Skip to main content

'Who Controls the Internet?'

Recent controversies such as Google's business in China and the U.S. government's role in policing eBay transactions have put a spotlight on the intersection between governments and the Internet. Legal scholars Jack Goldsmith and Tim Wu address the issue in their new book, Who Controls the Internet? Illusions of a Borderless World.

32:31

Other segments from the episode on April 27, 2006

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 27, 2006: Interview with Jack Goldsmith and Tim Wu; Interview with Jeff Goldblum.

Transcript

DATE April 27, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Law professors Jack Goldsmith of Harvard and Tim Wu of
Columbia discuss their new book, "Who Controls the Internet?"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

When the Internet started to really catch on in the '90s, it was widely seen
as a form of communication that transcended geographical boundaries, a force
for freedom that could not be controlled by government. But as countries like
China have been demonstrated, governments are figuring out how to censor
information on the Net. According to the new book "Who Controls the
Internet?" the Net is splitting apart and becoming bordered. Governments are
imposing national laws on the Net within their borders. "Who Controls the
Internet?" explores the consequences and virtues of an Internet regulated by
national laws. My guests are the authors Jack Goldsmith and Tim Wu.
Goldsmith is a law professor at Harvard and headed the Justice Department's
Office of Legal Counsel in 2003 and 2004. Wu is a law professor at Columbia,
writes for the online magazine Slate and previously worked in the Internet
telecommunications industry.

Well, let's look at a case that you consider to be a turning point in
government control of the Internet, and this was a few years ago when Yahoo!
was selling Nazi materials on an auction site. And that's illegal in France.
France wanted those pages blocked there. What was the case that the French
government made?

Professor JACK GOLDSMITH: The auction page was actually on a computer in
California, but the French government argued that its availability in France

violated French law just the same way as if the goods were actually there or
if they appeared in a magazine that was actually there. It argued that when
Yahoo! was doing business in France, it had to comply with French law just
like anyone doing business in France would have to.

GROSS: What was the law that the French government said Yahoo! was breaking?

Professor GOLDSMITH: They have a law against--simply a law against the
offering of sale of Nazi goods. No matter what the medium.

GROSS: And this is related to laws against hate speech and hate crimes and...

Professor GOLDSMITH: Sure. It grows out of France's experience in World War
II with the Holocaust and, you know, with the German occupation and the like.
And Europe is much more sensitive to hate speech and to Nazi speech than we
are in the United States. They have a different conception of free speech,
and they regulate these activities much more heavily than the United States
does.

GROSS: OK, so you described France's case. What was Yahoo!'s case?

Professor GOLDSMITH: Yahoo! argued that it was inappropriate or unfair for
France to tell Yahoo! what to do in the United States because remember the
Web page was actually located on a computer in the United States. And Yahoo!
argued that it couldn't stop the goods--the Web page from going into France
and that if it was forced to shut down its Web site in California, then in
effect France would be regulating these Nazi goods for the whole world because
Yahoo! would have to shut them down to everyone.

GROSS: And didn't Yahoo! also argue that it would be virtually impossible to
honor the laws of many different countries while running its Web site?

Professor GOLDSMITH: Yes. Yes. They argued first of all that they couldn't
keep the Web page out of France and they couldn't comply with the 190
different national laws all around the world because, they argued, the
Internet is not bordered. We can't keep information from going into different
countries. And therefore the only choice Yahoo! had was to, it argued, was
to allow the Web page to be seen everywhere or to shut it down and allow it to
be seen nowhere.

GROSS: So what was the outcome?

Professor GOLDSMITH: The French judge didn't accept that argument. He hired
some Internet experts who argued--and remember this was five or six years
ago--he argued that--the experts argued that Yahoo! could, in fact, screen
out information to a reasonable degree. In fact, Yahoo! was filtering
geographically in its advertising side. So whenever you typed in yahoo.com in
France, you would actually receive a French advertisement rather than an
English advertisement. The judge argued that Yahoo! could filter out to some
degree, and he ordered it to take all reasonable steps to keep the Web pages
out of France. Yahoo! eventually complied.

GROSS: So what precedent did this set internationally?

Professor TIM WU: Well, you know, I think what was so interesting about the
case is that it pitted these ideals of the Internet, of freedom, of being
borderless, of being uncontrollable and being a medium that anyone could do
anything with, against a very set of hard facts, that Europe has had a
terrible history with anti-Semitism, that people were selling, you know,
Nazi-glorifying goods in Europe through the Internet, and so suddenly the case
for absolute Internet freedom didn't seem quite as strong anymore. Faced with
a country that legitimately had historical reasons to want to fight
anti-Semitism, then, I think, this case had a strong normative effect on what
people thought needed to be some of the limits of freedom.

