys who play the
instrument that hard, physically hard, tend to play sharp because they
overblow the instrument. It used to drive me crazy. I used to tell Eric,
`Eric, man, you're playing it sharp. Can you pull out? Can you do
else?' You know, when you're playing in orchestras all the time and a lot
the orchestras generally play a little above the pitch so the violins sound
more brilliant, I guess. You get used to playing above the pitch, but
everyone's playing above the pitch, not just one person. So it made me
tune in to where the pitch was supposed to be and made me, probably, more
self-conscious than I should have been how much above the pitch Eric really
There were nights when he would nail intonation. I mean, he'd perfect, and
then the bass would just do what he could do easier because it wasn't caught
between my pitch and Eric's pitch. And there were other nights when he
be so sharp that it'd be difficult to make my hands do what my ear was
me was the correct, but my inner sense was saying, `That can't be OK.'
GROSS: My guest is bass player Ron Carter. He has a new CD called
"Stardust." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is bass player Ron Carter. He has a new CD called
I want to jump to the period of your life in the '60s when you were playing
with Miles Davis. You were with him from '63 to '68?
Mr. CARTER: Mm-hmm. Yes.
GROSS: You were playing with Art Farmer before joining Miles Davis. How
you end up joining Miles?
Mr. CARTER: Well, as it turned out, the band that he then had was going
through several personnel changes. While this was going on, Miles came into
the Half Note one time one night when I had just--into the second night of
two-week gig with Art Farmer with Jim Hall. And he called me over and asked
me if I was interested in joining his band. He told me that the band was
breaking up. He was putting together a new group, and wanted me to go to
California with him the following week to work at the Black Hawk for the
beginning of a six-week tour. And I said I was very interested. However,
just joined Art put his two weeks here, and he would ask Art if it was OK,
if I said yes, I'd be happy to go with him. If Art said no, then I'd be
to stay with Art.
So when the set was over, he called Art over and they had a talk. They had
known each other for years. And he told Art what he had in mind, and Art
it was OK. And I think that did two things for me. It established with
that I was really my own person, and it showed Art what kind of regard I had
GROSS: Were there things that Miles Davis told you about what he was doing
what he wanted you to do when you first started playing with him?
Mr. CARTER: No. He would make sure, though, that I stood next to him.
During those days, '63 and on, the bass player didn't have an amplifier and
there were no monitors on the stage, at least for the jazz bands. And
everything was pretty much wide open, literally. So the instrument that had
the lowest power output was the bass. That was the case in any band, so he
would make sure that I stood as close to him as the stage would allow so he
could understand, or he could hear, what was going on with the bass line.
And occasionally, he would notice that the sound was different because I'd
been off for three weeks and he would say, `Your hand's a little tender
tonight,' or he would say, `What is that note doing there?' and I'd explain
him what it was. And he would say, `OK.' But he never once told me I
do this or I should play this kind of note or I should play on this part of
the instrument. He kind of trusted my sense of judgment.
GROSS: Why don't we play a recording from that early period in which you
worked with Miles Davis?
Mr. CARTER: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: Why don't we hear "My Funny Valentine"? And I think your bass
on this is almost like a heartbeat.
(Soundbite of "My Funny Valentine")
GROSS: That's "My Funny Valentine" with Miles Davis, my guest Ron Carter on
bass, and that was Tony Williams on drums, recorded in 1964 live at
Philharmonic Hall at Lincoln Center in New York.
That's a beautiful recording. Was there something special about playing
ballads with Miles Davis during that period?
Mr. CARTER: Well, you know, the story is still going around that he learned
lot of space from listening to Ahmad Jamal, and that that story is true.
Listening to him play ballads kind of validates that view. He once said
he liked the way I played ballads with him because I understood what the
melody would sound like even if he didn't play it. So I enjoyed playing
ballads with him.
GROSS: Oh, you mean so that you can imply the melody even if he was playing
Mr. CARTER: That's right.
