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Indie audiences first came to know and love actor Martin Donovan through his symbiotic partnership with director Hal Hartley in a series of films in the early 90s, which included Trust, Simple Men, and Amateur. Since then, Donovan has become a staple of film—The Opposite of Sex, Insomnia, Saved!—and television (Weeds, Boss), where he can be counted on to deliver deadpan performances rife with prickly, world-weary humor and simmering intelligence.
It’s no wonder that Donovan’s writing and directing debut reflects the qualities he’s honed and absorbed for so long. Collaborator sets the stage for a culture clash ripe for our times. Robert Longfellow (Donovan) is a successful, highbrow playwright visiting his childhood home in Reseda, California—aka “the Valley”—when he runs into his longtime neighbor Gus (David Morse), an angry man who loves his country but hates what it’s become; he is, as Donovan explains, “a bundle of contradictions.” The two men could not be more at odds, but in their quickly-turned-sticky situation, they find commonalities that surprise them both.
Collaborator, now available on nationwide VOD, is an intimate two-hander; though there are outside communications—most notably with Olivia Williams, as the movie star featured in Robert’s latest production—Robert and Gus are in this together, whether they like it or not, to the bitter end.
Back in March, we talked with Donovan about his myriad motivations for telling this layered tale, his admiration for the chameleonic Morse, and his optimism about how distribution has changed since his Hartley days.
Tribeca: How do you describe Collaborator in your own words?
Martin Donovan: Collaborator is a hostage tragicomedy, but it’s also, kind of, everything I know about post-war America. Well, not everything, but it does reference a lot of the post-war period.
Tribeca: This is your debut as a writer-director. What inspired you to tell this particular story?
Martin Donovan: First of all I wanted to write. A lot of banging in the head has built up over the decades, and for my own sanity, I needed to write. I wanted to see if I could tell an honest, organic story about characters that interest me. That was the starting point. In the process, my own life experience emerged—in particular, my vantage point as a late boomer. I was a young witness to a lot of political and social upheaval in the 60s and early 70s, and this had a huge impact on me. I needed to put it down somehow, the American experience: war, peace, state violence versus retail violence. The cult of celebrity was also on my mind: the tabloid press, and the newscasters, and this caldron... So, to me, Collaborator feels like a quintessentially postwar American story.
I've always been interested in the political versus the personal—trying to figure out what that means. So I thought, “What would happen if you got the Red State guy in the room with the Blue State guy? What would they say to each other?” That's not what the film is about, but that was part of what I wanted to explore, along with love and betrayal, commitment.
The character of Gus [played by David Morse] is very convoluted. His character is a bundle of contradictions: he's an outlaw, he's a patriot, he's a flag-waving ex-con. He has not been treated well by the government; he's had it tough. And the American economy has not been doing him well. He’s antiauthoritarian in many ways: “Fuck the cops,” and all that stuff. And yet there's a certain point where his friend—my character Robert's brother—is going to Vietnam, and Gus thinks that he did something very noble, and his father was a Marine, so there's that flag-waving going on.
Tribeca: It's an interesting paradox or tension.
Martin Donovan: Yeah, whereas Robert is still scarred by the loss of his brother. He’s angry about the government, but he has a good reason to be: he lost his brother
Tribeca: You chose to make Robert a playwright, and at times to me the movie feels a lot like theater, with the small cast and limited locations. Can you talk about those choices? Was it an effort to blend your different backgrounds in a way?
Martin Donovan: It was my first screenplay, and you tend to write what you know. Gus was based on a character who lived across the street from me when I was growing up. And as an actor, the hilarious conversations I've had over the years with relatives or friends are, “What's Nicole Kidman really like?” [Laughs.] Those conversations can be very funny—that obsession with fame and stardom. We can all be starstruck—I can be starstruck—but it's funny to watch. The other thing about Gus is he's this rough, foul-mouthed, ex-con guy, yet he's kind of got taste. He's not into Pamela Anderson. He's into [the character] Emma Stiles. He's kind of sophisticated in his tastes, in his own way. He's into the Oscar race and the whole thing.
People do say it's kind of a theater piece... Yeah, it’s all interior, and people ask if I thought of doing it as a play, but no. I wanted the tyranny of the camera. I wanted the audience to look where I wanted them to look.
I really kept it simple, because it was my first film and I was [also] going in front of the camera so much. I wasn't interested in doing virtuoso camera moves, which I find so self-conscious and trying to impress. When I'm not aware of the camera when I'm watching a film, I'm very happy. I deliberately kept things as simple as I could, as I was convinced that this story, with the right performances, would be compelling. That's all I wanted to do: keep an audience engaged.
Tribeca: Your cast is small but powerful. David Morse is always incredible. And Olivia Williams, Eileen Ryan, Katherine Helmond... What was like for you to direct yourself and to direct other actors? Any advice for first-time directors?
Martin Donovan: I wouldn't have been able to do this when I was in my 30s. [But now,] I was just ready to take this on. I've worked so much, and I wrote a role that was something that wasn't a big stretch. I've worked so much as an actor that I felt like, in this role, I'd have a good sense of whether I needed another take. On a set, you can kind of tell when it sucks. People don't say anything, but you can feel it in the energy in the room. And when it's good, you can feel that too; there's a vibe.
Julie Kirkwood was my DP, and I had a tendency to look at her [when I was acting], and she would just nod, very subtly. There were a couple of times when I asked David’s advice and he would say to try another way, but just a couple of times.