The second thing that this case showed is that when push came to shove,
entities like Yahoo! which had declared themselves unregulable, when
threatened with massive fines and potential detainment, suddenly found they
had reasons to follow the law. That is to say, Yahoo! stood up and said,
`We're not going to listen to some judgment in some other country just because
they say so.' But then when threatened with potential detainment, 10,000 euros
of fines a day, they suddenly backed down, and this was a shock to people.
People had thought the Internet was truly unregulable. They never dreamed
that a court in France and a single French judge could bring an Internet giant
like Yahoo! with a stock valued at nearly $500 to its knees, but that's
exactly what happened. And Yahoo! coincided partially with the collapse of
the bubble. You know, there was this era that everything was going to be
different--money, finance, government and so on--and this is partially when
the real world started to catch up. And that was a turning point in the
history of the Internet.

GROSS: So you've been describing how, you know, the French government got
Yahoo! to take Nazi materials off its Internet auction site. Then we have a
case of China asserting its wish to censor and to censor words like democracy
and freedom. So this isn't about hate speech. This is just clear-out
censorship. And Yahoo! was involved in this, too. Tell us what the story
is.

Professor WU: Well, sure. I mean, Yahoo!--the funny thing about Yahoo!,
Yahoo!'s a pivotal figure in these early days of the law and the Internet
because Yahoo! on the one hand is standing up to France claiming principles
of freedom of speech. On the other hand, it's in China slowly and quietly
turning itself into an agent of Chinese state control. They quietly but
willingly accept all the duties of self-censorship which the rest of the
Chinese media subscribes to. And then bit by bit, they begin to give the
Chinese government information it needs, ultimately leading to the arrest of
several Chinese dissidents. So there's a little bit of an "Apocalypse Now"
feeling. The once-champion of free speech turns into a company once valued
stock at almost $475, dives to $9, becomes, you know, subservient to the
Chinese state, and you have just in that one story of Yahoo! a persuasive
picture of what happened to Internet freedom over the last decade.

GROSS: Now, as you said, that Yahoo! says it gave up a majority stake in its
China service to a Chinese company and that this Chinese company has to follow
Chinese law.

Professor WU: That's true, and what's fascinating about that is that Yahoo!
went to China with these plans to make money and become great. And it
ultimately retreated from the Chinese market having participated--when it
handed over the information on dissidents, it did so as Yahoo!, not as just an
owner in a Chinese company. It eventually ended up retreating from the
Chinese marketplace altogether, not because of its controls but because it
lacked the ability to make money in China because it didn't understand the
Chinese market well. So again, the differences in culture and geography ended
up mattering a lot more than Yahoo! thought. Yahoo! thought it could just
go to China, do the same thing it did in America, maybe listen to some
censorship laws and come up making money. But that didn't end up working.

GROSS: You describe China as having surrounded itself with the world's most
sophisticated information barrier. How do they do it? How do they manage to
censor Web sites from around the world?

Professor WU: Well, technically it's rather easy, and I actually don't think
that's the most important part of Chinese control, but I'll tell you how they
do set up that barrier. They simply have a list of sites which changes
frequently, but they have a list of sites monitored through the IP address
which are blocked from inside of China. That is when those sites are
requested from overseas, the routers or the computers at the border, simply
drop those sites and don't pass them on. It's very easy to do. It's actually
easier to drop a site than it is to pass it. And every computer, every
router, every part of the Internet is designed to be able to drop sites.
They're used in corporate security measures and so on. So it's a routine part
of the Internet to be able to censor. In fact, it's built into the technology
of the Internet to be able to censor. And the difference between China and a
country like the United States or other--or Canada is that China certainly
just turns on the filters.

GROSS: And has China been able to do this with the help of high-tech
expertise from American companies?

Professor WU: Well, sure. You know, I spend time in the early 2000s in China
marketing some of these goods, and they used standard American equipment.
Most of the filtering technology was originally built for corporate intranets,
that is networks inside companies designed to control employees. China simply
turns that around and uses it to control its citizens.

GROSS: So did you say you were selling these screening technologies to China?

Professor WU: We were marketing them. That's right. Yeah. And selling
them.

GROSS: How did you feel about that? Did you feel like you were helping China
censor its citizens?

Professor WU: Well, we weren't really successful enough. I didn't work for
Cisco. I worked for a competing company, and Cisco was the top dog at the
day, and they were much more successful. Yeah, I had uneasy feelings about
it. We had a lot of meetings with the Chinese ministers and the whole
business seemed to me a bit, you know, the level of submissiveness we
displayed to the Chinese government I thought was a little bit unseemly, but
that was the way people did business.

GROSS: Now you describe China as a paradox because on the one hand it wants
to have the most sophisticated Internet system in the world and really excel
in high tech, but at the same time it wants to control the information and
censor it.

Professor WU: Yes. That's right. It's completely a paradox. If you go to
China today, you will find that their information is flourishing as never
before. People are chatting, there's bloggers, there's all kinds of stuff
going on. But there's a line in there somewhere, and if you cross that line,
you get in trouble very, very quickly.