GROSS: Right, right. Miles Davis was not very communicative with his
audience onstage, not verbally communicative. Was he more communicative
Mr. CARTER: By and large, yes. Again, you know, when we go back to those
early days of clubs and concerts, the setting that is now available with a
separate microphone and great microphones and great microphone stands and
really aware technicians and sound crews--I mean, the whole industry has
changed as far as sonically reproducing a concert for an audience, be it
or concert. And then the situation was not easy for someone to announce a
tune and then run back to the microphone and play. Then when it's finished,
put your horn down and run back over to the microphone again, announce the
next song. It just wasn't physically convenient. Now why he didn't talk to
the audience, however, is something I can't answer.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
Mr. CARTER: When we play now, I just segue between tunes not because that's
what he couldn't do, but I just find that if I can play a set and start a
story from the first note and have you turn the page in your mind and let my
conversation not be that page turning for you...
Mr. CARTER: It's like having Call Waiting, you know? And that really
me to have Call Waiting, to have an announcer saying, `Now we're going to
play, ladies and gentlemen'--for me that doesn't work. So I play a set for
however long it last straight through with these brief musical interludes to
allow you to turn your own page. And I think that if he had thought of this
during his time, he would have done it as well.
GROSS: Ron Carter will be back in the second half of the show. Here he is
the Miles Davis recording "Nefertiti." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH
(Soundbite of "Nefertiti")
GROSS: Coming up, Burr Steers talks about writing and directing the movie
"Igby Goes Down," about a disaffected teen-ager who comes from an old-money
family that has lost its money, but not its sense of entitlement. Also,
with bass player Ron Carter.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with bass player Ron
Carter has a new CD called "Stardust." When we left off, we were talking
about his work with the Miles Davis Quintet. He played with Miles from 1963
Shortly after you joined Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock and Tony Williams
forming the classic Miles Davis Quintet over the mid-60s. What changed
musically when you were all together?
Mr. CARTER: Well, I think this was one of the cases where each of
us--Herbie, Wayne, Tony, myself--would have ended up where we are now, but
ended up where we are now much quicker 'cause we were all in the same pot
then. Wayne was a very quiet person, but he wrote great lines and had a
sense of harmonic direction.
GROSS: This is Wayne Shorter you're talking about.
Mr. CARTER: Wayne Shorter, yeah.
GROSS: Who I neglected to mention. Thank you.
Mr. CARTER: Yeah. It's OK. And Herbie was starting to explore not so much
new chord voicings, but places to play these new sounds. And Tony, who was
the time 17, was just opening the drums to sets of rhythms that no one had
contemplated were being possible to be done on the drums. I think my angle,
if I can use that word, would be what note ties all this stuff together.
GROSS: Now, you know, Tony Williams was departing from just playing the
rhythm. He was doing all kinds of things.
Mr. CARTER: Yes. Absolutely.
GROSS: And did that make it any more or less necessary for you to be
Mr. CARTER: Well, Tony was very form oriented. Tony knew melodies inside
out and he was studying composition and arranging. So I think one of my
inputs to the band was to outline the form, because we were doing so many
things within the structure, and--because Herbie was playing these new chord
voicings and Wayne was writing these different kind of melodies and Tony was
exploring all these rhythms on different parts of the drum. In addition to
what I was trying to do, I kind of nailed the form down for everybody as
GROSS: So you saw yourself as being the kind of harmonic and rhythmic
foundation that enabled everybody else to be more free?
Mr. CARTER: Yes.
GROSS: One other Miles Davis record I want to play here, and this is one of
the first electric recordings that you made with him. And this is--we're
gonna hear "Tout de Suite" from "Filles de Kilimanjaro." Did Miles Davis
you that he wanted you to play electric bass? I mean, how did you switch
from bass to electric bass?
Mr. CARTER: Well, you know, during that time, there used to be these
so-called blue Monday sessions, and these were clubs that had music starting
at 3 AM in the morning and they would go until 7 AM in the morning. And
were generally organ-led trios--organ, guitar and drums. And in case they'd
have an electrical bass player who would fill in for the organist's left
or left foot, and so I got involved in doing that even when I was going to
Eastman. When I came to New York in 1959 and got involved in making a few
commercial recordings, jingles, 'cause electric bass was just now becoming a
part of the recorded sound, and so every upright player had to go out and
one to get a better view on how to play this instrument that they were now
being called on to have available should the producer decide that's the
So the instrument was not new to me. I'd made records with it before. But
told Miles that, you know, `This instrument's OK, but it doesn't have the
sounds that I hear, that I've been working on for a very long time to get
better at every night at, and this just doesn't allow me that growth that I
think I have to have. But it's your band and I'll do the best I can. I
I'll do a credible job, but this is really not what I want to do.'
