Skip to main content

Richard Gere: Myths and Lies

With nearly 40 films to his credit, including Days of Heaven, American Gigolo, An Officer and a Gentleman, The Cotton Club, and Looking for Mr. Goodbar, Richard Gere knows an iconic character when he sees one.

In his latest film, The Hoax, Gere plays a scam artist who lands a seven-figure book deal with a major publisher. It's based on the true story of Clifford Irving, who claimed to be an authorized biographer of reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes.

31:28

Other segments from the episode on April 4, 2007

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 4, 2007: Interview with Richard Gere; Interview with Jake Kasdan.

Transcript

DATE April 4, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Richard Gere discusses career and his new movie "The
Hoax"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Richard Gere, has starred in
such films as "Looking for Mr. Goodbar," "Days of Heaven," "American Gigolo,"
"An Officer and a Gentleman," "Pretty Woman," "Unfaithful" and "Chicago." His
new film, "The Hoax," is based on the true story of an infamous publishing
hoax. In 1971, the writer Clifford Irving claimed to have gotten permission
from the reclusive and eccentric mogul Howard Hughes to become Hughes'
authorized biographer. Irving negotiated a six-figure advance from his
publisher and eventually handed in a manuscript he said was based on
interviews with Hughes. But Irving never had any contact with Hughes. None.
How Irving managed to write the book and pass it off to his publisher as the
real thing, getting deeper and deeper into his lies, is the subject of "The
Hoax." In this scene, Clifford Irving is discussing the scam with his friend
and collaborator, who is skeptical they'll get away with it. The friend is
played by Alfred Molina.

(Soundbite of "The Hoax")

Mr. RICHARD GERE: (As Clifford Irving) A man walks in, says something
completely implausible, and for that exact reason, he's believed. No, it's an
Aquarian phenomenon. Very, very spiritual.

Mr. ALFRED MOLINA: (As Dick Susskind) Lawyers are not spiritual. Presumably
this is going to make news. Howard Hughes hasn't spoken to the press in 15
years.

Mr. GERE: (As Clifford Irving) What are you so nervous about? You can't
think, Dick. No thinking.

Mr. MOLINA: (As Dick Susskind) All I'm saying is, once this gets out, what's
going to stop this guy from suing our asses off? Have you heard of Intertel.
He has his own private CIA. Ruthless advisers.

Mr. GERE: (As Clifford Irving): His advisers don't know anything about the
book because he's too paranoid to tell them. And he'll never come out of
hiding long enough to denounce me because he's a lunatic hermit. And I am the
spokesperson for the lunatic hermit, so the more outrageous I sound the more
convincing I am.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: I talked with Richard Gere about his impressions of Clifford Irving,
who Gere portrays in "The Hoax."

Mr. GERE: If you read his fake autobiography, which is probably the best
thing he's ever written, it's really quite beautiful and quite touching, and
it starts off with an answer to a question. And the question is `Why would
Howard Hughes ask me to do this, of all the writers in the world?' And he goes
into an evaluation of his own writing. He calls himself a journeyman writer,
and he goes into his background, and it is really kind of beautiful writing.
And he finds this psychological, emotional, spiritual kinship with Howard
Hughes as only children and young men who have lost their fathers when they
were teenagers, and there was a kind of a mental-emotional aesthetic points of
view that they had in common, and much of that that I took in the work that I
did on the movie.

GROSS: So Clifford Irving is still alive. Did you want to talk with him?

Mr. GERE: I didn't when we were shooting, and it was a very conscious
decision that, you know, we were not making a documentary about him, and he's
clearly--I make the assumption that he's a very manipulative guy. And
frankly, I just didn't want to be in a position to be concerned about his
feelings about this nor did I want his point of view really. I had a very
clear point of view from the script and all the research material. And I had
enormous respect for him, you know, and really came to like him, actually,
brew very fond of him, the character that I knew, but I really didn't want
that influence. In fact, I just talked to him about 10 days ago for the first
time.

GROSS: Why did you talk to him?

Mr. GERE: Well, I felt it was time.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. GERE: The movie's finished, and you know, it felt like the right thing
to do. This was...

GROSS: Had he seen it?

Mr. GERE: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: What did he have to say about it?

Mr. GERE: He was--you can imagine, a bunch of strangers making a movie about
you. Now, do you think they're going to get it all right? Highly unlikely.
So he was very sensitive with me on the phone about this, but I know there's
stuff that he had problems with, and I assured him, I said, `Look, Clifford,
this is not a documentary. I mean, obviously you've seen the movie. So we're
after, in some ways, much larger game than just the story of this aspect of
your life. We're going after Nixon. We're going after Watergate. We're
going after the Vietnam War. We're going after a lot of things with this
movie.'