Recently in the last several months, several Chinese quasi-dissidents, really
just journalists, have been abducted, kidnapped, for doing pretty mundane
things. And in our book, we document cases where just posting a kind of a
joke about why prostitutes are better than the government can land you with
administrative punishments, imprisonments. So it feels very open, it feels
completely normal, and that's what's very strange about the controls in China.
You cross a certain line, and it's curtains for you.

GROSS: You say that the Chinese Internet is becoming less and less like its
counterparts. Is it only through censorship that it's becoming different or
are there other differences between the Chinese Internet and what we're
familiar with here.

Professor WU: Yeah. There's a lot of cultural differences that end up being
built into it. You know, you can sort of speculate on why that is, but
Chinese people, for some reason, love chat rooms. I don't really know why
that is, but they're a dominant form of discourse on the Chinese Internet.
People chatting away and chatting away, so, you know, chat rooms are not that
popular in the United States. They've never really taken off. I'll add
another country, if you look at Japan, there is a different structure of the
way people use the Internet. It's mostly based on cell phone usage, people
typing away in the Shinkansen, in the bullet train, or on the way to work.
And so, there are starting to be stronger differences in the way these
networks work and they're actually being built differently to reflect the
different cultural interests of different countries.

GROSS: My guests are Jack Goldsmith and Tim Wu, authors of the new book, "Who
Controls the Internet?" We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Jack Goldsmith and Tim Wu.
They're the authors of the new book, "Who Controls the Internet?" They're both
law professors, Goldsmith at Harvard and Wu at Columbia.

In your analysis of the directions that the Internet has taken in different
countries and the attempts of government to control that direction, what
cultural differences have you come across in how different countries are
shaping the Internet?

Professor GOLDSMITH: OK, so we've been talking thus far about how governments
are imposing their controls from above, and that's a large factor in why the
Internet is becoming bordered. But, in fact, the Internet first started to
become bordered not because of government controls from above. Governments
were, in fact, fairly slow to react to the Internet. The first impetus for a
bordered Internet, an Internet that differed from place to place, actually
came from people below who were using the Internet in different places, people
who spoke different languages, had different values and the like. So, for
example, in the early years of the Internet in the--at least in the mid-1990s,
the Internet was dominated by the English language because most Web sites and
most Internet users were English speakers. And many people in the '90s
thought that the Internet basically would be the vehicle for English to sweep
over the world. And, in fact, the opposite has happened. People in the world
who don't speak English don't want to see an Internet in English. They want
it in their local languages, and so when you go to different places, you look
on Internet Web sites in those different places, and they tend to come up in
local languages for selecting local cultures. The same thing happened with
Internet advertising. It wasn't very useful to have an advertisement for 1
(800) Flowers in New York if you're looking at the Internet in France or in
China or in India.

And so Internet users in different places with different tastes and different
concerns started demanding an Internet that conformed to their local
interests, and that, in effect, is how the Internet started becoming bordered.
And, in fact, it was the technologies developed to enable private demands for
local content. It was filtering technologies on the Internet, geographical
filtering technologies first grew up in that context, to meet private demand.
And it was only later that governments came along and used those filtering
tools to suit their own ends.

GROSS: How effective is Internet censorship within countries? Do they really
censor out all the Web sites with information that the government considers
inappropriate or dangerous for its citizens or does a lot of stuff really get
through? Is there a lot of freedom and anarchy on the Internet in spite of
the strictest government's best efforts to clamp down?

Professor GOLDSMITH: Well, sure. It really depends on, in the first
instance, how much the government cares about clamping down on information.
China is one of the most extreme cases. They're very severe in clamping down
on information. But even there, some things get through occasionally and for
a short period of time. In the United States where we value privacy and
freedom of speech more, many, many more things get through, even though we try
to filter in some respects here as well. But the important point is for
censorship to work, it doesn't have to be perfect. A government doesn't need
to cut out the prohibited information 100 percent to be effective. That's not
the way that law works generally. It doesn't try to reduce the incidence of
legal violations to zero. It simply tries to keep it at such a rate where the
government can achieve the ends it wants. And the Chinese government, for
example, they just want to make sure that the government stays in power. That
doesn't mean that they can't ever let anything through at any costs. It just
means that they can't let information in that's going to lead to a situation
where their power will be challenged.

Professor WU: Yeah, I think it's a very mixed situation. I think there's a
lot more information out there, but that hasn't necessarily threatened
government's control or government's control over themself. Particularly if
you look at countries like Singapore and China and particularly if you spend
time there, there's this weird sensation, as I said, of everything feeling
normal, but for some reason, there's something missing, and it's called
criticism of government. And you can look for it, but you have to look kind
of hard. And if you're just leading a normal kind of life, you just won't run
into it, and, in fact, you'll run into much more of what is really propaganda,
people talking about how great the state is, how great the government is. And
with there being more total information, there's also a lot more information
or a lot more boosting of the state. So the total--there is a greater volume
of information but also the mix the government wants of criticism vs. state
boosterism. And I think it's that ratio between how much support for the
state vs. criticism which is really essential, as opposed to just some
forbidden content getting through.