GROSS: What was missing in the sound of the electric bass?
Mr. CARTER: Well, for me, just the ability to change the tone quality with
hands. I mean, bass players to do it now with a pick and with their thumb
the various pedals and stuff, and they do a great job, but the color really
doesn't change that much, and I think the upright player who is really
conscious of the sound choices he has at his command with his hands will
those choices playing electric bass.
GROSS: Well, why don't we hear "Filles de Kilimanjaro?"
Mr. CARTER: Mm-hmm. It's a nice track.
GROSS: Yeah. This is "Tout de Suite."
Mr. CARTER: Yeah, yeah.
GROSS: And my guest Ron Carter on electric bass. This is the Miles Davis
(Soundbite of "Tout de Suite")
GROSS: The Miles Davis Quintet, with my guest, Ron Carter, on electric
recorded in 1967 from the album "Filles de Kilimanjaro."
You know, we were talking about you playing electric bass on this. Herbie
Hancock is playing electric piano. How did you feel playing with electric
Mr. CARTER: Well, you know, it was really difficult to get the sounds
separated at that time. I mean, they really hadn't learned how to really
record a jazz band playing these instruments because their touch is so
different, and they're playing a different combination of notes, and a lot
more notes, they weren't being so technically conservative as they were on
early recordings of Fender Rhodes and electric bass. So it presented to
a recording problem, and I'm not sure they really solved that problem on
particular recording. Later on when they were able to re-edit and re-master
and re-mix and with the new formats, they got a much better separation of
instruments than they did on the original vinyl. But, you know, again, you
know, the sounds were so almost indistinct for me it was difficult to feel
apart from everyone else but still a part of it.
GROSS: Did your dissatisfaction with the electric bass and the electric
direction that Miles Davis was going in have anything to do with you leaving
Mr. CARTER: No. I just thought it was time to go. I'd been with the band
five years, five fabulous years. I had a son who was going on five years
six years old, and another one was going on two or three and I thought that
it's best for me to start spending more time than I was able to do with
travel schedule. So I left just because of those personal reasons. Also
they were starting to get some more jazz recordings in New York. Man, there
were a lot of companies doing a lot of jazz records. The studio scene, as I
defined it, was really becoming more active and there were more
African-American players being a part of these commercial recordings. It
seemed like the best time to try to find out what the industry had to offer
was to be a part of it, and you can't do that if you travel six weeks at a
time for months on end.
GROSS: So did your plans succeed? Were you able to stay home more and
time with your family?
Mr. CARTER: Yes. And I'm happy to have done that.
GROSS: Yeah. Well, you've recorded how many CDs as a leader in a side band
over the years?
Mr. CARTER: Well, you know, the last count from a friend of mine in Japan,
who was determined to track them all down--he's found some really that have
completely escaped me. He's got 2,200 and some change--something like that.
GROSS: Very impressive. Now I know you were on a recording by the hip-hop
group A Tribe Called Quest.
Mr. CARTER: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: Now did they sample you or did you play with them?
Mr. CARTER: No, I went to the studio. As a matter of fact, the guy called
me--Q-tip called me one afternoon and told me who he was, that he was a
fan of Charlie Mingus, and I said, `Oh, yeah, great, you know. What can I
for you?' you know. And he said, `Well, we're making this record and I want
to know if you want to participate?' And I said, `Well, let me call you
because I'm busy for the moment.' Actually I was going to call my son, who's
on top of that stuff. So I called him and said, `Hey, man, who's this guy
Q-tip and A Tribe Called Quest, are they musically OK?' He said, `Oh, yeah,
Dad. You got to check them out.' So I called him back and I said, `OK, we
can do this. Just give me time and the place and we'll work it out.'
really lovely young men, and they're really curious about music, and I had a
great time with them.
GROSS: Do you still practice, or is that unnecessary because you already
Mr. CARTER: Oh, man, you know, I had just retired from City College and
frees me up to have 20 hours a week more to practice, and I practice every
GROSS: Good. Well, it's a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much,
Mr. CARTER: Terry, thanks very much for the invitation. And hello to your
audience and thank them for encouraging this music.