GROSS: I'd like to talk about your movie career with you, starting from your
pre-movie career when you got the leading role of Danny Zuko in the London
production of "Grease." And I find it so interesting that you started in a
musical and you were in "Chicago," which is like such a great film, and that
was really recently, and so many years later you were in a musical again. Did
you ever intend or expect your career to start with a musical?

Mr. GERE: Well, it didn't really. I mean, I left college when I was--it was
after my sophomore year, and I had auditioned and received an offer to be at
the Provincetown Playhouse in Cape Cod. And I left school to do that, and one
thing led to another, and I was then in the Seattle Repertory Theatre for a
season. And then I'd left that, and I had rock band for a little while, and
then I decided I was going to go become an actor. And I came to New York, and
it was an interesting time. It was the late '60s, about this time, 1970
maybe, when I came to New York. And I had long hair and I could sing and
dance and play guitars and keyboards and things, and rock musicals were
happening. And the first audition I did was a rock musical. It wasn't
"Grease." It was another show called "Soon." And then I got that job and that,
you know, that kept me floating for a while, and I think there was another
musical after that about Richard Farina that I did...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. GERE: ...and then a couple of other plays and then the "Grease" job came
up, which I really enjoyed. I was an understudy in New York. I covered like
five or six parts, and then had this offer to go to open it in London, which
was a big move for me, you know, for a young actor to go to the West End in a
very successful show, there was a very great, growing, expanding experience
for me. No doubt about it.

GROSS: So when you were in "Chicago" a couple of years ago in the movie
adaptation of the musical...

Mr. GERE: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Had you....

Mr. GERE: I had forgotten how much fun it was, to tell you the truth. It...

GROSS: How much fun a musical is?

Mr. GERE: Oh yeah. It had been, oh god, 30 years since I did a musical...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. GERE: ...and I had really forgotten just how much fun, especially good
material with, you know, a terrific script. Bill Condon wrote that script...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. GERE: ... for "Chicago," and Rob Marshall, of course, the director. It
was just about the most fun I've ever had as an actor.

GROSS: Had you been singing like at home in the intervening years or did you
feel that you had to brush up with singing lessons?

Mr. GERE: No, music has been full-time part of my life, my whole life, so
that's always there. But I did have--we had a wonderful vocal coach on that
who, I mean, we all came from different traditions. Catherine Zeta-Jones, an
incredible voice, but she's not necessarily a Broadway kind of voice. Mine's
not a Broadway kind of voice. It's more of a rock voice. So we all were
taking training to sing this kind of stuff.

GROSS: What did you learn about your voice through that training?

Mr. GERE: Well, I learned how to not strain it so much actually. I learned
how to get off of it a little bit, which, in fact, has made it stronger.

GROSS: While we're talking about "Chicago," why don't we hear you performing
in the role from the soundtrack, and I thought we'd play "All I Care About."
And we should say here that you're a lawyer who really is in it like for the
money and the fame, and you're singing about how all you really care about is
love. Here it is. Richard Gere from the soundtrack to "Chicago."

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. GERE: (Singing) I don't care about expensive things. Cashmere coats,
diamond rings don't mean a thing. All I care about is love.

Backup Singers: That's what he's here for.

Mr. GERE: That's what I'm here for. I don't care for wearing silk cravats.
Ruby studs, satin spats don't mean a thing. All I care about is love.

Backup Singers: (Singing) All he cares about is love.

Mr. GERE: (Singing) Give me two eyes of blue softly saying...

Singers: (Singing) I'm need you.

Mr. GERE: (Singing) Let me see her standing there and, honest, mister, I'm a
millionaire. I don't care for any fine attire Vanderbilt might admire. No,
no, not me. All I care about is love.

Backup Singers: (Singing) All he cares about is love.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's Richard Gere from the soundtrack of "Chicago." He's now
starring in "The Hoax."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Richard Gere, and he plays
Clifford Irving in the new movie "The Hoax." I want to ask you about "American
Gigolo," which was written and directed by Paul Schrader, and you play a very
high-class escort in this who's hired by mostly wealthy, older women...

Mr. GERE: The word now is a `sex-worker.'

GROSS: Yes.

Mr. GERE: That's a...

GROSS: Thank you.

Mr. GERE: That's the international term.

GROSS: Yes, and you're often hired by older women who are visiting and who
either want a thrill or just want to be desired, particularly desired by
somebody who's really attractive. Let me just play...

Mr. GERE: I think beyond that even, if you...

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. GERE: ...really look at the root of it, just treated well.

GROSS: Yeah. Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Mr. GERE: Someone--they just want to be treated well. Someone to notice
them.

GROSS: Let me just play a short scene. This is a scene from early on where
you're in, it's like a restaurant or hotel bar and you're glancing at an older
woman played by--slightly older woman played by Lauren Hutton. You think
she's wants to hire you, and she doesn't realize you're a pro and she's
flattered by your attention. So here's the scene from "American Gigolo."