GROSS: Let's look at attempts by the US government to assert its authority
over the Internet. For example, the government requested that Google hand
over its search database so that the government can see who is going to
certain porn sites so it could enforce the child online protection act. Would
you talk a little bit about this case and how it was resolved?

Professor WU: Yeah. Search engines are an important target for government
control because almost everything goes through a search engine. And for the
most part, the United States hasn't exercised that much control over this, but
the Google case showed the potential for it. Google, that case itself was the
request that Google turn over a huge amount of search records that it keeps,
records on what everybody has searched for as long as Google has been around.
They asked for about, I believe, a million such records. And they wanted to
find out how often people were actually looking for pornography as opposed to
other things. But the point of the case, it wasn't that relevant the actual
subject of the case, what was relevant was that it suddenly became obvious to
people that government has the power to get from companies like Google,
companies like Yahoo!, everything that you've ever looked for in your life.
And I don't know, for most Americans I think there's a lot of potentially
embarrassing things that they've looked for at one point in their life or
another, whether an illness or some strange obsession. And so this case
suddenly made it a lot more obvious to Americans that government has the power
over the Internet that other countries have been more obviously exercising.

GROSS: Google fought the government's request and the judge reduced the
request to apply to only 50,000 Web addresses.

Professor WU: Right, and so I think what you learn from this case, a couple
things. First of all, the interesting thing is that Google is storing all the
information in the first place, which I think is a surprise to many people
that everything you've ever searched for on Google is in a database in a
computer somewhere. But the other point more relevant to our book is that,
you know, this shows to people that, while it wasn't a million or 50,000 but
it's really the law that's making this decision. Maybe that's not a surprise
to lawyers, but I think it's a surprise to people who sort of thought that
their search results went off into a little box somewhere never to come back.
They're there if government really wants to look at them. People also
speculate that other parts of the government which did not announce their
activities openly have been also looking at search results or other parts of
the government like the NSA which don't require to tell the public or anyone
what they're doing have also been looking at things that people search for.

GROSS: Jack Goldsmith and Tim Wu are the authors of "Who Controls the
Internet?" They'll be back in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, trouble in River City and in Pittsburgh. We talk with Jeff
Goldblum about his new film "Pittsburgh," which has him returning to his
hometown to star in a local production of "The Music Man." Also we continue
our conversation about "Who Controls the Internet?" with Jack Goldsmith and
Tim Wu.

(Announcements)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR.

I'm Terry Gross, back with Jack Goldsmith and Tim Wu, authors of the new book,
"Who Controls the Internet?" It's about how the Internet has gone from a form
of communication that seemed to transcend boundaries and exemplify freedom to
a system that governments have come to regulate and censor. Goldsmith is a
professor of law at Harvard. Wu is a professor of law at Columbia and writes
for the online magazine Slate.

Since your book is in part a study of how governments have tried successfully
and unsuccessfully to assert their authority over the Internet, what are some
of the ways you think the government needs to be involved or should be
involved with the Internet?

Professor WU: I'm a big believer in Internet freedom, and I'm a big believer
of self-governing communities on the Internet, but what our history shows over
the last decade is how often these flourishing, self-governing communities
rely on sort of a base line of government force for really extreme situations.
The eBay story is really the best example. EBay set itself up to be a
self-governing community that would rely on feedback and rely on the goodwill
of its members, and for the most part that worked, but they found in the late
'90s that they had one day to call the FBI and ask the FBI for help because
the fraud problems were becoming just too serious. And so, you know, even
eBay which employs more people today than Wal-Mart, in other words more people
make more money off, you know, seeing themself as self-employed, a wonderful
thing like eBay has a certain requirement of policing from the government for
the really bad types, for the people who won't listen to anything, who don't
care about their reputation on eBay. And that's where I think that even the
best Internet freedoms at some level have some reliance on physical coercion
provided by government.

GROSS: That's a more kind of ad hoc relationship, isn't it? It's not like
the government is a partner in eBay or tells eBay how to run its site. It's
just if there is a scam, a fraud on eBay, eBay can turn to law enforcement
authorities to help it, right?

Professor WU: To the contrary, they work very closely together. EBay hires
former law enforcement officials. It has over 800 right now. And they work
hand in hand with federal and state officials. So, you know, they don't just
call them in for big cases. They work day to day, hand in hand, constantly
fighting fraud. It is actually quite a--many people are not aware of this,
but it is quite a private/public partnership that powers eBay.

Professor GOLDSMITH: This is not a trivial thing service that the
government's providing. If you didn't have the government willing to help
eBay police fraud and prevent it, if you didn't have the government sending
its resources to throw people in jail who try to commit fraud on eBay or at
least to enforce contracts for people that make contracts on eBay, if the
government wasn't providing these services, eBay literally couldn't exist. It
would be a much, much more expensive service, people wouldn't be able to use
it nearly as much, and eBay, as we know it, really couldn't happen. So
without the hidden hand of government here helping out, eBay and many, many
other Internet commercial services simply couldn't work.