GROSS: Ron Carter has a new CD called "Stardust."
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, we meet the writer and director of the movie "Igby Goes
Down." This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Burr Steers discusses his new movie "Igby Goes Down"
TERRY GROSS, host:
When film critic David Edelstein reviewed "Igby Goes Down" on our show, he
ended by saying he thought he was watching the movie of the year. My guest,
Burr Steers, wrote and directed the film. It stars Kieran Culkin as a
disaffected, rebellious teen-ager from an old-money family that has lost its
fortune, but not its sense of entitlement. Burr Steers grew up in a world
acknowledges as privileged. His father, Newton Steers, was a millionaire,
active in Republican politics in Maryland. He served one term in the US
Congress. His stepfather worked for the NEA. His mother was the stepsister
of Jackie Kennedy and half-sister of Gore Vidal.
In the movie "Igby Goes Down," Igby's mother, played by Susan Sarandon, is
cold and manipulative. His father, played by Bill Pullman, is
institutionalized for schizophrenia. Igby has flunked out of the prep
and run away from the military academy that his mother sent him to. He
refuge in Manhattan, where his older brother, Oliver, played by Ryan
is attending Columbia University. At a cocktail party given by his wealthy
uncle, Igby meets a hip woman played by Claire Danes, who's dropped out of
college. He recognizes her as a fellow misfit, but their conversation is
interrupted by the arrival of his older brother.
(Soundbite of "Igby Goes Down")
Mr. RYAN PHILLIPE (As Oliver): I'm Oliver. And this is my little brother
Ms. CLAIRE DANES (As Sookie): What kind of a name is Igby?
Mr. KIERAN CULKIN (As Igby): The kind of a name that someone named Sookie
in no position to question.
Mr. PHILLIPE: Sookie. Sookie, where do you go to school?
Ms. DANES: Bennington.
Mr. CULKIN: Olie's majoring in neo-fascism at Columbia.
Mr. PHILLIPE: Economics.
Mr. CULKIN: Semantics.
Mr. PHILLIPE: What's your major?
Mr. CULKIN: Attitude.
Ms. DANES: I've got to get back to the bar.
Mr. PHILLIPE: That's where I'm headed.
Ms. DANES: Oh.
Mr. CULKIN: Catch you kids later.
GROSS: Burr Steers, welcome to FRESH AIR. What made you want to create a
character who was from the world of money but his family no longer had
and also he's not really interested in that life anyways? He wants to rebel
against that kind of--he wants to rebel against his class heritage.
Mr. BURR STEERS (Director): Right. Yeah, and their values, and, yeah,
world. He's not against money, per se, he's against what he would have to
conform to to get that money...
GROSS: So what...
Mr. STEERS: ...and the life he'd have to lead. His life would be much
if he could just stay in the schools and become a broker.
GROSS: What were some of the things you did not want to conform to when you
were growing up with money?
Mr. STEERS: I guess a lot of it had to do with social causes at an early--I
don't know. It's a very tough question for me. I did get sent to military
school, which was sort of the extreme where they try and strip you of your
identity and make you into their version of what a boy should be.
GROSS: Well, this happens to Igby. He goes...
Mr. STEERS: Right.
GROSS: ...to prep school. He gets thrown out of that, so he gets sent to
military school. And...
Mr. STEERS: Which is actually something that I went through, having gotten
booted out of most of the schools on the East Coast and...
GROSS: Why did you get booted out?
Mr. STEERS: Many--a lot of reasons. Being incredibly obnoxious and I think
getting the lowest grades that they'd ever seen. So there were a lot of
things--there were a lot of reasons why I was not a good student.
GROSS: Are you an obnoxious person or was being obnoxious your way of
Mr. STEERS: I think it was also a means of covering. I had some learning
problems and just wasn't a good student, but had terrible attention deficit,
whether chemically or because of just bad work habits. And I was a terrible
student. And I think the way you cover with that is to draw attention in
GROSS: Let me play a clip from "Igby Goes Down." And this is a scene in an
expensive restaurant. Igby is there. His mother, played by Susan Sarandon,
is there, his brother, who is conforming more to class expectations, played
Ryan Phillipe, and his Igby's wealthy godfather, played by Jeff Goldblum, is
also at the table. So here's the conversation, starting with his mother
(Soundbite of "Igby Goes Down")
Ms. SUSAN SARANDON: Igby has buddies. Haven't you got buddies, Igby?
