Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Lesley Coffin talks to Gil Bellows about Three Days in Havana

It’s hard to believe that Gil Bellows has been a regular in movies for more than 20 years, but he made his film debut in 1994 as the sacrificial lamb in modern classic Shawshank Redemption Tommy Williams. After breaking into films, he’s become a respected character actor on both the large and small screen, most notably starring in the TV series Ally McBeal and The Agency. Besides his impressive producing career (which we get into), he is also moving into writing and directing, which he did in his starring vehicle Three Days in Havana, a wrong man themed neo-noir, which he co-wrote and directed with friend Tony Pantages.

Lesley Coffin: I just saw Greg Wise in the movie Effie Grey before watching this film, and comparing his roles, I was struck by the incredible range he has. How did Greg come to be cast in this kind of role?

Gil Bellows: Greg and I have been friends for a very long time. He and my wife did a miniseries for the BBC 20 or 21 years ago, called The Buccaneers based on the Edith Warton novel. And it was kind of a magical summer when they were making it because it starred my wife Rya, Carla Gugino, Allison Elliot, and Mira Sorvino playing these four young debutantes. So they shot in all these incredibly beautiful locations all summer and I just took the summer off to travel with them and hang out. And I met Greg and loved him. Greg is one of the greatest guys on planet earth, and we’ve always wanted to work together. And what was really interesting was with the exception of the bad stuff his character does, all the charming, fun, handsome, charismatic, slightly mischievous qualities of his character is really who Greg is and he got to share that part of himself in this film. Not to mention the fact that he is this kick ass actor. He was my one and only choice.

Coffin: And at a certain point before all the bad stuff happens the film almost feels like a buddy movie and we can just enjoy you two just hanging out in Cuba.

Bellows: It was fun. We definitely want to work together again soon.

Coffin: You also got to direct your wife and share a couple of scenes with her. Had you two worked together before?

Bellows: We had a theater company together in New York years ago. And we had done a number of shows together before on stage. In film and TV though we had done little things together. We did an episode of Criminal Minds that a friend of ours was directing. And one of her first jobs, it might have actually been her first lead in a movie, they needed a guy to flirt with her, so I did that. We had done little bits together, but this was different because we both had larger roles. She had to get on a plane and come out for a couple of days. But I want to work with her again soon. It’s crazy how time flies because when we were running the theater company, we did five or six plays a year, so we got to work together a lot. And now, we work together at home.

Coffin: Is it hard to direct people you know that well and suddenly take on the authoritarian role?

Bellows: It would have been if I were directing the film by myself. Having Tony and his eye there was one of the reasons I wanted to co-direct it. And the other part, was i got to hand pick these actors, so I knew they would be great. The exercise of directing them was all about creating an environment of comfort and safety. One of the things I really love about the movie are all the performances by those actors. When Rya and I had a theater company, it was an opportunity to make something with people we respected in a relatively short amount of time. And translating that into film makes that harder because the budgets are always bigger, and the regulations of the business. I had done a film called The Night for Dying Tigers which was written, produced, directed, edited, and DP’d by this one guy, Terry Miles. And he made the film on a slightly smaller budget than we did, but he was able to bring together this amazing group of actors.

Coffin: When you started writing the film, did you know that this was a role you wanted to play, or were you just writing the script and realized you could play it?

Bellows: I wanted to play a role. And I wanted to create a vehicle for myself that allowed me to play this character who would be experiencing one event after another as an observer, and also provide a showcase for these other actors to play off me and really celebrate their work.

Coffin: Besides being set in Havana, which has its own unique look, there is clearly an awareness on your part of creating a visual style and tone of some classic films. Were you using any specific films as inspiration?

Bellows: Absolutely. Everyone in my generation working in this business loves movies from the late 60s and 70s. They were seminal in our personal development and some of the best movies ever made. And Tony and I joked that is Michelangelo Antonioni, The Coens, and Hitchcock had a wild night together, this film might be close to the results.

Coffin: You are able to get pretty physical in the role, more physical than I remember seeing you before. Was it fun to get your hands dirty and play act the fights?

Bellows: Oh, absolutely. Some of it wasn’t fun. The water boarding scene, even when simulating it, that is unpleasant to do. But having said that, getting beat up, wielding a gun, is a fun part of my job, and I took full advantage.

Coffin: Considering this was your first time directing, did you shadow or train with anyone before taking on the responsibility?

Bellows: Not formally, but I feel as if I had been shadowing people my whole career. I’ve been blessed to get to work with some really amazing directors in my life, in film and TV. I tried my best to take in everything I saw them do, in case one day I took up directing. And also when I saw things I definitely would not want to repeat, I did my best to make sure I didn’t do that.