GROSS: Have either of you found that your thinking has changed about the
relationship of government and the Internet?

Professor GOLDSMITH: I think that over the course of writing this book, we
both came to discover and appreciate the virtues of government regulation and
government control. I think it's fair to say that Tim and I are both, I can't
speak for Tim, but I think we're both fairly libertarian, we're suspicious of
government regulation, but at least it's a starting point. But time and time
again in writing this book, we kept stumbling upon the hidden ways that
government actually helped out, and that government was actually necessary to
help make, you know, all of our everyday experiences on the Internet work.

Professor WU: You know, I was on the Internet in the late '80s. I started
early on this, and my early career on networking was as a pirate downloading
illegal software, and I hope the statute of limitations is over now, but, you
know, my early days, I was pirate...

GROSS: I'll be reporting you as soon as this interview is over.

Professor WU: ...I was a pirate BBSer, so I sort of have had a
longstanding--you know, I have one of these types who had longstanding
contempt for government. I think too in writing the book, I became sort of
reconvinced of what Hobbs said in "The Leviason" that some of the underlying
virtues of basic physical security are very difficult to replace. You know,
technology can help and it's a useful tool, but really there's no substitute
for trying to convince and get the right policy. And I've become fascinated,

and I think it's one of the underlying themes of the book is I feel we don't
fully understand the effects of lawbreaking and its effect on the law. The
Internet has inspired a lot of lawbreaking. I mean, our claim in the book is
not that somehow government control has been perfect or nothing has changed
or, you know, the Internet revolution was nothing. There are a lot of laws
that have been broken pervasively. Copyright law is a great example. Now the
law still remains central to the dispute, but the law gets broken a lot, and
I've become very interested in these patterns of lawbreaking, crackdown,
lawbreaking, crackdown, and how that changes society, how that changes the law
itself and how that ultimately affects the underlying technology. You know,
we're not done with that project and understanding that, but that's something
that I think sometimes can actually be good. I think it can sometimes be
healthy to have a little bit of lawbreaking when the technology changes. And
so we aren't--I'm not someone who has become, from writing this book, an
absolute statist who believes that, you know, the state must control
everything like some kind of French political theorist. Rather, I've become
interested in the fascinating ways in which lawbreaking helps us evolve and
actually improves the legal system.

GROSS: Tim, you confessed that earlier in your life, you were an Internet
pirate. So do you think that piracy led to important changes?

Professor WU: Yes. I think it has. You know, by definition, some of the
piracy which goes on the Internet is criminal, but it's been part of a process
whereby we're finally getting the better distribution of music. You know,
copyright law throughout the history goes through these waves of piracy, and
it was the same with the radio, it was the same with the record player, the
original pirate industry. It's the same with cable television. All these
industries begin as pirates, and lawbreaking is almost a necessary part of the
law's--industry's evolution to better distribution systems. It's also almost
like mutations in the DNA or something. Things have to go wrong before they
get better. And so, yes, in some ways, Kazaa, Napster, you know, you can call
them pirates, but it's also part of a healthy industrial evolution toward
better distribution, and today it may not be perfect, but I notice I can get
music on iTunes for 99 cents. And that's a lot better than having to trump my
way off to Towers and buy these $15 CDs. And so it's not perfect, but it's
one way in which the system that otherwise would remain stagnant can evolve.

GROSS: So you don't think there would have been an iTunes without a Napster?

Professor WU: I don't think so. I know that Steve Jobs copied Kazaa, studied
Kazaa, which was a major pirate site of its time, in designing iTunes. I
think that Napster begot Kazaa, Kazaa begot iTunes, and that was, while a
little rough along the way, a healthy evolution.

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

Professor WU: Thank you.

Professor GOLDSMITH: Terry, thank you very much.

GROSS: Jack Goldsmith and Tim Wu are the authors of "Who Controls the
Internet?" Coming up, Jeff Goldblum in a local production of "The Music Man."

This is FRESH AIR.

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

Interview: Actor Jeff Goldblum discusses his new movie
"Pittsburgh"
TERRY GROSS, host:

Jeff Goldblum, starring in a production of "The Music Man" in "Pittsburgh"?
What do you think? It's the premise of his new movie, "Pittsburgh," which, as
far as I can tell, is a mockumentary that's part documentary. The premise is
that Goldblum, the star of such films as "Independence Day," "Jurassic Park,"
"The Fly," "The Big Chill" and "Between the Lines," decides to star in a
musical in his hometown. He wants to do this so that he can perform opposite
his new girlfriend, Catherine Wreford. She's a Canadian, is about 30 years
younger than he is and is trying to get her green card. Goldblum is also
joined in the cast of "The Music Man" by his friends Ed Begley Jr. and
Illeana Douglas. In the opening scene of the film "Pittsburgh," Goldblum is
talking to Begley and his wife telling them about his new girlfriend.

(Soundbite of "Pittsburgh")

Mr. ED BEGLEY Jr.: (As himself) Where'd you meet her?