(Soundbite of "American Gigolo")

Ms. LAUREN HUTTON: Why did you come on to me?

Mr. GERE: Like I said, I made a mistake. I heard you speaking French.
Often in these big hotels you run into women from foreign countries who may
need a translator or guide.

Ms. HUTTON: And they hire you.

Mr. GERE: Yes.

Ms. HUTTON: How many languages do you speak?

Mr. GERE: Five or six.

Ms. HUTTON: Plus the international language.

Mr. GERE: That's right.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's Lauren Hutton and my guest, Richard Gere, in a scene from
"American Gigolo." Did you realize when you made this scene the ways in which
it was going to resonate culturally. And I think one of the ways it resonated
culturally was just in terms of--I think the most iconic scene in the movie is
like when you're taking your clothes out of the closet and the drawers and
you're...

Mr. GERE: Yeah.

GROSS: ...and laying them out on the bed.

Mr. GERE: That was so far beyond me. First of all, I don't think I even
owned a suit at that point, and this was all Paul Schrader.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. GERE: Paul had this thing about--I think he called it the new dandyism,
and he was very prescient about this. It was Giorgio Arman...

GROSS: Moroder.

Mr. GERE: No. Armani.

GROSS: Oh, Giorgio Armani. Giorgio Moroder did the music and...

Mr. GERE: He did the--well, I just also just saw last week also...

GROSS: ...Armani did the clothes. Yeah.

Mr. GERE: ...and I haven't seen him since then.

GROSS: Armani or Moroder?

Mr. GERE: Moroder.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. GERE: And so Armani, very stylized clothes, and, I mean, this whole
thing about shirts and picking out a tie that went with the shirt...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. GERE: ...and the thing and all. I mean, this was--to me this was a
total construct. I didn't know anything about this, but I went with it, and I
said, `OK, let's give this a try.'

GROSS: It's funny that the movie didn't become famous as like a crime story.
It became famous...

Mr. GERE: No, it's about style. The movie was...

GROSS: Yeah, exactly. It became famous for style.

Mr. GERE: But that's what it was really.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. GERE: It really as about two-dimensional realities, magazine realities.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. GERE: You know, and the kind of tendencies, especially in the West, to
see things in surfaces.

GROSS: Now, had you seen "Taxi Driver," which Paul Schrader wrote, before...

Mr. GERE: Sure.

GROSS: ...you made "American Gigolo"?

Mr. GERE: Of course.

GROSS: They seem to come from such like different places in his mind, but did
"Taxi Driver" help you in any way in understanding where he was coming from?

Mr. GERE: Well, he had already done his own movie, "Blue Collar," I believe,
at that point...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. GERE: ...which he wrote and directed. But Paul was, I mean, he was
enough known that you could see where the guy was coming from. That he wanted
to do some adventurous work and stylish work, you know. Even as rough as
"Taxi Driver" was--it was gritty--it's very stylish. Its use of music, its
use of visuals, its cutting style--it's very stylish. And it has very
visceral, gritty energy to it. But, you know, Paul's a classicist and a great
structuralist. There's probably no one better in the business at structuring
a story in an interesting way than Paul Schrader.

GROSS: You know, you said that he saw this movie as being about the new
dandy, and there's a scene early on where you're working out, hanging upside
down from your ankles while lifting handweights, and I think it's like one of
the early times in a movie when somebody's working out for, you know, kind of
glamour abs as opposed to because like they're a tough guy or they're a
weightlifter or something.

Mr. GERE: Yeah, those boots. I haven't seen them since then. But yeah, I
mean, this again, this was Paul's idea which, again, was way ahead of its time
of people being sucked into two-dimensional surface realities.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. GERE: With the body, with the clothes, with the hair, with the right
sunglasses, with the walk, with the--it's all about presentation without
substance. So you see this guy systemically being stripped of all style, all
surface, and he ends up in jail, leaning up against a glass window where he
touches the girl through the window. They put hands up against glass. It's
someone who has to start from ground zero and actually build a human being now
instead of a Kewpie doll.

GROSS: I'm so glad that you describe this as a movie being about people who
are sucked up in two-dimensional realities because that kind of answers the
question that I was going to ask you. You know, most people know that you've
been, you know, practicing and studying Buddhism for many years, and, of
course, you know, the kind of, you know, narcissism and materialistic culture
that the character in "American Gigolo" represents is exactly what Buddhism is
about not doing. It's about kind of transcending...

Mr. GERE: I'm...

GROSS: Yeah, go ahead.

Mr. GERE: I'm thinking about a scene in the movie that actually is the
opposite of that and...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. GERE: ...you can't play these things and be--you can't be
two-dimensional playing a two-dimensional person. You have to be three--you
have to show the possibility of three-plus dimensions...