Working with actors really depends on the actor. Most of the directors I've worked with don't really know how to speak to actors, actually; some of the best directors don't. They know [good acting] when they see it, but they don't know how to articulate it; they don't know how to use actors' language. But then again, there are some actors who are not trained as actors; they've learned through other means, so “actor-y” language doesn't help either. So it really depends on the circumstance, it depends on the actor. I like to be on sets that are supportive, where the director's taking care of you. That's what I respond to.
Tribeca: Did you like directing? Did you get the bug?
Martin Donovan: Oh yeah. I’m developing another script and I'm working on it. Whether the gods will smile and allow me to make another film is another question.
Tribeca: Did you have David Morse in mind when you were writing?
Martin Donovan: I had him in mind very early on. When I started thinking about David in the role, I thought he was kind of perfect, because I didn't want a scary, menacing guy. I wanted a guy who you could feel could do some damage, who had the potential for violence. But I always saw Gus as sweet natured. He's got his anger issues, but... and David did just exactly the perfect thing.
I did a season on Weeds with Mary-Louise [Parker], and we're friends. I asked her about David because she had worked with him in theater in New York, in How I Learned to Drive, and she just said, “He's a genius. You guys will love each other. You must cast him in the role.” And Olivia Williams I had in mind very early on. So the two actors that I wanted, and really saw in those roles, are the ones I got.
Tribeca: So what's the craziest thing or lightning strikes moment that happened during production—for better or for worse?
Martin Donovan: The actual creative process of working and creating the film was magical. The worst part of it was the financial aspects, the horrors of money coming and going. I mean, literally, “If we don't get money in the bank account by 3:00, the crew’s going home”—those kind of days—going through the agony of money being promised and it falling through. All the paper work, all the deals: that's just what kills you. If you have all the money in a bank account for real and you're just going to make a movie? Wonderful! Things can go wrong if people don't gel, but our crew and the actors, everybody was gelling. But generally speaking, the misery and the agony and the torture is on the financial side.
Tribeca: It just doesn't feel creative.
Martin Donovan: It's so out of your control, and you're at the mercy of outside forces.
Tribeca: Tribeca is going to distribute Collaborator in 40 million homes on VOD. Have you ever been in a movie that was released under this new kind of model?
Martin Donovan: Not quite like this, no. I've done movies that have gone straight to video, but not with this kind of educated kind of way of seeing the new economic reality.
Tribeca: Yeah, where it's a deliberate choice. This distribution will cast a much wider net than, say, the Hal Hartley movies back in the day, where you could only see them in New York or LA. So how do you feel about it?
Martin Donovan: I am fully on board. You know we received a standing ovation of 1,500 people in Karlovy Vary at our premiere, and that was very satisfying. [Laughs.] And David was named Best Actor, and we got a critics' prize. Do I want it to be in New York and LA and in 20 cities like the old days? Sure. But I get it. I get that that's just not going to happen, especially with a film like this. It’s the reality—there are brand-name filmmakers who are not getting their films made or distributed in theaters the way they did before, so I get it, and I've accepted it.
Martin Donovan: And I'm totally into that. I'm all good. I'm very excited.
Tribeca: If you could have dinner with any filmmaker, alive or dead, whom would you choose?
Martin Donovan: Well, Kubrick, of course. And Cassavetes. David Lean popped into my head. I've been catching David Lean movies recently, and it's interesting because there's a certain way some of David Lean's movies were almost like British Empire, white man's burden films—they are so very problematic in terms of that. But his films had a huge impact on me as a little kid. Some of my earliest film memories are Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Doctor Zhivago.
Tribeca: And those cry out for the big screen.
Martin Donovan: Well, they don't make those anymore. They're all done digitally now. But Lean’s movies were also character-driven; they were huge epics, but still driven by character. He would be a fascinating conversation, I'm sure.
Tribeca: What's your favorite New York movie?
Martin Donovan: I actually love West Side Story. I think it's an amazing film to watch. Woody Allen can’t be ignored. There are so many others—Scorsese. But I also like a Don Siegel film from the 50s, with John Cassavetes, called Crime in the Streets, which had a huge impact on me as a little kid because it played on the million-dollar-movie. Every day, for a week, or whatever it was, they would play the movie. And it was a gritty gang drama from the 50s. John Cassavetes plays a young teenager and Sal Mineo's in it. It's gangs, but it's not West Side Story. And as a young kid on the west coast, that was New York to me. I grew up in the Valley, but I was obsessed with getting to New York.
Tribeca: And, finally, what makes Collaborator a must-see?
Martin Donovan: You've got to see David Morse's performance. I feel strongly about that. I've watched it with audiences, and people respond. I've been in the festival circuit for 20 years, and I really wasn't necessarily trying to make a festival film. I wanted the Guses of the world to see this movie. Of course I want sophisticated filmgoers to like it as well, but it's not a cutting-edge film: I feel like it has kind of a broad appeal, but I think it's smart.
I want to take this film to Omaha, and I really want it to play in Salt Lake, in the hinterlands... Like you said, people who don't usually get to see these kinds of movies. Who turn this on because maybe they know David Morse. Or maybe they know me from something, or they like what they see in the trailer. But then they get sucked into it. That’s what I hope for, which is why I’m so excited by the VOD model of distribution.
Watch the trailer: