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Director Series-David Duchovny

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David Duchovny’s new film House of D tells of an artist living in contemporary Paris who looks back on his early teen years in ’70s Manhattan—memories that allow him to rethink certain decisions he made in his life. Some of Duchovny’s fans might be surprised by this choice of subject matter. After all, Duchovny was once voted one of the 50 sexiest people by People Magazine, and it is his performance as Agent Mulder of The X Files that has so far garnered him his greatest recognition. Yet this sensitive coming-of-age story—bolstered with supporting performances by Robin Williams, Téa Leoni and Frank Langella—reveals Duchovny as a director interested in highly personal storytelling based on autobiographical material.Below the Line: Most people associate you with The X Files. How did you arrive at these themes?David Duchovny: It’s like the themes chose me… The Women’s House of Detention on 11th St. and 6th Avenue in the neighborhood I grew up in, in Manhattan, was a prison in the miDuchovnyle of the city where women used to hang out of the bars [way above the street] and talk to passers-by because they were bored and could get away with it. My image was, what if a 12- or 13-year-old boy who had no mentorship at home—his dad is dead and his mother is going through problems—what if he struck up a relationship with a woman that he never saw, who is incarcerated 150 feet above him, and he came back to her periodically for advice? And I thought, well, that’s an interesting, dramatic and very visual kind of a central image to have in a movie. That was the genesis of the movie, and everything else grew out of that—the themes of the distance between men and women, and a boy becoming a man.BTL: How would you describe the difference between directing for television and features?Duchovny: This is my first feature. I directed three X Files episodes. Technically, I don’t think there’s any difference between directing TV like The X Files and a movie because The X Files was a movie every week. It was technically as good if not better than most movies that you’ll see in the theater. So I had the advantage of being pushed as a director by a crew and by a production staff that was demanding cinematic standards for this television show. Thus for me, House of D was actually a smaller technical feat, a more intimate story than what I had told on The X Files.In terms of storytelling there’s a huge difference because a long-running television show has established characters that in a kind of soap-opera way take you from week to week, and a movie has to stand on its own. That’s the main thing about deciding to make a movie—you have to be dead certain about the central idea, you always have to ask yourself, more as a writer and then as a director, is this a movie?BTL: Isn’t it a common practice to shoot closer in TV?Duchovny: [Yes] because a medium shot on a 40-foot screen is as tight as a tight close-up on television. Your close-up in a movie, that’s going to be your ace in the hole. You’re going to really use that for emphasis, whereas in television it’s more of the end of your run from two-shot to single to close-up, which is pretty much standard television coverage. BTL: How was it working with Michael Chapman [ASC] as your DP?Duchovny: Well, the bottom line was that I knew I was taken care of. Michael shot Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, he operated on Jaws—he’s just a legendary cinematographer and cameraman. So I knew that he wasn’t going to let me do anything that would not work physically, technically. The director is the leader of the film, but the DP is the leader of the crew, and Michael just warrants and demands respect. We were working in New York, and most of the heads of our departments were sons of guys that Michael had worked with 30 years ago. So this was kind of a wonderful experience to have these sons of Michael’s contemporaries wanting to just pour blood out for this guy, because they’d heard so much about him. So I was the beneficiary of all that kind of loyalty.BTL: What was your experience with other key crew members, such as production designer, costume designer?Duchovny: It’s a very fluid relationship [with them] and obviously your casting associates as well; those are the three major departments for heading into filming. In terms of costume, I’m not a real fashion-conscious or clothes-aware person, so I relied on Ellen Lutter, who’s a wonderful costume designer, to bring me a lot of stuff. What a director can bring to a movie is his taste and his instincts, so I could say yea or nay to Ellen and she’d be fine. And the same was true with Lester Cohen, my production designer. We worked very closely before starting the movie on trying to have an authentic 1970s New York look, on our budget; deciding where the money would be best spent. We knew we weren’t making a documentary of the ’70s, so we didn’t have to be slaves to authenticity, but more like how do we make it feel like 1973, which involved subtle touches and not a complete recreation of the period.BTL: How about the cast? You’re billed as starring, but you really occupy the frame story.Duchovny: The star of the movie is Anton Yelchin, the boy; I play him grown up. The second lead is Robin Williams, and then my wife Téa Leoni, and Erykah Badu are kind of co-third leads, and I fall somewhere after that, and then there’s Frank Langella, who also has a significant part.BTL: What was your experience directing your wife?Duchovny: Very satisfying. It was easy for me because I’m a firm believer in her talent, so it wasn’t like I had any doubts about her being wonderful for the part. But on the other hand, she was very nervous and scared of disappointing me, because she doesn’t have as much confidence in herself as I do in her. I’m sure she had a couple of sleepless nights. She’s great.BTL: How involved were you in the editing process?Duchovny: My editor Suzy Elmiger started compiling scenes while we were shooting in New York. I went away to shoot for three days in Paris, and she packed up her stuff and moved to L.A. We started working from day one after the shoot, I didn’t take any time off; I just wanted to get in there and see what I had. Every day it was me and her for 10 weeks. It’s funny because at first you think you have these deep relationships with your DP and production designer, and you think it’s not going to get any more intense than that. And then you have your actors, and you think well, this is it. But then you realize that the most intense relationship involving the most time is with your editor, because you spend months with that person—when everybody else goes home it’s just you and the editor.BTL: Did you have any special requirements about the soundtrack?Duchovny: I hate looping. I hate the way ADR sounds. I talked to my sound recordist Robert Carr during the movie and I said, let’s just get it all and make it usable. Of course, I had to loop some stuff and there was actually a recommendation from the ratings board that I had to change some language things, and that really kind of irritated me, but in general most of the sound was from the set, which is great. And music was so important, layering in the music, figuring out the music level so that it holds up the scenes rather than dominates them.BTL: With Clint Eastwood winning the directing Oscar, it’s the year of the actor/director. What are the benefits and deficits of being an actor/director?Duchovny: Well first, as a writer/director, I know the story inside and out. And as an actor/director—well, I just think actors have been on set a lot if they’ve been lucky enough to work. Both Clint and I have—him a little more than me. If you’re interested in directing and you’re an actor, then you have a great opportunity to
just open your eyes. You can master the rudimentary aspects of filmmaking better than anything you can do in film school. From there it’s just whether or not you have any kind of storytelling ability, and that can’t be taught anyway.BTL: How would you define your style?Duchovny: My style tends to be more invisible. I tend to think that any kind of self-conscious technical virtuosity is going to be just that. BTL: If you worked on a crew, what position would you find most interesting?Duchovny: Probably operator. It’s almost like a sport, it’s physically demanding, and also has to do with storytelling and taste. You know, a great camera operator is going to make moves during a scene that are motivated by his understanding of the scene. It’s such a great asset for a director to have a cameraman who knows the story that he’s filming and doesn’t just leave his camera stuck in one place. It’s physically responsive to the story, and I like that.

Written by Henry Turner

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