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A Russian Composer's Soundtrack Work Reveals His Humorous Side

Classical music critic reviews "Movie Madness," which features excerpts from the film music of Dmitri Shostakovich. (Capriccio)

05:46

Other segments from the episode on October 6, 1998

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 6, 1998: Interview with John Ridley; Review of Dmitri Shostakovich's album "Movie Madness"; Interview with Stanley Tucci; Review of the CD box set "Nuggets:…

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: OCTOBER 06, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 100601np.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: John Ridley
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest John Ridley used to be a stand up comic. Then he wrote for such sitcoms as "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," "Martin," and "The John Laroquette Show." Now he's becoming known for his novels and movies. He wrote and directed the film "Cold Around the Heart."

He adapted his novel "Stray Dogs" into the screenplay for "U-Turn", which was directed by Oliver Stone and starred Sean Penn. Like "Stray Dogs," Ridley's new novel, "Love is a Racket," is a humorous homage to film noir. It's about an ex-wannabe screenwriter who has resorted to making a living with small time con games. As the novel opens, he is $15,000 in debt to a loan shark. And the loan shark is giving the kind of urgent reminder that loan sharks are famous for.

JOHN RIDLEY, NOVELIST AND SCREENWRITER (READING FROM "LOVE IS A RACKETT": "Crop was the sound that I heard. Heard it twice. Crop! Crop! One time each for my two fingers that got broke. I heard my bones pop before I felt anything. Gunshots loud, they echoed in my ears. Maybe that was tip off that what had just happened was gonna hurt like hell. Wrong. It hurt so bad I didn't feel a thing.

"The hands that held me, Ty's hands, big like bear claws, strong like presses, let me go. I twisted to the ground, slow, the way a snowman melts. Couldn't help from going down. Something about having body parts mangled that messes with your lucidity. I gave that a lot of thought as I lay on the hard dirty pavement that felt featherbed comfy to my screwed up senses. If I slept a million years in this outdoor bedroom I couldn't care less.

"'Sorry, Chefty,' Ty said from somewhere above me.

"He meant it, too. I could hear it in his voice. It almost made me feel guilty. It almost made me feel like even though he just busted my fingers, somehow I was the bad guy.

"All Dumas had to add to things was, 'Let's see if we can't get me my money, do you know, Chefty.'

"I heard the two of them walk away. I heard them get in their Benz and drive off, the sound seemed to drift from the other side of the planet. I was alone. On the ground. In an alley. I thought about getting up, but the growing throb in my swelling fingers told me otherwise. It said I should relax, take a rest, pass out for a while. Why not? I didn't have any plans, nowhere to go except a little further down in life than I already was, and there was plenty of time for that. I got cozy with the dirt and rubbish and remained undisturbed.

People passed by the lip of the alley, but they paid me no mind. Just another black man stretched out and near some garbage cans, so what? So nothing. So life went on around me. I took my fingers' advice and went to sleep. Later, I came to. The same throbbing in my fingers that passed me out, woke me up. Except sometime during my mini-coma the dull pain had gone through a metamorphosis into full-on agony, agony that instructed me in the strongest possible terms to get to a hospital. Hospital. That's what I thought. Free clinic is what I meant.

GROSS: That's John Ridley reading from his new novel "Love Is A Rackett." The main character's a small-time con man who, at once, who earlier in his life tried to be a screenwriter and gave up on that. Why did you want to make this con man a former would-be screenwriter?

RIDLEY: Well, it's interesting. In the original drafts he knew a lot about Hollywood, and he had a lot of angst against Hollywood, but he wasn't a screenwriter. And it wasn't until I sat down and worked with my editor, that he really sort of said to me: you know, there's something else going on here, and you, really, to find this character, you sort of need to flush it out.

And as I was going through the story again, I really realized that this is a guy who at been roughed up by Hollywood. He was stuck there, someone who had really --really had a hard time, and had an ax to grind, and, of course, someone who like myself has sort of been through the Hollywood grinder. I started to realize that in a way this character was a lot more like me than I think I wanted to fess up in some of the early drafts. And that really is one of the great things about working with an editor coming in -- having someone come in with a fresh perspective. They can help you find something that was in the story, but wasn't really articulated as well as it could be.

GROSS: What are some of the small-time cons that you have come up with for your character?

RIDLEY: Well, this guy, he plays the short con. And the short con is usually just trying to cheat people out of their money, say $5 or $10 at a time. You go to small mom and pop stores, and you try to do a fast con on them, or you try to get change from them to confuse them to the point where you get $5 or $10 back. It's not a lot of money. And actually, my sister used to work at a dry cleaners, and somebody ran that con on her once.

And you do, you get maybe $5 or $10; you can't really con people for a lot of money when you do the short con. So you have to work constantly and have to work all day long to make $50 or maybe a $100, at best.