Coffin: Your character is Canadian, you are a Canadian, and I know you look for projects to film in Canada when possible. What is the difference between making movies in the US and making films in Canada that motivates you to return?

Bellows: There are a number of difference. And yet the thing about what we do, there is an international language of film. But there are distinct, cultural differences. And one of them in Canada is that every time, you have less money than you need, less time than you need, and everyone wants to be there. And I’m not saying the same thing doesn’t occur in the states, but I have worked on film with enormous budgets and schedules, some of which didn’t need everything they had. And I don’t think I’ve ever worked on a film in Canada like that. I’ve never worked on a project where someone could say “just shave a week off the schedule, it won’t be a problem.” Also, I left my home and Canada at 18, so when I go back, there is always a reminder of home, even if I’m nowhere near where I grew up. There is still some element of a thread that connects the whole country together that makes me feel at home.

Coffin: When you left home to move to the States, were you leaving specifically to pursue an acting career?

Bellows: Yeah, that was it.

Coffin: You know that at 18, most people don’t have that clear an idea of the career they want to pursue. What propelled you to go out on your own at such a young age?

Bellows: I love the concept of storytelling, I always have. In my heart, I consider myself to be a storyteller. And I’d been exposed to a wide range of movies from a young age. My mother is, and always has been, a movie lover, and movies played a big role in her life, and she shared that passion with me and my sister. Although I was much more interested in movies than my sister was, so when there was a movie she wanted to see, I tended to be the one to go with her. And my mother is from France, and she’s a twin whose sister is married to a French actor. And he was the funniest person I knew growing up. So when we would visit Paris, we would go to the theater to see him perform. It always felt like part of me and it was something I knew I needed to explore. So when I was in high school, I started studied at the Arts Club Theater with a teacher who was very encouraging. And then I got into the American Academy of Dramatic Arts Conservatory and studied there, and I loved it and all the crazy people studying with me. And it felt like the right road, for me, and when there felt like there wasn’t a way to move forward, every time a door or window would open up with a new opportunity.

Coffin: I know that you studied in theater for years, but when you made the move to the big screen, you really kind of burst onto the scene by debuting in The Shawshank Redemption and following that up with a variety of leading roles. How do you navigate your career to make sure you have the longevity necessary to make a living?

Bellows: The amazing thing about this business is the fact that there are so many different ways to get from here to there, and there are some amazing stories about those different paths. There are sort of three anecdotes I hold on to about this business that make sense for me. There was an old SCTV episode with Tony Bennett, right before his second or third comeback, and he said “show business is the one business where if you make it, lose it, and make it again, then you’ve really made it.” Because it’s a business that welcomes that and celebrates comeback. I think the biggest example of that in my generation is Robert Downey Jr. The guy couldn’t have been bigger when he was in his late teens and early 20s, but then he couldn’t have been closer to death or spending the rest of his life behind bars, and now he’s the biggest star in the world. And there is quote from Walter Matthau who said “All you need is 50 big breaks” and that makes a lot of sense, since hopefully you have a long life, with opportunities. But as that circle turns, if you’ve stayed connected to your values, they’ll come around to you. One of the beautiful examples of that is what happened to Robert Forster. He was big part of the 60s and 70s film movement, and then he wasn’t, but when Quentin Tarantino called him up, he was ready and restarted this solid, excellent career that he should have had the whole time. With the exception of a very few people, that is an actor’s life, the ups and downs most people go through, and I can only focus on trying to be a part of quality stuff.

Coffin: Besides the writing and directing you’ve done with this film, people should also know you are a pretty successful producer as well. You made the movie Sweet Land and the TV movie Temple Grandin, which tonally, couldn’t be less like Three Days in Havana. When you take on that business side on a film, what motivates you to take them on?

Bellows: For Sweet Land, Ali Selim, who I had become very good friends with, sent me an early draft of the script. And I read it and told him “this is a beautiful script, and it has to be made, and it will be impossible to get it made. But I will do whatever I have to get it made.” And then of course, ten years later, the money came together but I was doing a mini-series and they wouldn’t let me go for two days to be in it, which was heartbreaking. The guy who ended up playing that role, did a great job. But really was heartbreaking for me. But it was so great to finally see the impact that film had on the audiences that saw it. And Temple Grandin took the same amount of time to get made, but it’s been fantastic to see the impact that film has had. Not just how it was received, but the awareness and understanding it's brought to autism and what families go through. So producing is something I will always do to help good projects get made. And hopefully directing is something I will get to do again, and acting is still my first love and I still look forward to doing it.

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