Mr. JEFF GOLDBLUM: (As himself) She was starring in "42nd Street" with
Tori...

Mr. BEGLEY: (As himself) I saw "42nd Street."

Unidentified Woman: I saw "42nd Street."

Mr. BEGLEY: (As himself) What part did she play?

Mr. GOLDBLUM: (As himself) She's the young, young, thin, thin young girl,
Peggy Sawyer.

Mr. BEGLEY: (As himself) Catherine Wreford.

Mr. GOLDBLUM: (As himself) Yeah, I got her...

Woman: She's, like, 19.

Mr. BEGLEY: (As himself) No, she's not 19, darling.

Mr. GOLDBLUM: (As himself) She's 23. Twenty-three.

Mr. BEGLEY: (As himself) Here we go. Here we go.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Now you may think that a big star like Goldblum would intimidate
everyone in a local production of "The Music Man," but the director of this
production has no trouble criticizing Goldblum's performance.

(Soundbite of "Pittsburgh")

Mr. RICHARD SABELLICO: (As himself) Jeffrey?

Mr. GOLDBLUM: (As himself) What's up?

Mr. SABELLICO: (As himself) Where you're going with Howard Hill right now is
totally in the wrong direction. He's--he seems smarmy, he seems agitated,
he'll--constant movement is distracting to the point where--and I'm crazy
about you, and at one point, I thought I'm just going to shoot him. They're
going to hate you.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's a scene from "Pittsburgh."

Jeff Goldblum, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let me start here by confessing that I
don't have a clue which parts of this movie are real documentary and which
parts are more like mockumentary.

Mr. GOLDBLUM: Yeah. That's great. Really? That's so interesting.
Different people see it in different ways. You know, and, you know, would it
be more delightful to you if you didn't know--first of all, if you didn't know
before you'd seen it or if now you found out? Are you interested or would you
rather not know? Is it like a magic trick? Or the people listening, you

know, having not seen it, maybe, should we keep them in the dark about certain
things? What do you think?

GROSS: No, I think we should let me know.

Mr. GOLDBLUM: OK. All right. So, what do you--do you have an idea about
it? Or are you curious about certain things in it?

GROSS: Well, I'm kind of curious, like did you really do this show because it
was a way to get your girlfriend a green card?

Mr. GOLDBLUM: What do you think? Do you think any element of that is real?
Then I'll tell you.

GROSS: I don't know. I'm being neutral here. I don't know.

Mr. GOLDBLUM: Really?

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. GOLDBLUM: That's nice. I hope, you know--it's my hope that it sort of
plays like--and we always wanted to do something that finally at least played
like a narrative fictional movie and had that kind of enjoyment in it. And,
you know, we used different techniques to make it real, naturalistic,
spontaneous, complicated, like real life. But, for instance, yes, that
element is true. Catherine Wreford, played by Catherine Wreford, was at that
point my girlfriend, my fiancee. She did have those exactly literal
difficulties and challenges with her green card, and the Pittsburgh situation
with the show which happened, that we auditioned for and got, helped with
that. That was all true, in fact.

GROSS: So was "The Music Man" already slated to be produced in Pittsburgh by
this regional theater company or did you suggest that for the movie?

Mr. GOLDBLUM: No. It was actually, as Catherine Wreford says in the movie,
she found out about--the way she found out, it was slated already and her
agent found out about it and like that. What you don't know is that, for the
movie, is that I for six years was looking, I had this germ of an idea, it
sort of evolved from one thing to another, and as we closed in on, you know, a
couple years ago, I was thinking about a movie that took place in Pittsburgh
where this Jeff Goldblum character, much like a Larry David or a "Being John
Malkovich" or a parallel universe version of Jeff Goldblum in real life could
go back to Pittsburgh and encounter his family in some way and his hometown.
And so me and these directors at that point trying to cook up some reason why
I might do that that was fictional or that maybe we could have as a real event
and da, da, da, da, da, da. And then this came about.

GROSS: Now the director in the film, not the director of the documentary, but
the director of "The Music Man," is actually kind of...

Mr. GOLDBLUM: Yeah. Ricky Sabellico.

GROSS: He's kind of hard on you in a couple of scenes. At one point, he
tells you you have a 100 percent potential but you're only at 25. So was he
really critical of your performance when you were rehearsing, and what was it
like, if so, if that's real documentary and not mockumentary? What was it
like to have a regional theater director criticizing your performance in front
of a camera shooting this for a documentary?

Mr. GOLDBLUM: See, I think it's all performance in a way, just like what I
was doing was, I thought, very much a kind of performance. When we told
people like Richard Sabellico, wonderful, interesting guy who I think gives a
wonderful performance, I think, in the movie, when we told him really just
ignore our home, you know, movie camera, we're kind of making a home movie of
this and they were kind of documenting this for who knows what, but just go
about your job and just try to, you know, direct me and do whatever you do.
That's what he did, but I think whenever you tell somebody that, especially
somebody theatrical, and I think somebody like Richard, maybe it alters what
they do. And so really what you get is a performance of some kind, I think.
Remember that episode of "Dick Van Dyke" when they bring tape recorders into
the writing room? Remember?