And it's sort of an interesting life because you're not making a lot of money, but you sort of live for the con because you would rather do that than do anything else. And there are times in the story where people call Chefty on that, and say look for all the work you're doing why don't you go out and get a job where you can make some real money. But the guy's a con man at heart.

You also have a -- you know, we have card players, and we have gamblers, and we have a lot of people just sort of working up that low end of bringing any kind of money in. And to me that's fascinating: that people would rather be cons and card players than work for a living. To them, that's a better life, no matter that they might be getting their fingers broken.

GROSS: Now your characters live in, you know, the kind of low rent part of Hollywood that you described as stinking of desperation.

RIDLEY: Yeah.

GROSS: Have you lived in neighborhoods like that yourself?

RIDLEY: I did, when I first came out here, I lived on Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood. And when I first came out here it almost sounded cool, you live on Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood.

But as life goes on you realize that it really is a desperate place. And it really is a place where people end up when nothing else works out for them. And it's just people who want, you know, they want to be famous, or they want to be rich, or they want to just be artists, or they want a round of applause at the end of the day.

But they want something, and they can't get it. It's a really awful place. Especially when you realize that most people who don't really know Los Angeles or have never been out here, they talk about: yeah, I'd love go and I'd love to see Hollywood. Or you see the tourist bus -- buses pull up in front of the Chinese Theater; people take pictures, get on the bus, and get out of there as fast as they possibly can.

To me, it's a very sad place. I think it's sad, and I have a line about this in the book, because the weather is so nice. You know, you have beautiful sunshine and palm trees, but there are people who just want to make it through to the end of the day. It's to me, heartbreaking.

GROSS: Now you grew up in Wisconsin, then moved to New York, and then went to Los Angeles. Hoping at first to be a stand up comic.

RIDLEY: Yes.

GROSS: What was your material like then?

RIDLEY: It was, at that time, when I first moved out here it was moving in the sort of, not really political comedy, but it was more social comedy. It was more comments about things that were going on. I had a joke right about that time about, it was right after right about when President Clinton was pushing for gays to be allowed in the military. And I said: you know, a lot of people are upset about that -- and my line was something, like: well, I think gays shouldn't have to go to the military. I don't think gays, Blacks, or women should have to serve. It should just be, you know, middle class White guys whose parents make more than $100,000 a year. I have no problem with that, if they want to go to foreign countries and get shot at.

So it wasn't strictly political, but it was more sort of that, you know, sort of taking what society is thinking and tried to find, you know, the flip to it. If they don't want gays in the military, great. If they don't want Blacks in the military, that's fine. Things like that. It was sort of -- it's interesting, I think when your -- my feeling was when you're sort of a young Black guy and you're been very articulate and sharp about politics, you don't really get as much play as if you were sort of like the Def Comedy Jam comedian that people, you know, it's -- laugh and it's funny. But it's sort of not quite threatening because that's what you think the Black guy should be talking about.

Certainly, you don't get to a point where people don't look at you and say: hey, we're going to build a sitcom around this guy. So that's pretty much when I started writing.

GROSS: So you went on to write for television sitcoms?

RIDLEY: I was writing for television. I was writing for the "Martin" show, and "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," and I wrote for the "John Larroquette Show." And I'm actually writing again now in TV drama. I'm writing on a new drama that's going to be on this fall on NBC, called "Trinity." But when I was on the "Fresh Prince" is actually when I started writing "Love Is A Rackett."

And it was a very difficult show to write for. It was a very popular show, but at the same time it was very narrow focused and the type of writing we were doing, you know, it was usually, you know, the fat joke, and kind of a short joke, and a dumb joke about the characters. And that was it.

It was very hard for me because the one -- on the one hand I was making a good deal of money and I had respect in television, but I wasn't happy with what I was doing. And I used to lock myself in the office and start writing this novel, which was "Love Is A Rackett." At the time I really thought it was probably never going to go anywhere and no one would ever see it. But it really made me feel good. I mean it was my life preserver in a way.

GROSS: Why did the noir style of storytelling appeal to you?

RIDLEY: I think that goes way back, when I was younger. I was in --maybe a freshman in high school, I started reading Chandler. And I was younger then that the first time I saw a noir film, "Double Indemnity."

And it was just a, really, it was a so, so rich period, you know, when you were a kid and you watch Disney movies you see the sort of happy movies. And they're all nice and they're what children should be watching. But one day you stumble on something that's black and white and people.

I remember the end scene in "Double Indemnity" when Fred MacMurray is talking with Barbara Stanwyck, and she is going on about how she loves him. And he says: I'm not buying it, baby.

And then he shoots her. And it's just -- you know, to me it was like taking drugs for the first time. It just took you to a place that you had never been before. And I fell in love with that.

