Keith Gordon, 39, started in the movie business as an actor with a few leading roles in films such as Back to School and a supporting part in Bob Fosse’s All that Jazz. He starred, co-wrote and co-produced Static and earned the Best Actor Award at the Madrid Film Festival for the film. In 1988, Gordon wrote and directed The Chocolate War, an adaptation of the classic novel by Robert Cormier. Next, Gordon went on to adapt and direct A Midnight Clear from William Wharton’s autobiographical anti-war novel. His numerous achievements also include work on television. His most recent credits include producing and directing the Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Mother Night, starring Nick Nolte. While in D.C. promoting his latest film, Waking the Dead, Gordon talked about romance, religion and getting into show business.
Q: What inspired you to become a director?
A: Loving movies is the simple, dumb, but accurate, answer. I was seven years old when my dad took me to see 2001 on its opening weekend. As much as he thought I couldn’t understand it, I understood that I didn’t understand it. That was the coolest part. I wanted to know what it meant, and I made him take me back over and over again. I just was constantly going to films. As a teenager, I worked as an intern in the Museum of Modern Art film archives. They just had these huge files of every film ever made. In exchange, they’d run old films for me. It was just a love affair with films.
Q: What aspect of Scott Spencer’s book made you want to make it into a film?
A: Well, I was on an airplane flying away from New York and Rachel, my wife but my then girlfriend, and I got to the point in the book when he brings her body home, and he just starts praying that the plane would crash so that he wouldn’t have to go on (with life) anymore. I started crying. It so touched me. I knew that’s how I would feel if I were him. As I got through the book, all of those themes about the messiness of love – being attracted to the very things that drive us crazy about the person we are with, the idea that if you love someone they will always be with you, whether they are dead or leave you or whatever. It was a very powerful idea to me.
Q: Why is this story told in a non-linear progression?
A: The story is the 1980s commenting on the 1970s and the 1970s commenting on the 1980s, both in the characters specifically and in the time periods as a whole. It was sort of the contrast of a moment in history when we still felt there was some potential for people to change the world. A youthful idealism and hope that as bad as things were with the Vietnam War, that if you put yourself on the line you really might make a difference. But in the 1980s, there was more of a feeling of forget making a difference. I want to make as much money as possible. And so it became the me generation. I grew up with both of those. I grew up as a little kid in the 1960s thinking this is the world we’re going to be inheriting. By the time I came of age, it was the 1980s. It was all about money and stocks and bonds. Those two eras were important to me, and I love the way Scott kept contrasting those back and forth and also, the way that informed you about the love affair and the emotion in a way a linear progression might not. In a straight line, it would just be a series of events, but by doing it in this mosaic, jigsaw-puzzle fashion, each thing tells you something about the other side of the story.
Q: How does the religious imagery serve the production?
A: What struck me, as someone who has never been particularly religious, and yet falling in love with the woman who is now my wife, there is something very spiritual about opening your heart to someone. Whether or not you believe in God in a literal way, you suddenly become very open to stuff that goes beyond the day-to-day mundane reality.
Q: How do you prefer to carry out your role as director? What tactics do you use?
A: I usually use a combination of a bullwhip and a stun gun. No, I’m kidding. Coming out of having been an actor, I give a lot of freedom. Actors are my collaborators. (On this film) we did a lot of filling in the gaps, because the film is done in a mosaic kind of way. We tried to figure out what would have happened between here and there. We even improvised during filming. Actors often have better instincts than I will have. I, as the director, am looking at the overall, while they are thinking about their characters in a much more specific kind of way. A lot of the best stuff in the film is improvised.
Q: What is coming up next?
A: Nothing that is financed yet. There are several things in the air. I have a project with Francis Ford Copolla as the executive producer called When God Dips His Hand in My Heart. It’s a psychological thriller. It’s still in the writing stages though. It’s from a short story. There’s a piece called Easy Money Blues. It’s a tale about greed, but it does it in a fun Boogie Nights king of way. I didn’t write that though. We’re trying to get the last bit of money, which is the hardest part. There’s a piece called The Homing. It’s creepy, a thriller based on tone and mood rather than car chases. Those are the three that are the closest to fruition.