GROSS: Oh, God! No. I don't remember that one.

Mr. GOLDBLUM: Yeah. Well, they bring--well, you know, they're writers on
this comedy show and they bring a tape recorder into the writing room, and all
of a sudden everybody changes. You know, they start--even though it's not
being visually recorded, they start wearing different things and they
start--they become different characters. Well, you know, so it's a kind of
performance. Anyway, I think he might have been doing something like that,
and he knew that we were also in this movie doing something kind of, you know,
fresh and also improvising and making stuff up. But I think when he was
critical of me, no, he was just doing his job.

GROSS: You've taught acting for many years, right?

Mr. GOLDBLUM: I have, for the last 15, 20 years, a place called Playhouse
West, whenever I'm not working, in north Hollywood.

GROSS: Do you teach the way you were taught or do you teach something really
different than the way you were taught?

Mr. GOLDBLUM: That's a good question. I was taught by a masterful acting
teacher named Sanford Meisner. You probably know about that.

GROSS: Yeah. Um-hmm.

Mr. GOLDBLUM: And I teach something like the way I was taught, yeah. And he
had a brilliant kind of foundational training program for the early actor that
I pretty much follow along. That's right. The first element of which is this
improvisation, very particular kind of improvisation that I teach. Although
as I've taught and--you know, one of the reasons I taught was to sort of take
the course again from the inside out and really know as much as I could about
it, just to make sure that I didn't miss anything. And as I've taught, I've
gotten more excited and passionate and clear and particular about what I think
he had in mind and what I like to have in mind with my own use of it for
myself and as I teach it to students.

GROSS: Who's the directors who you learn the most from working with?

Mr. GOLDBLUM: Well, you know, I've been lucky. I've worked with a lot of
great directors. I worked with Robert Altman early on. And he's a great
teacher, I think. And I think the things that I've done that I've sort of had
something to do with initiating, I did this little short movie that I
directed. You know, I think I used as inspiration, you know, something of
what I think he was doing in "Nashville" and in this "Pittsburgh" movie. You
know, I'm still inspired by his improvisation, use of real life, use of real
people, nonactors and actress, all that, you know.

GROSS: What are some of the things that happened in "Nashville" that you were
able to think about or borrow from in "Pittsburgh"?

Mr. GOLDBLUM: Well, for instance, you know, I think one of the things that
Robert Altman does is always get people to collaborate, create an atmosphere
of real trustfulness, you know, one trusts him so much and you know you're in
good hands and the movie's going to be interesting, and he makes, you know,
all the participants responsible for what they're doing, and so, you know, as
a result, come--you know, it makes you come up with your best stuff. How can
I describe that? For instance, he would go, you know, and it's not that he's
complacent or not visionary, very much the opposite, he's very specific about
his world and what he wants to paint, you know, but he will say to the actor
something like, `Well, what am I going to photograph today? You figure out
what I'm going to photograph. And I'll photograph it.' In other words, he
sort of causes the actor to come up with, you know, their best stuff. And he
uses what exists. Another kind of Sandy Meisnerism. But he uses accide--you
know, moviemaking has a lot to do with what's accidental and what exists at
the moment and something about the magic of the moment, and he makes a kind of
particularly masterful use of that. He told me before "Nashville" to learn a
bunch of magic tricks. It wasn't in the script. He said, `You know, I have
an idea. Learn a--get a hold of--in New York where you're living now, get a
hold of a slight-of-hand guy and learn a whole bunch of tricks and bring them
down here. Maybe we can fit them in the movie.' So I did, and I'd bring them
on the set, and he'd sort of make up on the spot how they could be
incorporated, and a couple of them are still in. You know, like that.

GROSS: Now one of your really early roles was one of the men in "Death Wish"
who kills Charles Bronson's wife and rapes his daughter.

Mr. GOLDBLUM: Yeah.

GROSS: And I've been thinking, like, what's it like to get started in a scene
like that?

Mr. GOLDBLUM: It was great for me. I had just come out of Sandy Meisner's
school, and miraculously I--it was the first thing I auditioned for. I
didn't, you know--so it was great. I went and kind of, you know, improvised
this sort of little violence scene for the director, Michael Winter, and did
it. And Michael Winter, who's now passed on, was notorious for yelling and
kind of doing that, and I remember the first time I was kind of coming up the
stairs, sneaking up the stairs, in order to kind of pounce on these couple of
women, it was a camera rehearsal, I was unfamiliar with all--with any of this,
and I was sort of, you know, skulking up, and they were setting the camera,
and he yells at the tops of his lungs. It was the first thing I ever did,
`Goldblum, start acting now!' He was British. And he really, you know, scared
me, he really--and that's about all the direction I ever got from him. But,
you know, in a way, it wasn't bad direction. It was like Richard Zibellico.
It wasn't--it had its harshness to it, but there was something probably
legitimate in it, too. Just start doing it was the idea.