Mr. CULKIN: Many.
Ms. SARANDON: You have that buddy with the cute little name. That little
Mr. CULKIN: Turtle.
Mr. PHILLIPE: Turtle.
Mr. CULKIN: Turtle. He was my best buddy. Then his rifle backfired and
his face off. We all learned a valuable lesson about weapon maintenance
Ms. SARANDON: Why didn't the school inform me?
Mr. CULKIN: It wasn't the school's fault. They were great about it. Paid
for the dry cleaning and everything. Not because they had to, but because
was the right thing to do.
Mr. JEFF GOLDBLUM: I believe that certain people in life are meant to fall
the wayside; to serve as warnings for the rest of us--signposts along the
Mr. CULKIN: To where?
Mr. GOLDBLUM: Success.
GROSS: That's a scene from "Igby Goes Down." My guest is the writer and
director of the film, Burr Steers.
"Igby" opens at the bedside of Susan Sarandon, the mother, and, you know,
two sons are there; Igby and his brother. And they're watching her and
they're thinking she's not dying. It's not her last breath yet. And
one of the brothers puts a plastic bag over her head. And you're thinking,
`What are they doing? They're killing their mother.' And you don't know
this is happening--you know, whether it's assisted suicide or murder.
Mr. STEERS: Right.
GROSS: It's a very interesting way, very provocative way to start a movie.
Why did you start it there and why did you start it in that kind of
Mr. STEERS: It's--to hook the audience; to have this striking opening
And you don't know--you don't know if they're the Menendez boys or what
they're actually doing. But really in the movie, the main reason was to
the audience so that then you could go back and tell the back story and set
that up, and so you had everybody's attention.
GROSS: I think it must be hard on your mother--people assume that
is autobiographical. And the mother is not well loved in this movie, and
you know, deserves some of the animosity that's directed at her. So has it
been hard on your mother?
Mr. STEERS: No, it was actually...
GROSS: Go ahead.
Mr. STEERS: No, to the contrary. She's gotten a kick out of it. She had a
great quote in The Washington Post that said "If this is supposed to be me,
I've never looked better"--you know, Susan Sarandon. But, no--I mean, she
suing me, but that's part of a prestigious family.
Mr. STEERS: But it's--you know, but other than that--no, she doesn't--she
GROSS: My guest is Burr Steers, the writer and director of the movie "Igby
Goes Down." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest Burr Steers wrote and directed the movie comedy "Igby Goes
Down," starring Kieran Culkin as a disaffected teen-ager rebelling against
old-money family that has lost its fortune but not its sense of entitlement.
I know that your brother died of AIDS a few years ago, and you've said that
you started the screenplay after the death of your brother. What's the
Mr. STEERS: It's funny because you don't always realize what you're putting
into a script or anything when you're writing, and then you can go back and
sort of analytically take things apart. But for me, just in a very simple
way, it was kind of the turning point in my life. It was sort of really--I
was just about to turn 30 and it just really kicked me in the butt. I mean,
he inspired me because he was a painter and could have painted landscapes
through our family connections could have had a lucrative career, but
he was painting his world, which was these people--these young men dying in
sort of tragic, very funny in a lot of cases, but very dramatic scenes.
GROSS: It sounds like his example made you think seriously about your life
and your future in a way that all the discipline at military school was
going to do.
Mr. STEERS: Yeah. I mean, that would be too--I wrote because I needed to
write and reached a point where I needed to write, where I had all these
things churning inside me and needed an outlet. And I had never become a
writer before really just because--and I didn't see education as being--as
standing in the way of that, because I had learned; I had educated myself in
the things that I was interested in in theater, but had avoided it because I
came from a family of writers and people who called themselves writers, so
wasn't something that I was going to, you know, pretend to be.
GROSS: Who were the writers in your family?
Mr. STEERS: Well, Gore, Gore Vidal, who's my uncle, and then Louis
Auchincloss is a cousin, and then my godmother was Renata Adler. So...
GROSS: I see the issues.
Mr. STEERS: Yeah. And my room was basically the depository for all the
books that had been handed out at the publishing parties, so I had--I knew
what real writers were and what that took. Not that being a screenwriter is
being a real writer. Don't get me wrong.
GROSS: Well, it must have been odd growing up in this family where you've
some very accomplished writers. But you weren't much of a reader, it sounds
like, because you had dyslexia or some similar problem. It sounds like you
had problems reading.
Mr. STEERS: I did--I had problems writing. I had hand-eye problems and
invert things and just had terrible handwriting, dysgraphia or whatever they
call it. It would just start coming apart. But, no--but I could always
and did and always had great books growing up.
And you asked me about my influences. Saki was another thing as a kid that
just loved because invariably those stories--Hector Munro--were about kids
revenging or avenging themselves on adults.
GROSS: Now was your name, Burr Steers, considered a kind of average name
you were growing up? To me, it sounds like a very unusual name. It was it
unusual in your circles?
Mr. STEERS: To me, too, yeah. No. And then my middle name being Gore.
it was a very tough, tough name to grow up with. I needed to develop a
of humor about it.
GROSS: Where does the Burr come from?
Mr. STEERS: Burr is a family name. It's a last name in the family. And
then Aaron Burr is a great-great-granduncle, I guess. And the only reason I
reference him is so that nobody thinks that Raymond Burr is the real cause
Mr. STEERS: Not that there's anything wrong with that. There's nothing
with "Ironside," but, you know...
GROSS: Well, it's funny. With a name like Burr Steers, you know, nobody's
going to be asking, `Is he Jewish?'
Mr. STEERS: Yeah. There is that. But, no, I actually did a Western when I
was just starting out and had all those guys, the stunt men, coming up and
knocking on my trailer to pay their respects, because they all thought that
the legendary rodeo clown Bum Steers was performing in the Western and
I was well-preserved. Yeah.
GROSS: Well, Burr Steers almost sounds like it should be like a male porn
Mr. STEERS: Thank you very much, again; yes.
GROSS: Well, what else can we come up with?
Mr. STEERS: It's funny that you should say that, because I did go through a
period where I got--when I was first living in Los Angeles and had a listed
number--where I would get these phone calls late at night from drunken guys
wanting to get in touch with Guy Steer(ph), who is apparently a legendary
GROSS: Huh. Well, we talked about your name a little bit. How did you
up with Igby, which is shortened from Digby, for your character in the
Mr. STEERS: Right. I came up with the explanation for the name in the
after I came up with the name Igby. And I don't really know where it came
from. I mean, I've thought about that, if it was Ignatius from "Confederacy
of Dunces" or Iggy Pop. There is a comedy club in Los Angeles called
but I don't think that was it. It was a name that struck me. And then the
whole thing of growing up with a different name, and that his name came out
a mistake, that his nickname came out of this screw-up at an early age where
he'd got the name wrong for the kind of teddy bear that he had.
GROSS: It was a Digby.
Mr. STEERS: It was a Digby bear; yeah. And he would call it Igby and he
would blame everything that he did wrong on that bear. And I did that as a
little kid. And that was sort of the child psyche technique that had been
used on me was to start calling me by my imaginary friend's name, who's
with me in the studio, in fact, funnily enough.
GROSS: Really? Who was your imaginary friend?
Mr. STEERS: Chauncey Stroganoff, actually, was my imaginary friend; yeah.
Maybe I should be institutionalized, actually...
GROSS: What a great name.
Mr. STEERS: ...now that you've made me face these things; yeah.
GROSS: Oh, it's like part WASP, part Russian?
Mr. STEERS: Well, beef Stroganoff. And then I knew somebody else--I'd
the name Chauncey growing up. And that was it. It was Chauncey Stroganoff.
And anything that went wrong, it was Chauncey's doing. It was very--I mean,
as a kid, you know, I would have birthday parties where half the guest list
would be made-up people. So, you know, who knew it was going to lead to
GROSS: Yeah. Well, lucky that than--better that than something else.
Mr. STEERS: Yeah. Well, yeah.
GROSS: Well, Burr Steers, thank you very much.
Mr. STEERS: Thank you for having me.
GROSS: Burr Steers wrote and directed the new film "Igby Goes Down."
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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