And then when you read Chandler, and he's talking about Los Angeles -- and I had never been at the time -- but this place that is just so dark and strange. And you know, that he has this love-hate relationship with it. It's really powerful. It certainly was powerful for me, at least.

I thought it was just -- instead of looking at the world and accepting everything that you see -- noir is certainly cyncical. And it was interesting to me that these people could not accept everything they see, and could see it for being harsh and dark and hard, but at the same time, find these little gems, that to me, meant a little bit more, because they were gems in a very dark place. It's like digging up diamonds; the rocks around you are all dark and dirty, but there's that one thing that glitters. And it glitters a little bit more brightly, because it does shine in the darkness.

GROSS: My guest is John Ridley. His new novel is called "Love Is A Racket."

BREAK

GROSS: Back with comic, screenwriter and novelist John Ridley.

Now, you write a -- a comic version of noir. For example, in "Stray Dogs," your novel that was adapted into the movie "U-Turn," it's really a comic twist on the loner who comes to a new town and is set up in some kind of blackmail or murder plot. In your novel, every step he takes he meets another crazy, sinister character who's abusing him or setting him up. There's always a woman who's sitting down next to him, and next minute he's beaten up by her boyfriend who's just walked in the door and assuming that they're having an affair; which, of course, they're not. How did you come up with the premise for that?

RIDLEY: Well, you know, you think, I certainly love noir. But I think that if you just go in and you take sort of a straight ahead approach, you're really sort of setting yourself up. I mean, people have done it and done it so well, how are you going to compete with Chandler or Thompson or Cain, people like this. You really can't. And for me, I was a standup comedian, I had written sitcoms, and I was -- I had a funny bone. I didn't want it to be a straight out-and-out comedy, but I certainly wanted to have a lighter touch, and sort of a dark comic touch.

And, also, I think with "Stray Dogs," as a guy who was a comedian, had been on the road and traveled to a lot of small towns, and had a lot of sort of odd incidents, I definitely wanted to draw from a semi-real place. These were all much more hyperbolic than anything that ever happened to me. But that feeling -- and I think we've all had that feeling, maybe in a small sense or a large sense. You get trapped in an airport, and you can't get out of it if there's a snowstorm and all the shops are closed, and you just feel like the world is closing in on you. Or you're somewhere and your car breaks down, and you just want to get out of that town.

I just wanted to take that feeling and put kind of a comic spin on it, so that people could enjoy it without being beaten up every minute by a very morose tale.

Noir, I think, is hard for a lot of people to take because it is tough, and it is, you know, a downer -- everybody's down. This story you can read, and you can have a little bit of fun with it. I always say: you know it's fun, it's fun, and it's funny, and then the bodies start adding up at the end.

GROSS: There's a scene I want to play from "U-Turn." This is a scene where Sean Penn, the stranger in the small town, is going from one mishap to another; from one, like, abusive stranger to another. And now he's in a diner, and, of course, they don't have what he wants to order. And he's sitting down, just kind of being astonished at how bad his luck is. Then Clare Danes comes over and sits down nest to him and starts flirting with him; then her boyfriend, played by Joaquin Phoenix, walks in the door.

Phoenix assumes that Sean Penn is trying to make it with his girlfriend, Clare Danes. And here's what happens.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- "U-TURN")

JOAQUIN PHOENIX, ACTOR: Now, I'm seeing. But I'm not believing. Mister, what do you think you're doing with my girl? Did you hear? I asked you a question.

CLARE DANES, ACTRESS: Toby, he wasn't doin' nothin'. Now we was just talkin'.

PHOENIX: Shut your mouth, girl. Get back over to that table. Mister, don't make me ask you again. What do you think you're doing with my girl?

SEAN PENN, ACTOR: I wasn't doing anything.

PHOENIX: Uh-huh. Well, that's not the way it looked to me. It looked to me like you were trying to make time with her.

PENN: Make time with her? Is everybody in this town on drugs?

DANES: Honest, Toby. I just asked him for a quarter. For the jukebox.

PHOENIX: Girl, shut your mouth. Look here, mister. You and me got a little man's business to take care of. And, no, I ain't never taken no drugs.

PENN: Well, maybe you should. Now look, I wasn't trying to make tme with your girl. OK?

PHOENIX: Mister, I'm calling you out.

PENN: You want to fight? Over her.

PHOENIX: I don't think you know who I am. The name's Toby N. Tucker. Peole 'round here call me TNT. You know why?

PENN: Umm. They're not very imaginative?

PHOENIX: 'Cause I'm just like dynamite, boy. And when I go off somebody gets hurt!

PENN: Fine. I was trying to make time with your girl tonight. And now I'm terrified, and I've learned my lesson, and you can go away. Jesus Christ.