GROSS: My guest is Jeff Goldblum. His new movie is called "Pittsburgh."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is Jeff Goldblum. His new film, "Pittsburgh," is about how
and why he decided to star in a Pittsburgh production of "The Music Man." The
movie combines mockumentary and documentary.

Now the premise in "Pittsburgh" is that you've just fallen in love with a
young woman in her 20s, who starred in the road production of "42nd Street,"
and she's from Canada, she needs her green card. One way to get it is for you
to get married, another way to get it is to do this musical together, and I
think you're engaged when the movie's being made and you do this musical
together. And reading between the lines, it sounds like you're not together
anymore?

Mr. GOLDBLUM: That's true. That's true. We actually were together, and at
this point, we're not together. That's right. We broke up several months
ago.

GROSS: Is it strange to have this film about this new and real relationship
between you, so real that you're thinking of getting married, and now the
movie comes out and everybody's getting--everybody who sees it will get caught
up in this new relationship except that's all behind you now. It's over.

Mr. GOLDBLUM: Yes. That's true. But like I say, I always--you know, I
think--I hope people will, you know, wonder whether we were ever together or
any of that was true. I hope it plays, and I think it plays--it's crowd
pleasing like a, you know, narrative movie and like a fictional movie. And
I'm hoping they'll see people's acting in it and go, `Hey, that's just really
good, interesting, spontaneous acting. I wonder if it's scripted and they're
just doing that in a way that's kind of pretty good, and the relationships,
you know--and Cassivetis would use, you know, people's real mother as their
mother, you know, and, you know, the relationships seem very rich and kind of
real.' So that's what I'm hoping.

Now, about--yes, so it's OK--yeah, sure, it's strange. It's always strange
seeing yourself, and this is kind of strange and mostly exciting. I'm
very--I've never been as psycho emotionally kind of invested in a movie. I'm
kind of, you know, have been thinking about this for a while and was central
in kind of getting the whole thing done, and so I'm excited about it. But I
know what you mean. Yeah. Well, things come and go, but the movie also is
about, I think, you know, essentially has this character Jeff Goldblum lost
his mind? Has he gone crazy? Is this relationship too--is it ill-advised
like people in the movie are telling me?

GROSS: That's right.

Mr. GOLDBLUM: Is it impetuous or does he have some romantic kind of crazy
idea because of one thing or another, his own quirks, or is this--or--and are
they totally incompatible? Or is there something here and what the heck is he
doing, you know, racing after this, you know, headlining this "Pittsburgh"
idea and going back to Pittsburgh. Has he lost his mind? And is his manager
right? You know, or is he shooting himself in the foot professionally and is
all this ill-advised? Well, that's what we ask in the movie, and in a way,
the answer is yes. Yes, that character in that movie is a bit nutty, and, you
know, it's amusing to me that you don't consider my own nuttiness is the
answer.

GROSS: There's a scene in the movie where you and Moby and Illeana Douglas
are singing "Gary, Indiana" together while he plays guitar behind you. How
did that come about?

Mr. GOLDBLUM: I love that scene. That was--well, once again, you know, our
technique--he was acting. In fact, I hate to give things away, but they
weren't a couple. They weren't really boyfriend, girlfriend, and they were
acting, and he said, `Well, what do you want me to do before we do this?' And
I said, `Well, just, you know, nobody will ever know because that's what we're
all doing. Use as much of your real life as you can. You can reference
things in your real life or expose anything in your real life, reveal anything
you want to reveal.' Well--so I don't know what he revealed that was real at
all. I'll never know that, but we just got the cameras rolling and got me as
I entered his apartment, I think for the first time. So me in that scene when
I'm seeing his golden platinum records, I'm seeing them for the first time,
and we start talking and we talk about this and that, and we hadn't planned to
do that. I had that little, you know, music book from "The Music Man," and it
just happened as it happened on camera. I said, you know, `Do you have your
guitar and can we sing something and what do you want to want to sing?' And we
chose it on camera and then set out to sing it. I like that. I like that. I
like our rendition of that.

GROSS: I like that scene a lot. Well, Jeff Goldblum, thank you so much for
talking with us.

Mr. GOLDBLUM: My pleasure. Thank you.

GROSS: And good luck with the movie.

Mr. GOLDBLUM: Oh, thank you so much.

GROSS: Jeff Goldblum's new movie is called "Pittsburgh."

(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

32:07

Tom Jones Remembers When Audiences Threw Underwear And Room Keys At Him

Jones became a pop star and sex symbol in the 1960s with "It's Not Unusual," "Delilah," and "What's New Pussycat?" His new album is Surrounded by Time. Originally broadcast in 2003.

07:32

Amy Adams Is The Best Thing In An Otherwise Mechanical 'Woman In The Window'

A woman with agoraphobia becomes embroiled in her neighbor's drama in a new thriller based on Dan Mallory's novel. Adams is very good — but the movie doesn't prove entirely worthy of her.

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