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Mr. GERE: ...and that it's been squeezed into two in the story. But there's
a scene in there, as I recall, where he's servicing a woman, and I think her
husband has paid me to do this, and he wants to watch. And she's very--she's
nauseated by this. And if I'm remembering the scene, I just tell her it's all
right. Just relax and forget about him, and I was just very nice with her,
very gentle, and in his way, sensitive with her. And within his own
structure, he's a mensch. Now, in terms of the world and what's legal and
isn't, he's a bad guy. But within what he does, he is there to provide a
service in a very real way and takes it very seriously, and those are real
human moments in the movie.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Were you already interested in Buddhism then?

Mr. GERE: Mm-hmm. Yeah. I've been practicing since my early 20s.

GROSS: You know, I know that you know the Dalai Lama, and he's pretty famous
for different reasons, of course. But you've had to learn how to deal with
fame. I wonder if watching him and how he deals with his own kind of fame has
been interesting and valuable for you.

Mr. GERE: It's had an enormous impact on me. I don't know any actor or
artist or anyone else who, by inclination, wants the--what do I say?--the
negative side of being famous, the lack of privacy, the sense of being in a
fishbowl. Nobody wants that. And I see His Holiness go through that his
whole life, since he was two years old and was discovered. And the incredible
patience and grace that he deals with that was enormously instructive to me,
that every interaction was a possibility for compassion, for love, for
transformation.

GROSS: I read that you were banned as an Academy Award presenter back in
around 1993 after, while presenting an award, you used it as an opportunity to
condemn the Chinese government for the occupation of Tibet.

Mr. GERE: Well, no. It was slightly different than that.

GROSS: Yeah, explain what happened...

Mr. GERE: What...

GROSS: ...because I just read about it.

Mr. GERE: Well, it wasn't--I wasn't condemning. I mean, I certainly told
the truth but my approach is not--mine is, I'm inclusive. Any system that is
exclusive is doomed to failure. So my whole thing with the Chinese is that
for them to do the right thing is good for them. For them to do the wrong
thing is bad for them. Forgetting everyone else. If you have any concern for
the Chinese, they're creating a horrendous future for themselves by being not
compassionate and being bad in the present. So my approach with them is
really just to encourage them to be the best government, the best people that
they can be and to treat everyone else like brother and sisters.

GROSS: But anyway, so you used the Academy Awards as an opportunity to say
something...

Mr. GERE: Sure. Absolutely.

GROSS: ...about China. Were you warned beforehand not to do that? Or did...

Mr. GERE: I...

GROSS: ...they explain why they banned you afterwards?

Mr. GERE: I don't know why. I mean, obviously, I spoke, and the powers that
be were not pleased, which is OK with me, you know.

GROSS: Were the orchestra trying to play you off as you spoke?

Mr. GERE: No, I don't think they were. I think I went into some slightly
mad monologue about something similar to what I just said, and then I
presented some award. I even forget what it is was now, what it was. But,
look, there are six million Tibetans inside of Tibet, there are about 150,000
Tibetans who have gotten out, and they need our help.

GROSS: And just one more thing on this. Did you get a letter saying, `Dear
Richard Gere, you'll never again present on this stage'? How did they let you
know?

Mr. GERE: No, they told my agent. They said, `He will never, ever, ever be
on this stage again!' So.

GROSS: Richard Gere will be back in the second half of the show. He's
starring in the new film "The Hoax."

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

(Announcements)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Richard Gere. His new
film "The Hoax" is based on an infamous publishing hoax from 1971 when
Clifford Irving passed himself off as Howard Hughes' authorized biographer.

I want to get back to, you know, some of your films. I read that when you
were young you loved the Hercules films and, you know, like the Sampson and
Delilah kind of stuff where there's like the strong man.

Mr. GERE: I did. I always loved that, and I don't know exactly why. I
think it was just because it was myth.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Mr. GERE: The power of myth.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. GERE: And it wasn't about words, it was about--who was the...

GROSS: Steve Reid?

Mr. GERE: Gustov Moreau?

GROSS: Sorry.

Mr. GERE: Was he the great engravist--it is Gustov Moreau, I believe, who
did a wonderful epic engravings, and there's something about that that touched
me. It probably still does. I like to see--it's just kind of mythic
representations of what we are and maybe who we really are.

GROSS: I was thinking about the distance between that myth, like the Hercules
myth, and the kind of mythic representation in say "Pretty Woman" which is
this like romance myth, you know, of like...

Mr. GERE: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...you know, the hooker and the tycoon who are both kind of in the
same business in some way, but they find this kind of good essence within each
other and have plenty of money, and when they hook up, it's such a different
kind of myth than the Hercules one. Did you feel like you could connect with
that one, with the romance myth?