GROSS: That's a funny scene. And I think I particularly like the part where -- where Phoenix describes why people call him "TNT," and Sean Penn points out what a cliche this is. And that's something that kind of comes up in your fiction -- where somebody says something and the main character realizes: this is a real cliche.

And I figure that's what you're up against a lot as a writer -- a lot of people say things to you and you're thinking: boy, that's -- that's really a cliche.

RIDLEY: I -- you know, I -- you're right. I mean, I think there are those times when you're writing something and not -- I certainly don't go into it to write like: OK, I'm going to do this and claim it and therefore get away with it. But there's so many times when you write something; for example, in "Love is a Racket" I got one review where they compared the entire book to "The Grifters" by Jim Thompson because both the lead character in this story and the lead character in "The Grifters" played the short con.

And out of everything that happens in both books, it boils down to this comparison that they're both "con" people, and therefore they dismissed "Love is a Racket." So you're always up against people's perception of what you're doing and how you're playing things out.

And there are a couple of times where I certainly am writing something and I'm thinking: OK, you know, no matter what I do with this, somebody's going to look at it and think this, so you know, let me think it for them, and therefore mitigate what they're going to say.

So it's -- but I don't think you can spend your life second-guessing your critics and things like that, but it's -- it, I think no matter what you do, if somebody is not going to like what you do, they're going to find a reason to not like it. So all you can do is go out and have a little bit of fun with it.

It's interesting about that scene. I really love that scene in the book and I also like the way it turned out in the movie. And it was -- that scene actually really happened to me once when I was at a club...

GROSS: Oh, really?

RIDLEY: ... in Kalamazoo, Michigan. I was at a bar. I was hanging out, and this girl comes up to me and just starts putting on the full press. And you know, you're a young guy and you're alone at a bar in the middle of nowhere. You're just impressed as heck. And, I mean, I was having a great time with her, and I left the bar. And the bartender, who had been serving me drinks that whole time that I was sitting there, came out -- and he's a nice guy and I've been talking to him, too -- he just came over to me and goes: "Oh, hey, by the way, that girl you were flirting with all night, that was my girlfriend."

And she apparently went into bars and did that; went into this bar and did that a lot with guys, in front of him, just to piss this guy off. And I was very fortunate -- he was a nice guy and he was used to it, and wasn't trying to beat the heck out of me. But it was -- that was something that really stuck with me and I -- that's the reason I put it in the book.

GROSS: Well, I have one more question for you, and this is a test...

RIDLEY: Surely.

GROSS: ... of your ethics.

RIDLEY: Yeah? Oh.

GROSS: You had to learn a lot of short cons in order to put them in your novel, because your character's a con man. Did you practice any of them to test them out before writing them?

RIDLEY: I never -- well, you know what, I did not practice the short con. I will tell you something that I hope I cannot be prosecuted for. And there was something I used to do because I wanted -- I don't know why I did it, really -- but I used to -- and this was when I was making really good money, too. I used to go into these really -- we have big supermarkets out here. I don't want to say which one it was, but they're open 24 hours.

And so you go in very, very late and it's -- it's -- nobody's there and people are stocking. Nobody's paying attention. I used to steal magazines. I would always steal one magazine out of the store, just because I wanted -- I wanted to do it. I wanted to get away with it. I wanted that feeling of stealing something.

I'll tell you the last time it happened. I was stealing a magazine our of the store, and I was standing in line and I had it tucked under my jacket. I was holding it there with one hand, waiting for a checkout person because there was nobody there because it was so late. These two LAPD cops come up behind me and are standing in line. And so I'm standing there with this magazine that clearly I'm lifting, and at first I thought they were coming straight to bust me. Then they're standing there to buy something. And I'm waiting for a checkout person; you have this incredibly long minute with these cops that are there that could easily bust you.

And I -- it was great for me because I would certainly never commit a large crime. But I think it's very hard to write about these things if you don't have this moment where you feel what it's like to be hunted or wanted by the police. And it was a great experience: one, because it certainly got me over that desire to lift things, for whatever reason; but two, just to be in that place where I put my characters, and to be able to really experience that emotion.

So I do have that. I do have that. So I fess up to it, and I'll probably be getting a knock on the door later in the day.

GROSS: I'm making a few phone calls as soon as I get done.

LAUGHTER

RIDLEY: Right. I know. Well, it was -- I can say it was seven years ago, so I can't be prosecuted for it, so it's an omission.

GROSS: Where do you think this compulsion came from to -- to steal magazines?

RIDLEY: I think it's cheap to write about something that you don't have any -- you don't have any relation to. And to write about crime and to write about bad things -- I don't ever want to go out and commit a real crime. I don't want to commit a felony. I don't want to go to jail.

GROSS: So you think you were doing this as a writer?

