James Woods talked to Joblo.com on the set of 'Straw Dogs.' And there were mentions of Kristen and 'An American Girl.' along the way.
Director Rod Lurie’s gotten some great performances out of his actors in his other movies. Is that because he lets the actors add stuff, like you mentioned?
I’ve always noticed that the best writer directors, like Oliver Stone and Marty (Scorcese) writing with Nick Peleggi, Rod, the Polish Brothers…ironically the people that write are the people most open to improvisation with actors. The first little film I did, I did a little 7 minute film I wrote, and I was all for everybody trying different things because if it’s better, you know, I get the credit. One thing Rod does, one of his techniques that I absolutely love and that I’m going to borrow if I get to do this film with Kristen Stewart called AN AMERICAN GIRL, and we’re trying to get the financing but of course it’s about a woman who’s a hero in Iraq so who in Hollywood would want to make that movie? … Maybe I’ll make her a lesbian. Juuuust kidding. Just being provocative.
But seriously, Rod’s very good at—he was a critic, so he’s very prolific and voracious watcher and student of films, and he’ll often in a scene borrow a shot or an idea from another great movie. Like he says, “You can call it borrowing, but I guess I’m just stealing.” And then incorporate it and use it to kinda launch that scene. So he’ll pick just a classic shot that you might not have seen in some little foreign movie that works great for us. And I think that’s a great way to work because it's so situational when you make a movie that even if you borrow something…like the tone of our film is much like CAPE FEAR, the Scorsese version. Very big music and kind of odd in-your-face shots, very kind of expressionistic feel to this movie.
He talks more about the Kristen and AAG after the CUT. Kinda long but interesting read.
You brought up AN AMERICAN GIRL, which started all this. Is that something you’ve written also?
No, no. Tim Metcalfe, who wrote KALIFORNIA and THE HAUNTING IN CONNECTICUT and so on, he had shown me this beautiful script that I bought called AN AMERICAN GIRL. And I called Kristen Stewart before she was famous and said I won’t make this movie with anybody but you. She was Canadian but a wonderful actress and I wanted—
Had you worked with her before?
No, but I knew her because I know Sean (Penn) and she was in INTO THE WILD. And I was talking about directing a movie called WINGED CREATURES that I felt should be cast in a certain way and I tried to buy it from the writer and it got done and it ended up going straight to DVD and the producer wouldn’t listen to me, which is fine. Revenge is sweet. [laughs] But it had a 15 year old girl in it and I called Dennis Quaid and he said I just worked with this girl named Kristen Stewart, and Jodie Foster…they all talked about how fabulous this girl was. I saw her films and I thought she was phenomenal. So I called her up and we talked for an hour. She read the script and she flipped out. If you look at her when she talks in the press and they ask her, "What do you want to do?" She always says, "I want to do AN AMERICAN GIRL. I want to do AN AMERICAN GIRL."
Are you just going to direct it?
Director-producer. She wants me to play her father in it but I don’t want to do that as well because I’ve got a lot to do already.
What’s the movie about?
It's about a young woman who’s really destructive. It's that magical time when you’re Kristen’s age, right after you're out of high school. She was the top swimmer and dive champion in school and all this stuff. Now it's a year later and she lives in a little town in Indiana and the place is dying, rust belt, NAFTA, recession, all that stuff. And she's working in a grocery store and drinking and drugging too much and she's showing off in front of this guy who likes her, and gets involved in a big sex thing with two guys drunk one night at a quarry. And it’s a big inciting incident where she gets taped doing it on somebody's phone and in a small town, her reputation is ruined and on a drunken whim, she joins the Marines, which is ridiculous. The ironic thing is that along the way she starts learning these values she doesn't expect. They're just values like you take your brother, they take care of you. It's not like she's a gung-ho Marine. She starts to sober up and then she starts to do very well and she gets into the Lioness Program because she's smart. The Lioness Program is where they teach these women to speak Arabic, so when they're in combat situations—women in the Muslim world were not comfortable talking to men soldiers but they'd talk to the women soldiers, so these women learned to speak the language and would ask if there were arms or snipers in the house. And she does it. Well, a terrible tragedy happens over there and when she comes back to the town where she was a disaster, she rebuilds her life and finds through this tragedy a greater value in herself. It's COMING HOME, BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES—it's part of that trilogy. It's a phenomenal story and a slam-dunk Oscar script for her.
It’s so not a right wing picture because everybody who reads it—Renee Missel and Jodie Foster read and Renee said, "Oh we’ve gotta call MoveOn.org. This is such a great anti-war picture." The head of the Marine Corps read it and said, "This is such a great marine picture." I said, I’ve finally done it. I’ve found the magical brew.
Why is there trouble getting financing for it?
I’ll tell you what happened. It was just before TWILIGHT came out. I want to tell you how this happened. It’s kind of a fun story. I had just had a terrible personal year. My brother died, God rest his soul, which was the biggest tragedy I could ever imagine. "Shark" got cancelled, which I was fine with because I was just working too hard. I loved the show but it was just… Everything just started happening at once. I had some surgeries. My brother had died. My mom was not doing well. I’d broken up with my girlfriend.
So I pull in to a Holiday Inn. It’s f*cking raining sideways. I’ll never forget, it was 20 minutes to 10 on a Wednesday night. Freemont, Indiana. I go to this Bennigan’s down the road to get something to eat. And this is a commercial for the iPhone. I’m sitting at Bennigan’s just twiddling my phone and I check my email and there’s the PDF of the script from Tim Metcalfe. And it was too small to read on the phone but I thought I’ll just see what the title is. I see AN AMERICAN GIRL and I f*cking love that title. I say, "Well, I’m going to read one page.” 119 pages later I’ve got f*cking tears coming down my face. I call Tim and I go "What are you doing?" And he said, "Well, I’m 54 years old and I’m married and it’s 2:30 in the morning in Vermont: I’m getting blown by the Rockettes, what the f*ck do you think I’m doing? I’m sleeping next to my wife who’s really pissed off you're calling." I said, "Tim just so you know, I’m directing and producing this movie. That’s all there is to it." He said, "Well I sent it to Jodie Foster" and I said, "I love Jodie, she’s a friend of mine. She’s not making this movie. I’m directing this movie." We talk for 5 hours and we worked it out. I paid for it out of my own pocket and I called Kristen Stewart.
Actually I called my casting director from "Shark," Rick Millikan and I said "Rick, do me a favor. Who’s Kristen Stewart’s agent?" And he said “Ken Kaplan at Girsch.” Now I was at CAA at the time. Hadn’t had a job in 10 years. Just kidding… So I said, "Okay, call Ken Kaplan. Tell him that Jimmy Woods has a script that’s an Academy Award part for the girl, but of course Ellen Page will probably get it. (Because it was right at the time of JUNO.) But slip it to him and say you better read this, because if you’re client hasn’t had a chance to read it and Ellen Page wins an Oscar, it’s not going to be good. But whatever you do, don’t let anybody know you read it because you know Jimmy Woods; he’s a lunatic." So he calls him up and her agent says, "No, no. She’s not going to do an independent film" and he says, "You don’t want to have to explain to her like how Jimmy Wood’s agent had to explain why he was never told about RESERVOIR DOGS at CAA." It’s a legendary story. So he says, "Yeah you’re right." He reads it and he calls Rick back he says "Aw, shit. She’s going to want to do this movie."
So he sets up a conversation and she calls me. And I said, "I’m going to give you ownership of the film, because I own the film. You will be my partner in every way on this movie. So feel free to say what you want." And she says, "Oh my God, thank you. I love this movie."
And we spent months together working on the script. The greatest thing I’ve ever heard in my career, she said, "Why am I enjoying this so much? I’ve never been treated this way. You treat me like an equal." I said, "Who understands the mind of a 19 year old girl better than you. You're 19, you’re a girl, but you're an artist as well. You’re at that perfect stage.” And she’s so smart and worked so hard. I wanted her to meet the writer just so he could hear her voice. She was supposed to meet them for 5 minutes. She stayed for 4 hours. She’s absolutely committed.