Mr. GERE: I wasn't a believer myself when that movie came up, and I didn't
get it at all. And the reality was someone who I did respect basically talked
me into looking at it over and over again. I still didn't get it until I met
Garry Marshall who directed it. And Garry's an especially good heart, and
there is something truly delightful and wonderful about Garry. And Garry, you
know, we didn't even talk about the movie that much. But I had a feeling that
Garry's heart was going to end up on screen. And there's a real truth to him.
I mean, it's not about the money. It's not about the jobs. It's about two
people being, in the end, fundamentally honest with themselves and each other
about who they are. They weren't cool, you know. When we're not cool is when
people fall in love with us, correct? When we're just ourselves and we're a
bit goofy and...

GROSS: This is what we hope, anyways.

Mr. GERE: Well, that's always true in my life. You know, every time that
this stuff, the idea of us is dropped, the idea of you and me is dropped then
there's a possibility of really seeing what's there. And usually there's just
a human being, and there's something delightful and--what's the word?

GROSS: Vulnerable?

Mr. GERE: Yeah, for sure vulnerable. But it's, it's nutritious...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. GERE: ...to the soul. It's nutritious to our hearts to see a human
being.

GROSS: So you say you did this movie without believing in it?

Mr. GERE: Well, I--once you get into something, of course, you make it that.
And we worked very hard to, within the structure of what it was and the style
that it was, to find a human truth there. Again, the style is a very romantic
style. This is not a gritty movie. You know, she's not a gritty hooker. You
know, this is a Disney hooker, mm-hmm.

GROSS: So after you made this movie that you didn't quite get, did everybody
want to cast you in their version of that same kind of movie that you wouldn't
quite get?

Mr. GERE: Well, yeah, everyone tried to make that movie. Everyone thought
it was easy. You know, people think that kind of a movie is easy, and it's
not. It's lightning in a bottle. And, you know, everyone tried to make
basically the same movie, and I think they all failed.

GROSS: You know...

Mr. GERE: And we even tried to make a movie after that, Julia and I, which
wasn't nearly as good.

GROSS: Which one was that?

Mr. GERE: "Runaway Bride."

GROSS: Oh, right. Sure. Sure. Sure. Now, "An Officer and a Gentleman,"
another movie that kind of struck some kind of chord, particularly because of
that last scene where you walk in to the place...

Mr. GERE: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...where Debra Winger's working, and you literally like pick her up
and sweep her off her feet, and everybody applauds and...

Mr. GERE: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...like how many times is that going to happen in real life?

Mr. GERE: I remember this story...

GROSS: But it struck this chord, yeah.

Mr. GERE: ...where Bernardo Bertolucci, who was a friend of mine, and we
were talking about doing another movie, and he said he'd seen "Officer and a
Gentleman." He said I liked the movie very much, but except the ending is very
fascist, and I kind of let it go. And then he said something else like that.
And I went, `Well, wait a minute, what do you mean fascist?' He said, `Well,
you know, when the Army comes in the factory and the workers applaud.' So
there was an element of that. I never thought it would work, and I cautioned
the director. I said let's--we don't have very much money, let's cut this
scene and shoot something else that we know is going to be in the movie. And
he said I know it's probably not, but let's shoot it anyway. So we did it
full out, and everyone, you know, filled it with the emotions that were
required. And I still was kind of skeptical, although it was a gas shooting
it. You know, it was kind of a rush shooting this scene coming into this
factory of women workers and, you know, have that vanilla ice cream naval suit
on and picked her up like Sir Galahad. And I never thought it would work, and
frankly, it wasn't working great until Taylor got the right music under it.
And then he found the right rhythm, the perfect rhythm for that music and it,
even for me it worked.

GROSS: What was the music? I don't remember what the music was.

Mr. GERE: It was the theme music of, it's "Up, Up Where You Belong." It was
that music.

GROSS: Oh, oh, oh, oh.

Mr. GERE: It was the instrumental version of that.

GROSS: Oh.

Mr. GERE: Which had been my theme music for the whole movie. But he found
the right tempo that was almost the tempo of a heart beating.

GROSS: So do you finally think it works?

Mr. GERE: Yeah. No, I do. I think--now why they work, I'm not sure. It's
magic. I don't know. I don't know. You can't make those things happen.

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

Mr. GERE: I enjoyed it.

GROSS: Richard Gere is starring in the new film "The Hoax."

Coming up a new movie comedy about a TV pilot.

This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Jeff Kasdan talks about his new TV pilot "The TV Set"
TERRY GROSS, host:

It must be pretty exciting to write a TV pilot that is getting produced. But,
according to the new movie comedy "The TV Set," it can be pretty awful, too.
Every step of the way there's another compromise to make if you want the
network executives to green light your series.

My guest, Jake Kasdan, wrote and directed "The TV Set." It stars David
Duchovny as a writer whose TV pilot is being cast and produced. He intends it
to be a dramady about a young man who is, among other things, dealing with his
brother's suicide. Here he is talking with several network executives,
including the president of the network who's played by Sigourney Weaver.