RIDLEY: I think I was doing it as a writer, but not necessarily as a writing exercise, but as someone who's into noir and into the dark side. And I had a friend who kept telling me, he said: man, one day you're going to get caught and no one's going to have any sympathy for you because you write for television. And it's going to be the most embarrassing thing in the world -- "television writer gets nabbed stealing a $2 magazine."

LAUGHTER

You know? I mean, what do you say? It's not like: hey, I had to feed my family -- or I don't have a job or anything like that.

But I had to know. I had to have that feeling of getting away with something, and it was, I think, perfect that the police showed up right behind me. And to have to sit there and sweat it out for a second. And again, I don't ever want to sweat out, you know: are the police going to catch me for killing somebody or robbing jewels?

But to be able to transpose my feelings into my characters, it's -- you know, you've gotta make that leap just a little bit, but it's certainly much smaller now than just, OK, I'm sitting in my apartment or my house and I'm making it up.

So it was -- it was a great experiment. It was a terrific experiment. I'm completely over it. I don't recommend it and I'm not advocating a life of crime to anybody under any circumstances. But you know the old adage: You gotta write about what you know. Well, now I know, so I can write about it.

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

RIDLEY: Oh, thank you very much for having me. It's been a pleasure.

GROSS: John Ridley's new novel is called "Love is a Racket."

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may notbe in its final form and may be updated.TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 888-NPR-NEWSDateline: Terry Gross, PhiladelphiaGuest: John RidleyHigh: Novelist and screenwriter John Ridley. He's written for the sitcoms "Martin," "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," and "The John Larroquette Show." He also wrote the screenplay for "U-Turn," directed by Oliver Stone and starring Sean Penn. He's also a former stand-up comic. His latest work is a novel, "Love is a Racket."Spec: John Ridley; Media; Entertainment; Television and Radio Please note, this is not the final feed of Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 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: John Ridley

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: OCTOBER 06, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 100603NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Stanley Tucci
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:40

TERRY GROSS, HOST: After a career of playing heavies, Stanley Tucci showed his versatility by co-writing, co-directing, and staring in "Big Night." This film, a comedy set in an Italian restaurant, became an art house hit.

He's followed that up with a new film farce which he wrote, directed, co-produced and stars in. It's called "The Impostors."

When the film begins, Tucci and co-star Oliver Platt are two out of work actors who are completely broke. Through a series of comedic twists they end up with free tickets to a play staring a famous hammy actor whose success they resent.

After the play, they go to a bar where they mock the actor without realizing he's there. A ball -- a brawl breaks out, a chase ensues, and they end up hiding in a crate on a dock. The next morning they find they've been loaded onto a fancy cruise ship which is getting ready to leave port. They're discovered by the head stewardess, played by Lili Taylor.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- "THE IMPOSTERS")

LILI TAYLOR, ACTRESS: OK, who are you?

UNKNOWN: We're actors.

TAYLOR: Actors?

UNKNOWN: Just actors.

TAYLOR: Would I've seen you in anything?

UNKNOWN: Possible.

TAYLOR: Movie actors?

UNKNOWN: Not yet.

UNKNOWN: Jane? Put it in third scene.

UNKNOWN: We're at the theater.

UNKNOWN: Saving (unintelligible).

TAYLOR: OK. Why are you stowaways?

UNKNOWN: We're not. We hid in a crate last night...

UNKNOWN: Escaping from the police...

UNKNOWN: ... for something that we did to that man back there that was an accident...

UNKNOWN: We didn't do it.

TAYLOR: He's famous; he's an actor.

UNKNOWN: He's overrated.

TAYLOR: Oh, you're the ones he was talking about.

UNKNOWN: Yeah, but we're innocent. I swear we didn't do anything...

UNKNOWN: We're completely innocent. We couldn't hurt a fly.

UNKNOWN: It was an accident.

UNKNOWN: He over-reacted.

UNKNOWN: He's a big baby.

UNKNOWN: We were at a bar; we drank too much...

UNKNOWN: We were at a bar, and I was just...

UNKNOWN: Admittedly so, admittedly so. But I just was...

UNKNOWN: And next thing an opinion -- and he attacked us.

UNKNOWN: The man is an animal. He almost killed us. Please, you have to help us get off this boat. We'll to anything for you, please.

UNKNOWN: Please help us get off this boat and take us home, would you please take us home?

GROSS: But they don't get off the ship, and they're forced to use their acting skills to assume various false identities in order to save their lives.

The cast on this loony cruise includes Campbell Scott, Isabella Rosselini, Steve Buscemi and Alfred Molina.

Tucci says he wrote the two leading roles with himself and Oliver Platt in mind.

STANLEY TUCCI, ACTOR DIRECTOR, AND WRITER: Oliver and I did a play together about 10 years ago at the Yale Rep and it was -- it was really how we got to know each other and became fast friends. And we used to do these improvisationals just sort of ridiculous improvisational exercises before going on stage, and we created these two characters. We came up with the idea of two unemployed actors who would do anything they could to act to maintain some sort of emotional stability.

So that was the sort of seed of the thing.

GROSS: Well, this movie is a farce. Stan, tell us what a farce actually is. I think it's a word we all throw around without knowing exactly what it means.

TUCCI: I know I throw it around, too. And I really don't know what it means, either to, tell you the truth. I mean, I've done it on stage and I've done it on film periodically or things that are semi farcical. This is at times a pure farce.

I think for farce to exist I think it's helpful to have an enclosed space. In this instance we have a ship, and people cannot get off of this ship. There were no helicopters in those days in the '30s, you know, the time it was set. That's helpful. I think it's good to have usually three people, at least three people, and lots of secrets.

GROSS: I think of a farce, too, as being a story in which every action has an unintended reaction or consequence. And so...

LAUGHTER

GROSS: ... there's kind of like whole chain reaction of unintended consequences that are very funny.

TUCCI: Right. Yes, that's either a farce or a tragedy. I'm not sure which.

LAUGHTER

GROSS: That is true.

LAUGHTER

TUCCI: I mean, the thing is I think they are so similar. If you look at the structure of farce, and then you look at the structure of a tragedy, it really is very much the same thing.

I wonder if you couldn't actually take a script and shoot it first as a drama and then take exactly the same script and shoot it as a comedy and never change a word.

GROSS: Well, there would be less people walking into each other in the tragedy.

LAUGHTER

TUCCI: Right, that's right.

LAUGHTER

GROSS: Less doors opening at the wrong moment and so on...

TUCCI: Right, right. Things like that.

GROSS: When the movie opens, you and Oliver Platt are two out of work actors -- well, two actors who never had much work to begin with, and you can't get a job but you can use your acting skills to impersonate other people, and you end up doing that aboard ship because you start off as stowaways in a situation...

TUCCI: Right.

GROSS: ... that I won't even bother to go into 'cause it's so complicated...

LAUGHTER

TUCCI: It's so complicated it's ridiculous...

GROSS: ... and so filled of surprises that I just assume not give it away.

Anyways, but in an incident even before you get on the ship, you impersonate other people in the hopes of kind of conning somebody out of some food.

I've always wondered if actors do that. If actors try to pretend that they're somebody else. If they use their acting skills to get anything they need whether it's to -- giving an officer an excuses when he's trying to write you up a parking ticket or...

LAUGHTER

GROSS: ... getting a favor from a stranger or -- you know whatever. Have you ever done that?

TUCCI: I think so to a certain extent. I mean, certainly never to the extent that these poor fellows do it. But I think you do try to use those tools maybe the tools of status that I learned actually that would -- that sort of lay down in this book called "Impro" by Keith Johnstone on how you raise and lower your status.

I mean, I think you use those tools to a certain extent, but you can only change who you are so much at the drop of a hat, I think.

GROSS: Now, we talked about this once before about these -- the rules of status that you use...

TUCCI: Yeah, I think so, yeah.

GROSS: Yeah, but I want you to just go over that a little bit again 'cause I have a couple of questions I want to ask you about that.

TUCCI: Well, it's based on what is -- there's two steps: you have high status and you have low status, and a low status person is somebody who maybe talks very quickly and gestures quite a bit and averts their eyes from the person they're talking to. Maybe hangs their head low or something, shuffles along. That would be extreme low status.

And the high status is someone who's quite still, looks you straight in the eye, speaks very slowly and clearly and distinctly and is unmoved seemingly by anything that you say. Those are the two sort of extreme statuses.

And characters exist anywhere in -- you know in between those two. It's a matter of finding -- when you do a play or a film what status your character is to -- at any given moment.

GROSS: Now...

TUCCI: And if well-written it should change appropriately.

GROSS: ... what's interesting to me is that some of the characters that you first became famous for were the heavies who had so much power...

TUCCI: Yeah.

GROSS: ... that they were high status people. They didn't have to move...

TUCCI: Right.

GROSS: ... a lot or, you know, a little eye gesture, you know, a motion could intimidate somebody...

TUCCI: Right.

GROSS: ... and in "The Impostors" you're so kind of in -- the character is so, like, insecure and unsure of his place in the world that he's...

TUCCI: Right.

GROSS: ... he's kind of slouched a lot of the time and motioning a lot of the time and...

TUCCI: Right, right.

GROSS: ... obviously really unsure of himself.

TUCCI: Right. Yes, yes. That was easy for me.

GROSS: Well, it's funny the more famous you get...

LAUGHTER

GROSS: ... now you're playing the lower status people. It's -- it's...

TUCCI: Right, I know. I think that...

GROSS: ... it's often the other way around.

TUCCI: I know see that's what happens and I think that a lot of actors they want to play high status characters because it's very sort of satisfying. You're in control and so on and so forth, and you see -- people who are movie stars they always play high status characters.

GROSS: Right.

TUCCI: It's really very boring, you know, and then you have the "character actors" who play the lower status character, you know, a lot of the time and it's not as -- or some movie stars make a career of playing low status characters -- comic low status characters. It's much more interesting, to me, to be able to do all of it, I mean, that's what I was trained to do and that's what acting is all about.

I -- to have the opportunity to play a really low status character is enormously satisfying, because -- especially someone who is -- playing someone who is an actor because then he changes the status when he needs to change it. So it's very satisfying.

GROSS: Stanley Tucci is my guest and he wrote, directed, and produced the new movie "The Impostors."

Now, "Big Night," I think was a pretty big success, certainly in the art house circuit. And I know it played in Philadelphia a long time and was very popular here...

TUCCI: Yes.

GROSS: ... where I live, so one of the reasons, as I recall, that you made that movie in the first place was to write a role for yourself that was different than the role anybody else was gonna to give you because they all thought of you as being the heavy. And you wanted to do, you know, a different kind of role. So did that open up doors for you? Did it get people to perceive you in a different way?

TUCCI: Yes, it did very much so. I was doing "Murder One" also at the same time that I was actually editing "Big Night," so that they were viewed by the -- by most people about the same time. And both of those roles, for different reasons I think, opened people's eyes and put me in a different position, which was really nice, I mean, it's something that you hope will happen. That you don't just get offered the sort of heavy mafiosi any more and that you will be taken seriously as somebody who can do a variety of things, and those roles seem to do that and I was very happy about that.

GROSS: And did that make it easier for you to get backing for your new film -- the success of "Big Night?"

TUCCI: No, in fact, not at all. I mean, people were -- had no problems seeing me as a director after "Big Night," but the difficulty was that this was a farce and I wrote on the -- you know the cover page I wrote a farce by Stanley Tucci, and it was a huge mistake. It was as though I had written, you know, "The Plague" ...

LAUGHTER

TUCCI: ... by Stanley Tucci. Nobody wanted to make this movie. They said: farce does not work on film. You can't do it. Nobody's done it in 40 years. Every farce that tries to make it, it's a failure. And Lindsey Law (ph) at Fox Search Light and Fowdie Lewis (ph) were the only people in North America who really would make this film and let me make it the way I wanted to make it.

GROSS: Let's examine this preconception, "farce does not work on film." Why would people think that?

TUCCI: I think because attempts at it, as of late, were relatively unsuccessful. For what reason I don't really know.

I think that -- I tried to assemble all the elements that I felt were important to make a farce work and mostly that being a script that was fairly tight but also actors who were trained in the theater and who had an understanding of the genre. And because I have done it myself on stage and I know when it fails and I know when it succeeds I think that makes a big -- I think that makes a big difference.

Because I think in a lot of films that were made earlier, farces, they were made by people who came from the theater, and I think that affects how you make that film.

GROSS: When you were writing this did you have to have almost a map of what every action and reaction was going to be so that you can work your way from the beginning to the end?

TUCCI: Yes, in a way. I think that one of the key things to farce is that it must be very logical and I think a lot of the times perhaps the reasons that movies have failed that have attempted to be farcical is that they concentrate too much on the gags as opposed to the logic of getting to the gag.

The gag has to come out of the situation which has to come out of the character's need.

So if those -- if that logic is in place, and you stick to that basic tenant it should work, otherwise, if you try to impose a gag on a situation or on a character it won't be funny. It'll be funny for a second but it won't really add up to anything in the end.

GROSS: Right.

TUCCI: That's the hard part of it.

GROSS: When you have a lot of friends, as you did on this film, working in your own production, does it make you nervous in a way because after all you have to meet payroll to pay them, you have to, you know, if the movie is bad it will make all your friends look bad...

LAUGHTER

GROSS: ... you're directing them and you have to kind of pay attention to their egos as well as to their performance. These are not perfect positions to be in with friends.

TUCCI: No, I know. That's why they're no longer my friends.

LAUGHTER

TUCCI: No, I'm only kidding. No, it's -- yes it was a very -- when I started I was very sort of relaxed and there was a certain point during shooting when I thought these people are so talented, they're so good, they've gone way beyond my expectations. I must make a -- I really have to make a film here that is worthy of them. And I got very nervous at one point, and then during the editing process it -- that feeling came back again and it was very scary.

I feel now that the film does work, and I have showed it to most of them and they feel that the film works too.

The hard part was cutting things out that they did that I really cherish and I hope -- what I hope to do is to work with these people again in a lot of different capacities and making a lot of different films in a lot of different genres and then we can explore things that maybe we touched on in one film but weren't able to keep or complete and then we can bring them into another film.

GROSS: Is it hard to have to be the boss, so to speak, on a set with a lot of friends with whom you probably feel you're all equals, but this isn't a sit -- this is a situation where you can't just be the equal, you have to be the leader?

TUCCI: I know, yeah. It was a little nerve-racking, and there were times when I really just wanted to hang around with them. I didn't -- they were having such a good time that...

GROSS: Which you, I'm sure, had to interrupt to...

LAUGHTER

TUCCI: I did I had to -- one day I had to, like, yell at them and say: come on guys, you know, we really have to -- and they were all giggling and laughing so much. It was hard, and I felt bad breaking up their party, but I -- you know we had to finish the day I had to shoot -- So yeah, at times it was hard, but I -- it was worth it. I was just glad that they were there and I appreciate it very much that they were there because they really didn't make any money doing it and they worked very hard and it was -- it meant a great deal to me.

GROSS: Well, I wish you really good luck with "The Impostors."

TUCCI: Oh, thanks.

GROSS: And I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

TUCCI: Thank you very much. Thanks for having me.

GROSS: Stanley Tucci wrote, directed, produced and stars in the new film farce "The Imposters." He stars in an HBO movie about Walter Winchell that premieres November 21st.

Coming up an expanded version of the Garage Rock anthology "Nuggets." This is FRESH AIR.

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

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 888-NPR-NEWS

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Stanley Tucci
High: Actor, director and writer Stanley Tucci. He previously made his co-directing and co-screening writing debut with the film "Big Night," which was a critical and commercial success. His latest film, which he directed and wrote, is "The Impostors." He also acts in the film. Tucci's previous acting credits include: "Deconstructing Harry," "Kiss of Death," "Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle," and "Billy Bathgate."
Spec: Stanley Tucci; Movie Industry; Entertainment; "The Impostors"
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 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: Stanley Tucci

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: OCTOBER 06, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 100603NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Dmitri Shostakovich
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:32

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich is best known for his long serious symphonies and moving chamber music.

The classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz has discovered that for nearly half a century Shostakovich was also writing soundtrack music for Soviet films.

Some of this music has been recorded and Lloyd finds some fascinating relationships between the music for concerts and for films.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

LLOYD SCHWARTZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC CRITIC: Of the major composers of this century Shostakovich often strikes me as among the most problematical.

His chamber and vocal music seem to me his best work. Devastatingly sad or cheeky, needling, satiric, even sarcastic. Avoiding the endless bombast and heavy-handed profundity that often compromises symphonies.

The biggest puzzle about Shostakovich is whether he was Stalin's official state composer, which is what we assumed in the West during the Cold War. But now it seems that his music was filled with secret jokes that ridiculed the Soviet dictator's policies and person.

So Shostakovich has been rescued not only by political correctness but also by the multiple layers of meaning his music provides to those in the know. And yet however brilliant his orchestration, however ambitious his musical architecture, many of his important works are still a long drink of water. That's one reason I'm so taken with an album called "Movie Madness" of excerpts from Shostakovich's film scores.

Most of these selections are only two or three minutes long. The two longest are under eight minutes.

Shostakovich used or invented popular tunes in his symphonies, but in his movie music his borrowings or imitations are even more delightfully tongue and cheek.

The film "Golden Mountain" must be set in Vienna. It's waltz is an infectious an admiring take off on Strauss.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

I've never seen any of the films that Shostakovich scored. There's a "Hamlet" and a "King Lear." One called "The Gadfly," one called "Trilogy about Maxine." A 1949 film called "The Fall of Berlin" is surely a post-war propaganda piece.

The liberated Dresden scene from "Five Days Five Nights" ends with Shostakovich's own more acidic orchestration of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy."

The piece called "The Ball in the Castle" from "Hamlet" hardly suggest the intrigues of a Danish court, but it's vintage Shostakovich.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

All of the selections on this "Movie Madness" CD are taken from discs that contain more complete soundtracks. Someday I hope to explore them, but right now I'm happy listening to these rousing, sentimental, and comic miniatures vividly played by the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra under Mikil Urovsky (ph), James Judd (ph), and Layaneed Green (ph).

These selections are Shostakovich in his most charming and understated vein.

I'm not in a hurry to see most of these movies. I actually like guessing what the story might be, in fact. That's just what I do in his longer works. I create my own scenario. And the very fact that Shostakovich wrote so much film music reassures me. How could all that musical visualization of screen images not have had a big influence on his concert music?

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor of the "Boston Phoenix." He reviewed "Movie Madness: Excerpts from the Film music of Dmitri Shostakovich" on the Capricio (ph) label.

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

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 888-NPR-NEWS

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Lloyd Schwartz
High: Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz reviews "Movie Madness: Excerpts From the Film Music of Dmitri Shostakovich."
Spec: Dmitri Shostakovich; Music Industry; Move Industry

Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 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: Dmitri Shostakovich
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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