(Soundbite from "The TV Set")

Unidentified Man #1: Shall we talk about the script?

Mr. DAVID DUCHOVONY: (As Mike) Yeah.

Man #1: There's a feeling among some of us--is it absolutely necessary that
the brother commit suicide?

Mr. DUCHOVONY: (As Mike) Sorry?

Man #1: It's just so sad.

Unidentified Man #2: Yeah, I never saw this as a suicide show.

Unidentified Man #3: I see it more like a guy comes home, the town needs him
kind of show. A little "Northern Exposure," a little "Ed."

Mr. DUCHOVONY: (As Mike) You see, this is very personal to me because my
brother killed himself. That's where all this came from. And, you know, the
suicide to me has always been kind of the premise for everything that happens.

Ms. SIGOURNEY WEAVER: (As Lenny) I know, but let's just think about it for a
second. What if it weren't?

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Jake Kasdan knows what can go wrong during the piloting process. He
directed the pilots for "Freaks and Geeks" and "Undeclared," as well as a
pilot that was never broadcast. Kasdan grew up around movie sets. His father
Lawrence Kasdan directed "The Big Chill" and "Silverado."

In Jake Kasdan's new movie, two actors audition for the leading role in the
pilot. The more subtle actor, the writer's favorite, bombs. The one that is
over the top wins the enthusiastic approval of the network executives. I
asked Kasdan if he had a similar experience.

Mr. JAKE KASDAN: I've always, in fairness, ended up with somebody that I
wanted, at least the vast majority of the time. But there is something about
the way that they cast pilots that makes it difficult for certain kind of
acting and a certain kind of actor to be cast. And part of that and what we
sort of illustrate in the movie in detail is that before a lead actor is cast
in a television pilot they have to audition for a room of like 25 executives.
And the kind of acting that plays in a room like that, essentially a small,
very cold theater, is different from the kind of acting that plays best, you
know, when a camera's six inches away from your face. So the person who does
the bigger thing will often play better to the room. And I've had that happen
before where someone comes in and is kind of more obvious with the jokes or
delivery of their line, and it, you know, plays to the back of the room, as
they say, and they get the part where the quieter, subtler performance might
not.

GROSS: When you were auditioning actors for "Freaks and Geeks," and you did
the pilot of that in several episodes, so I'm assuming, maybe incorrectly,
that you were in on the auditions...

Mr. KASDAN: Yeah, I was. I was...

GROSS: ...were there executives who wanted like actors who looked like super
geeky, like too much, you know like who wanted like a Napoleon Dynamite as
opposed to an actor who would look like they would be the kind of high school
kid who would be really self-conscious and uncomfortable, but not like crazily
geeky?

Mr. KASDAN: There was a little bit of that. To be fair "Freaks and Geeks"
was a uniquely great creative experience. And we really were able to do
pretty much exactly what we wanted without a lot of resistance, I think mostly
because no one at the network believed that the show had a chance. And so
there was some attitude that it probably wouldn't be around that long, so they
would sort of let us do what we wanted. And at the pilot stage, in
particular, there was--I feel like what really happened is there was a sort of
corporate shake-up right before that pilot season at NBC, and there was sort
of no one doing the job that Sigourney's character in the movie is doing,
that--the network president who sort of has the controlling aesthetic. There
was a little less of that kind of conversation at the pilot stage, at the
casting stage. And the result is we got pretty much exactly the cast we
wanted on the show and made a pilot that people really seemed to respond to
but that was generally perceived to have very little chance commercially. And
so that combination of having--of being sort of loved by critics and perceived
to be doomed as a standing series somehow create a combination where they
would sort of let us do what we wanted with the constant looming threat of
cancellation.

GROSS: Now, what I find really sad about this is "Freaks and Geeks" was
really a terrific show, but it did get canceled. It never became popular,
although it's developed quite a cult following from the broadcasts and from
the DVD release. But it never really did well on TV, and it didn't last long
because of that.

Mr. KASDAN: No. It was the lowest rated show.

GROSS: So maybe these network executives are right, you know, that you
have...

Mr. KASDAN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...to you think if it's something that's more subtle and more funny in
a sophisticated way that it's not going to work?

Mr. KASDAN: It won't reach the audience...

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. KASDAN: ...that--you know, the thing about making a television show for
network television is that you have to reach such an enormous audience in
order justify staying on their air, you know, from a business point of view.
So we were drawing I think seven or eight million people a week and were the
lowest rated show on network television, really like number 99 or something in
the Nielsen ratings. You know, they talk about it like there's just no one
watching. But there were eight million people, and we were getting destroyed
by "Cops" every week. I mean, like not even close.

My favorite one was there was one day where the ratings came back and we were
in fourth place. And there had been a, I guess, a rain delay in a baseball
game on Fox during the playoffs, and they had put on another--a rerun of
"America's Funniest Home Videos" that had crushed us. And in the ratings it
said "Freak and Geeks" had been blown out of the water by, it said on the
rating sheet, "America's Funniest Rain Delay." So we couldn't compete with
"America's Funniest Rain Delay."

GROSS: You know, there's a lot of like corporate network speak on the part of
some of the executives in the movie.

Mr. KASDAN: Yeah.

GROSS: My favorite line is the Sigourney Weaver character, who's the
president of the network, says about one of the actress being auditioned, "She
doesn't let her cuteness get in the way of her hotness." Can you talk about
writing that line or did you actually overhear somebody say that?

Mr. KASDAN: I don't know if I've ever heard exactly that phrase, but it's
the kind of thing that people talk about and debate with incredible
seriousness in auditions. It's sort of embarrassing on the drive home. And
also it's the kind of conversation that, as a writer or, you know, director,
you can become involved in and find yourself debating their cuteness vs.
their hotness. `See, I do feel like her cuteness gets in the way of her
hotness.' You can sort of get co-opted into the conversation a little bit been
more than you expect to. And, you know, which is also part of what the movie
is about is when the landscape is that way and when they've just made a lot
more shows than you have, you know, a lot more. They're dealing with a lot
more pilots at any moment than you are, and they just have a lot more
experience. Especially like, I was, you know, "Freaks and Geeks" was my first
TV experience. And then I did some other stuff after that. But there is a
part of you that always thinks like, `Well, maybe they know something about
this that I don't know, and there was a danger that her, you know, cuteness
could get in the way of her hotness.' So you hear that kind of thing a lot.

GROSS: My guest is Jake Kasdan, director of the new film "The TV Set." Here's
a scene from the pilot of "Freaks and Geeks" which was directed by Kasdan.
The series is about a group of kids in a Michigan high school and centers
around the geeky freshman named Sam and his older sister Lindsey, a smart girl
who's friends with the kids in the freak or burnout clique. Sam was goofing
around with his friends doing Bill Murray imitations when a bigger kid comes
over and tries to rough him up until his sister intervenes.

(Soundbite from "Freaks and Geeks")

SAM: I'm weird.

Unidentified Man #5: You really like Bill Murray, don't you?

SAM: Yeah, he's great.

Man #5: Bill Murray...(censored by network)...man.

SAM: No, he doesn't. He's cool.

Man #5: Oh, really? What is he, your boyfriend? Sam Queer. It's fighting
time, weird.

SAM: Leave me alone, Allen.

Man #5: I'm sorry. I don't speak geek. I always wanted to know what it
would be like to fight a girl.

LINDSEY: I'm a girl. Want to see what it would be like to fight me?

Man #5: Weird's sister has to protect him.

LINDSEY: I'm not protecting him, just trying to figure out why it is you need
to pick fights with guys who weight less than a hundred pounds.

Unidentified Man #6: Watch out, Allen. I think she's high on pot.

LINDSEY: Yeah, I might just go psycho on you. Want to try me?

Man #5: You're dead, all right? As soon as your freak sister isn't around,
I'm going to cream you, man.

SAM: You know, you really didn't need to do that. I could have handled it.

LINDSEY: Yeah, I know.

SAM: And by the way, I weight 103 pounds.

LINDSEY: Sorry.

SAM: Man, I hate high school.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: So how often did you hear, when you were making pilots, or how often
did your friends who made pilots hear, `It's too depressing, that part of the
story, so we have to change it.'

Mr. KASDAN: All the time. I mean, it might be that I'm just drawn to
material that people find depressing. But, I mean, that was the running
conversation certainly on "Freaks and Geeks." The language that they would use
a lot of the time was, you know, `Can't they have more victories? Can't these
geeks have more victories? We want them to win. We want to see them win.
Why can't they just once get the girl?' And our thing and Paul Fig, who, you
know, it was his baby in a way, felt very strongly and was absolutely right
that, no, not even once. It ceases to be the show that it is if the geeky
little guy gets the cheerleader. And eventually we had heard it so many times
that, in that specific case, the goofy little geek kid getting the
cheerleader, we eventually came up with a really--Paul eventually came up with
a really funny sort of morbid way for him to get the cheerleader, which is
that she--he finally, after the whole season, kind of gets her attention for a
minute and they're dating as much as, you know, freshman in high school can be
dating, you know, people who can't drive. And he immediately realizes that
she doesn't get any of the jokes, and he doesn't really like her that much and
ends up breaking up with her in the next episode. So it was sort of exactly
the opposite of what the network had been requesting the whole time, which is
that there could be a moment where our kids are happy. That's really what
they're talking about is, you know, when they say victory, it's just like
something we can celebrate at home. They say a little victory. They made it
across the, you know, they made it into the end zone in some way or another.
And, you know, what we always heard and what they, in fact, meant is this is
depressing. And there was stuff like that on "Undeclared," throughout
certainly in the "Zero Effect" pilot. That was sort of a running issue there,
too. Yeah, I'm always hearing that things are too depressing.

GROSS: Well, you know, you're talking about the pilots of "Freaks and Geeks,"
there is a kind of semi victory moment, like one of the geeky kids asks the
taller, really pretty girl to dance at the prom. And she accepts...

Mr. KASDAN: Yes, I think that's his one dance. That's right.

GROSS: Well, no--but the thing is, you know, it's like a slow dance. and he
takes this long walk with her across the far end of the dance floor and just
as he hold out his arms for her to dance, like, the band changes into
something up tempo and, of course, he can't dance fast so it's really like
humiliating for him. Although he does end up dancing fast.

Mr. KASDAN: Yeah. That's the kind of victory we like, like very small
victories with a lot of conditions on them and some large comic conceit that
makes it a little bit embarrassing and funny.

GROSS: My guest is Jake Kasdan, who's new movie is "The TV Set." More after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is Jake Kasdan, and he wrote and directed the new film "The
TV Set," which stars David Duchovony as a television writer who's in the
process of auditioning and shooting a pilot for a new series that he's
proposed.

You know, you're speaking to us now from the soundstage of the movie that
you're making. And the movie that you're making now is, from what I've read,
a satire of music bio pics like "Walk the Line," the movie about Johnny Cash,
and "Ray," the movie about Ray Charles. It sounds like a great idea for a
film. Why did you want to satirize music bio pics?

Mr. KASDAN: It's music bio pics and also just sort of the bio pick, great
men, kind of movies in general. I guess I'm a sucker for those movies, and I
go to see all of them like the week they come out. And you go and there's
always something to me kind of mesmerizing about those movies. A lot of times
it's the music, and a lot of times it's--well, almost always there's a--well,
really every single time there's a central performance, whoever's playing the
guy doing a sort of incredible tour de force performance, the role they were
born to play. And then there's also a way that these movies start to get sort
of similar to each other that I thought was kind of funny, which is that
namely from humble beginnings a genius emerges, spends their life wrestling
with a childhood trauma, usually the death of a relative, their, you know,
struggle that they're working out through their music as they're also breaking
musical ground, fighting addiction...

GROSS: Right.

Mr. KASDAN: ...marrying, divorcing, marrying, divorcing, fighting another
addiction.

GROSS: Rehab, yeah.

Mr. KASDAN: Rising, falling, rising, falling again. And I don't know, it
was a moment of, it would be funny to make a fake bio pic was essentially the
idea. And it should be called "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story." That was the
entire initial idea. I mentioned it to Judd Apatow, who I've worked with a
lot, and he's a really good friend of mine. I mentioned it to him in kind of
passing, and he got excited about it and called me up a couple of days later
and said, `I think we should actually do this. Let's write it together and
then go make it.' And that launched this thing, which has been great fun and
fun to do. John C. Reilly is playing the title part. We're about halfway
through shooting. But this particular goofy idea has the funny caveat which
is because it's not a real person and the genre that we're sort of playing
with is completely dependent on the original music of the person being
depicted, we had to generate a whole canon of his hits. So we spent like six
months prior to the beginning of shooting developing, writing, recording all
this original music that John sings, 35 original songs that he's tracked.

GROSS: What genre are they?

Mr. KASDAN: The character starts out kind of, you know, in the--well, John
plays the role from the age of 14 to the age of 80. And so he starts in high
school and, you know, it sort of follows him through the '50s where he's kind
of a Roy Orbison, Buddy Holly, Waylon Jennings kind of composite, which is a
big--that's kind of a wide swath right there. And then it sort of continues
through the '60s, and he goes through sort of a political period and then sort
of, you know, psychedelic, you know, playing with orchestras and sounds and,
you know, through the '70s where he has a television variety show, and sort of
tracks his entire life. So he's a cross genre hybrid.

GROSS: Oh, great. Good luck with the movie you're working on now and with
"The TV Set." Thanks so much for talking with us.

Mr. KASDAN: Thanks for talking to me, Terry. I love your show.

GROSS: Jake Kasdan wrote and directed the new movie "The TV Set."

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

52:30

A more moderate Taliban? An Afghan journalist says nothing has changed

Afghan British journalist Najibullah Quraishi has had trouble sleeping for more than two hours a stretch ever since the U.S. withdrew troops from Afghanistan in August and the Taliban came back into power. Quraishi grew up in Afghanistan under Soviet and Taliban rule, and began reporting on the Taliban before the Sept. 11, 2001, al-Qaida attacks and the onset of the U.S. Afghan war. He's currently in Kabul reporting for his upcoming PBS Frontline documentary, Taliban Takeover, (airing Oct. 12) which details life in Afghanistan now.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue