AFME: Talking with Wes Studi


One of the highlights of the Albuquerque Film and Music Experience (besides the premiere of my own film, that is) was moderating a conversation with actor Wes Studi for an audience in one of the conference halls at the Hotel Embassy Suites. We all know his work, from Dances with Wolves to Last of the Mohicans to Avatar, and all kinds of other interesting stuff along the way: Geronimo: An American Legend (with Gene Hackman, Robert Duvall, Jason Patric, Matt Damon), Being Flynn, New World, Heat. It’s the kind of career I most admire: hard-working, long-lasting, memorable, excellent support-staff for “stars,” filled with integrity: a true character actor. Of course, being a Native American (Cherokee, to be exact) brings all kinds of other challenges, in terms of getting good parts, and all of this together makes his journey unique.

Wes Studi starred in a short film playing at AFME, Ronnie BoDean, directed by Steven Paul Judd. (I found a good article discussing the background of the film.) Watching Ronnie BoDean, I thought: “Well. This clearly needs to be a feature.” Some short films are one-joke wonders, a gimmick, or clearly just a sketch-comedy routine. But the rare ones are so evocative, so tantalizing, that you want more. Ronnie BoDean is like that. So keep your fingers crossed.


I went to see Ronnie BoDean the day before my talk with Wes Studi, so I got to meet him beforehand (always helpful; it was like two weeks ago flying down to Champaign from O’Hare with Guillermo del Toro, whom I was going to be interviewing onstage that night. Not only did we “break the ice,” but we chattered at each other about movies for an hour and a half so that when we did get onstage together later that night, it felt like we were just continuing the earlier conversation.) I sat with Wes Studi and his lovely wife, and we watched the shorts program, including Ronnie BoDean.

Ronnie BoDean tells the story of a hungover tough-guy Native American, who lives in his car, surrounded by empty beer bottles, who ends up babysitting two kids for a crazy 24-hour period. It’s hilarious. You know, it’s hard to do something “new” in cinema. Even very good stories are often re-treads of things we’ve seen a million times before. But as Wes Studi said in our conversation the following day: Ronnie BoDean is a Native American ANTI-hero, and THAT is something we have never seen. What a thrilling concept!

The following morning, we sat onstage in front of an audience of about 30 people, all clearly thrilled to be there (sitting on their hands, basically, waiting for the QA period), and had a great conversation. He is a lovely man: forthcoming, funny, thoughtful.

He spoke about his childhood, only speaking Cherokee until he was 5 years old, when his aunt got him into a boarding school/orphanage-type place, so that he could get an education. His first year there was a whirlwind, but by the end of the year, he spoke English and had forgotten Cherokee. He said he came home at the end of the year, said something to his grandmother in English, and she scolded him in Cherokee: We don’t speak English here! So he had to re-learn Cherokee!

I asked him if there were any performances or movies he saw as a kid that lit the spark in him, that made him think, “Wow, that’s good. I’d like to do that.” (I was especially interested in this because he had a whole life before he got into acting, doing all kinds of different jobs: what makes someone like that go, “Okay. Now I’m gonna try THIS.”) He said that the best acting he ever saw was when he watched wrestling programs on television when he was a kid. There were the “bad” guys, who oozed evil, in their capes and costumes, and the different characters were totally clear as they fought out their epic battles in the ring. (I love this story. Good acting, inspirational acting, is everywhere, not just during Oscar season.)

But what was it, I asked … what was it that made him decide, eventually, to take that risk, and devote himself to acting?

He said that it was the risk itself that drew him to it. Because, he said, the risk is not just that you won’t make a living. (Besides, as he pointed out, he had done a lot of itinerant labor work, and he said acting is very similar to that kind of life.) The risk is also in telling your family and friends, “Yeah, I’m going to go out to Hollywood and be an actor.” Because what if you don’t make it? Who wants to “fail” in such a public way? It was that very risk that made him want to give it a shot.

I asked him about the challenges facing Native Americans in Hollywood, especially since American cinema basically STARTED with Westerns. The mythology of the American West was created mostly through cinema. Studi said that any Native American becoming an actor knows that he will be asked to do what he called “Leathers and feathers” parts. It’s part of the gig. It’s a “way in.” He shared a story, though, about one of his first roles in a TV movie. He had to creep along a roof, ready to shoot someone below, and the director said, “Okay, so when you come along that roof, I want you to be low and sneaky like an Indian.” Wow. Studi said, “So what did I do? I snuck along that roof like a low and sneaky Indian.” You do what you have to do.

We talked about Dances with Wolves and what a phenom it was. It changed his life. His death scene is one of the best scenes in the film. It’s heartbreaking. He described how he worked in a Native American “curios” shop across the street from a movie theatre when Dances with Wolves opened. The shop was called The Teepee. (This is also a good reminder to those who think once you do a movie, you’re all set. Nope. Day jobs are still necessary, even if you’re in Dances with Wolves!) So Wes Studi is working in this shop called The Teepee, and watching lines started stretching down the block across the street to see a movie he was in. And when the audience came out after the film, many of them crossed the street to The Teepee to buy some knick-knacks. Wes Studi could see the emotion on their faces, how devastated they were: “And I think they wanted to do something, you know? To somehow atone for what they just saw. So they bought dream-catchers.” Some people recognized him from Dances with Wolves (which must have been so bizarre), but mostly it was just one of those moments where he realized that a movie he had been in was taking on a life of its own, becoming an important cultural event.


I asked him what it was like to work with Terrence Malick, known for sometimes being more interested in waving tree-tops than human beings. I re-told that hilarious story from Ben Affleck on To the Wonder: Ben is acting, and the camera is off to the side, pointing at his face. He’s playing the scene. Out of his peripheral vision, while he’s acting, he is aware that the camera has swooped away from him and is now pointing up at the sky, to film birds, or trees, or whatever. Ben was like, “Terry, what the hell, I’m acting over here.” (This is just one story of many. Affleck didn’t tell this story in an annoyed way, it was more humorous than that.)


With that as the launch-pad, Wes Studi described how Malick would film scenes simultaneously with 10, 11 cameras. So you never knew which one was “on,” what angle you were being shot from, what was being focused on. (I saw an interview with Studi where he said that it was like doing “theatre in the round.”) And his character has this big monologue, which he delivered beautifully. “And then I saw the final film, and my monologue starts, and suddenly there’s shots of waving grass, and treetops …” People were already laughing. His monologue had become a voiceover for all this nature photography. Oh, Malick! Don’t ever change!

I was also thrilled to ask him what it was like to work with Michael Mann, which he has done twice, in Last of the Mohicans and Heat.


Michael Mann is one of my favorite film-makers. His films LOOK so gorgeous that I sometimes need to watch them multiple times in order to get past the visuals and absorb the story. Wes Studi told a couple of good stories.

One came from the shoot for Last of the Mohicans, where Wes Studi makes a huge impression as the vengeful Magua. He almost takes over the whole film.


They shot much of it in North Carolina, and the cast and crew were staying in an historic inn. In the main room downstairs, there was an old oil painting over the mantelpiece of a horse-drawn carriage going over a bridge, with a river below. Michael Mann was so struck by the painting and he ended up re-creating it in a huge shot in Last of the Mohicans. I love this story because it shows that while Michael Mann obviously is an obsessive planner, and chooses extremely carefully what he wants to shoot before he even gets to location, he is also open to inspiration in the moment. And when he wants something, he will get that something. That painting spoke to him, it was probably painted during the period when the story took place, and he was like: “That. I want THAT to be in the movie.”

Wes Studi said that Michael Mann’s obsession for detail means that he can be very hard on his crew. (Not the actors, but the crew.) A lot of crew members don’t last long. He’s a task-master, and he knows the look he wants. Studi told a story about getting a friend of his who was a makeup artist (maybe a tattoo artist, too?) come on the set of Last of the Mohicans to create a lightning-bolt on one of the character’s faces. And Michael Mann would stand right there, as the makeup artist painted it onto the actor. Mann would give comments, saying, “No, make it a little lower/higher”: like, every point and angle of that lightning-bolt had to pass muster with Michael Mann. And finally, the artist couldn’t take it anymore! This was fascinating to me, and honestly I’m not surprised. Michael Mann’s films are so exquisite-looking – like, every single frame – that of course he would run his crew ragged to get the look he wanted.

“There are some shots in Heat,” said Wes Studi, “that look like an Armani ad or something.”

So true. I mentioned one of my favorite shots: Al Pacino, Wes Studi, and two of the other cops, are on a stakeout, waiting for the criminals to steal stuff from inside that gigantic warehouse. The four men are shot in profile, staring down at the loading dock from a nearby building. There are four faces in the frame, and each one is staggered a little bit in front of the other, so you get four profiles in one, with noir-ish Venetian blind shadows across the whole thing. Each of them are in dark suits. It’s a magnificent image. It lasts less than 5 seconds. Imagine the time and the thought that it took to create just that one image!

I was not prepared at all for Wes Studi to turn the conversation around and start asking ME questions. “Enough about me, what do you think about me,” Wes Studi cracked. But he started asking me about being a film critic as WELL as a screenwriter, and how did that work? (I have no idea.) He said, “Because actors, you know, we look at film critics almost like the enemy.” So I talked a little bit about how I started being a film critic, which was almost by accident. I talked about the French New Wave guys, Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol, Resnais – who all started out as film critics, in love with B-movies from America. Then they started making their own movies, revolutionizing and energizing world cinema. We don’t really have a similar situation in America, the two worlds – critic and film-maker – are much more separated. I said, “But once you know the amount of collaboration that goes into making even just a short film – it’s amazing not only that anything GOOD is made, but that anything is made at ALL.”

I only mention this comment of mine because a woman came up to me afterwards who has worked in props departments and production design for 30 years, on enormous expensive Hollywood movies. And she was like, “THANK YOU for saying that!” She told this hilarious story about working on Pearl Harbor and how Michael Bay wanted some of the weaponry to be “lavender.” The sheer level of detail that goes into any single shot in any movie blows your mind … so when a 3-hour movie, say, WORKS? Frankly, it’s a miracle. Those who insist that the director is totally responsible for any given movie just don’t know how it works. Yes, he’s the Boss. But what about all of the departments who make his vision happen? Who make bombs the right shade of lavender?

It was a blast hearing him talk about Ronnie BoDean and wanting to create an “anti-hero” that hadn’t been seen before. In the conversations he and Judd had, when planning the project, they discussed how they wanted to “embrace” some of the stereotypes about Native Americans (they’re drunk, they’re criminals, etc.), and show all of these things in a straightforward comedic way that has never been done before. How many movies have we all seen where a criminal-type is then thrown into a situation (i.e. babysitting, as is the case with Ronnie BoDean) where you see another side of him? Or the Tough Guy thrown into a situation for which he is not prepared?

Ronnie BoDean is first seen rising up from the front seat of his car, hungover, cigarette in his mouth, with a dangling ash longer than the cigarette ever was. His hair is long and straight. (“Thank God I already had a long wig,” said Wes Studi.) He looks rough. In a drunken haze, he watches as a woman is dragged out of her house by two cops, presumably for disturbing the peace. Her two blonde-pipsqueak children are left behind. Ronnie BoDean realizes that their mama is probably drying out in jail for the day, so he rolls out of the car, scattering empty bottles, stalks forward in his motorcycle boots, determined to take care of the kids for the day. What then goes down is hilarious, “inappropriate,” endearing, but more than all of that: it’s COMPELLING and TANTALIZING: You want to see more, you want to know more about Ronnie BoDean’s background and character and life. Who is he? What’s his life been like?

Studi talked a lot about the struggles for Native American actors. He says he does not like to be called an “activist,” and that if you want to work in “the business” you have to accept Leathers and Feathers roles as part of the gig, a valid entry-way. But he’s at the point in his career now (Get ready for Penny Dreadful!) where people say “Let’s get Wes Studi” – or, “Let’s get a Wes Studi type.” Once you yourself are a “type,” you know you’re at another level. I asked him if he felt he needed to “combat” stereotypes and he said not necessarily, or at least that’s not the attitude he starts from. He wants to work as an actor. He works within the framework that exists. He came along at a time when a lot of stereotypes were being challenged, when film-makers were interested in looking at the myth of the American West in new and more nuanced ways. But why can’t a Native American actor just play a doctor, or a lawyer? He joked, “You know, you always get offered parts where your character says stuff like, ‘The eagle flies into the dawn and the rocks and the grass speak of our spirits …” (laughter from the audience) and he mentioned The Mystery Men, where he played The Sphinx, a humorous “spin” or “spoof” on that kind of stereotypical “wise sage” role.


The second I opened the whole thing up for questions, practically every hand went up in the air. The discussion following was in-depth, generous, thought-provoking.

Studi said, “Listen, we — ” (meaning Native Americans) “can’t sit around waiting for Hollywood to give us better roles. We have to create and tell our own stories.”

Ronnie BoDean is the future. Get ready for it.


This entry was posted in Actors and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

36 Responses to AFME: Talking with Wes Studi

  1. So glad you were able to post this. I just re-watched Last of the Mohicans by chance and was reminded of how definitive his Magua is. That’s a classic story that will get retold on film every generation or two but I can’t imagine he’ll ever be equalled let alone surpassed. But he’s always one of those guys you want to watch, no matter who’s on screen with him.

    • sheila says:

      It really is a great and layered performance. You can see where he’s coming from, of course. If someone killed my whole family …

      But he brought levels of insecurity to it – pleading with the elder to let him do what he wants to do – so there was also a submissive thing going on – that Magua fought against.

      And then that extraordinary last scene with the girl going off the cliff.

      He’s so excellent – and I love it when excellent actors are also nice and generous.

      Let’s hope Ronnie BoDean “goes” – it deserves it!

    • sheila says:

      He also does a lot of mentorship of young film-makers on reservations and elsewhere – helping them to develop some skills so that they know they can “do it”, that their stories are worth telling. He and his wife both do this work.

      It’s very inspiring and he says the kids really take to it.

  2. sheila says:

    Humorously, there was an after-party on Friday night – that I didn’t attend because I was at a screening – but my mother went to it, with Annika Marks (lead in my film) and her parents – and there was awesome live music, etc – I got a text from my mother at 11:45 at night saying, “The place is still rocking!” and I was like, “Who are you and what have you done with my mother …”

    But my mother really is up for anything and she had a great time.

    But anyway, Wes Studi arrived and she saw him come in – and she didn’t want to bother him or intrude but at one point they were standing next to each other and listening to the music – so she introduced herself and said she was my daughter and how much she was looking forward to our talk, etc – and he was so nice to her, and chatted with her for a bit. When they saw each other the next morning before our talk, there was that familiarity there.

    It’s a really really nice festival – small enough that that kind of community is formed – and you get to know practically everyone.

  3. sheila says:

    I also had not seen Geronimo when it aired on television and I highly recommend it. You can rent it off of Amazon Prime – maybe it’s on Netflix too? Not sure.

    He has a terrific scene with Gene Hackman (who is great – I miss him) and there’s some excellent scenes between Geronimo and Jason Patric’s character. The final scene is crushing – not just because of the plot, but because of Wes Studi’s posture. It’s details like that – the story is IN HIM – that really makes a character actor.

  4. Yeah, that’s one I need to get on video. I’ve only seen bits of it on TV and it looked intriguing (don’t see how it could miss with Walter Hill and that cast). I’m going on memory, but I gotta believe anybody who made that great a Magua would make an equally great Geronimo!

    • sheila says:

      Best of all, he’s really the lead. Magua is huge in Mohicans but he’s not the lead. Geronimo is front and center. His entrance alone! On a white horse!

      and yes: Walter Hill! I thought it was very good.

  5. Carolyn Clarke says:

    Lovely article which enough information to be satisfying but also makes me curious enough to find out more. I enjoyed Mr. Studi’s performances in both Heat and The Last of the Mohicans. To almost steal a movie from Daniel Day Lewis is remarkable. Glad to hear that you appreciate Michael Mann. He is one of my favorite movie makers. As you say, his visuals are gorgeous and so dense and detailed. Have you seen Blackhat? Not on the level of Heat, but entertaining nevertheless with some fantastic shots. I will be looking for Ronnie BoDean.

    • sheila says:

      Carolyn –

      I loved Blackhat! Talk about gorgeous visuals – plus that opening! With the “virus” taking over the computer. I love his stuff. Miami Vice is great. Public Enemies. The Insider. I think he’s a master. Very very stylish – but one of the things I think is really great about Michael Mann is his brilliance in casting – and I don’t think that gets enough attention – that that’s one of the most important jobs as a director. The casting in The Insider is just perfection – people who have 1, 2 scenes – or even just 1 – the thought and care given to gathering this ensemble, every part of it as important as the whole …

      I think he’s really gifted in sensing talent.

      • carolyn clarke says:

        Yes, casting. Mr. Mann seems to have magic when it comes to casting the right people for his movies. I don’t work in the movies at all, obviously. I’m just a huge fan but that seems so important and some people just don’t get it. So many movies and TV shows are just ruined because of poor casting that just destroys the illusion. Sad. Such a waste.

        My only minor gripe with Michael Mann is his avoidance of giving the women in his movies a full life like he gives his male characters. I loved Blackhat and Miami Vice and Thief but the women in his pictures are adjuncts to the men. They are all strong women but I’m not sure if he likes them as much as he likes his male characters. I loved Crime Story but I don’t think there was a regular female character in the whole series.

        • sheila says:

          Agreed in re: Michael Mann’s female characters. He’s definitely a BOY filmmaker, with all the advantages and limitations that implies.

          And yeah, the peripheral woman are usually very well drawn and (of course) beautifully cast – one of my favorites is Debi Mazar in The Insider – such a small nothing part, but boy does she add to the texture of that film!

          I’m trying to think … – the romance with Marion Cotillard in Public Enemies became, really, the whole point of that story – and the point of Dillinger – which I think is rather unique for Mann.

    • sheila says:

      Oh and it’s kind of an exciting time for him right now because he is at a place where he’s called in for stuff – as opposed to having to do audition. Like, he’s at a level where the Penny Dreadful people are like, “Let’s get Wes Studi for this”.

      It’s a great position for an actor to be in. He did say that people pass him scripts all the time – hopeful film-makers, some of them Native American – and he said that sometimes he thinks these people have an “inflated sense” of his power in the industry. Like, he’s not at the point where he can wave his hand and get something green-lit.

      Still: he spoke quite hopefully of the new generation of film-makers coming up, out of the reservations, or pueblos, the Native American film-makers – and he also said (and I loved the real practical honesty of this) – that unlike the rest of the people in the industry – they’re new at it. Other minorities have been making their own movies for decades now – right? – and “they” are just starting now. So everyone is learning how to do it, playing “catch up” basically – and that’s a good thing. I don’t know, I just really liked how he talked about that aspect of the community that is now growing.

      I would love to see some of these stories make it out into the mainstream. Native American stories – told by them – filmed by them – from THEIR point of view, not a white point of view. It feels like that time is long overdue.

      Anyway: hopeful times, at least how Wes Studi talked about it.

  6. Jessie says:

    Thank you so much for reporting back! Loved reading this and so glad to hear that it was so successful and the audience was so involved! Did anyone mention Kings by any chance?

    Ronnie BoDean sounds awesome!

    • sheila says:

      Jessie – it was a lot of fun! Hmmm, I don’t think anyone mentioned Kings – I don’t think I saw that either. A lot of people mentioned the 3 TV movies he did of adaptations of Tony Hillerman’s books – the most famous being Skinwalkers – there was a lot of hope in that audience that they would start up that “series” again and film more of those books.

      Penny Dreadful definitely came up!! :) He said, “So there’s an Indian wandering around 19th century Victorian London – who knew? But yes, I guess we were there!”

      Very much looking forward to catching up with all of that.

      Hopefully the short film of Ronnie BoDean will show up online somewhere, at some point – and I know they funded it themselves (Kickstarter?) – so I hope they go further with it to a feature-length. The audience response to that character – teaching the kids hustling card-tricks so they have a “skill” – hahaha – was insane!!

  7. Mr. Lion says:

    I’ve always loved Wes Studi’s work– he’s one of the rarest type of actor, the sort you don’t recognize until having seen a film three or four times, at which point, holy crap– it’s them. I can’t think of a role he’s ever done that he didn’t simultaneously own and redefine. Perhaps the most stark example, for me, is Heat. It takes chops to work beside someone like Pacino and work a supporting character that is interesting in its own right, and not simply an accessory to the scene.

    There’s also one scene in Mohicans where there’s a quick cut between Studi and Russell Means staring at each other. There is so much going on there I had to watch it dozens of times. Just wow.

    • sheila says:

      Mr. Lion – thanks so much for these great and very specific observations!

      // It takes chops to work beside someone like Pacino and work a supporting character that is interesting in its own right, and not simply an accessory to the scene. //

      Yes! I mean, what does he do – he takes orders from Pacino over the phone – he listens (but listening is so important – especially for a character actor) – and he’s just THERE, part of the atmosphere – so important.

      // where there’s a quick cut between Studi and Russell Means staring at each other. //

      Now I need to go back and watch for that moment.

      I LOVE how much is “going on” inside Magua: the closeups are so layered, so fascinating – he’s not just a single-minded “villain.” He’s got so much going on.

  8. Desirae says:

    I’d want to see Ronnie BoDean based on that poster alone.

    • sheila says:

      Right? I hope that at least the short will be available on Youtube eventually – I actually haven’t checked if it’s “out there” to be seen – maybe after its festival circuit has passed.

  9. Todd Restler says:

    Really interesting stuff. This stood out to me:

    “Wes Studi said that Michael Mann’s obsession for detail means that he can be very hard on his crew. (Not the actors, but the crew.) A lot of people don’t last long. He’s a task-master, and he knows the look he wants.”

    This isn’t surprising to me, only a perfectionist could make movies as good-looking as Mann.

    The “obsession for detail” and “knowing the look he wants” are probably what makes him a great director.

    Somewhat unrelated, I just listened to David Fincher’s commentary track for Zodiac (I think one of the best movies of the last decade, and certainly one of the best commentary tracks I’ve ever listed to.)

    Two thoughts from that which remind me of Studi’s Mann observation:

    The opening (actually 2nd) shot of Zodiac shows a POV shot from a car driving down a suburban street, and for those who have seen the movie, it’s an unforgettable shot. Fincher wanted the shot to be “clinical”, and not have the audience identify with the driver or anything seen out the window. But if he mounted the camera on the car, the car would jiggle a little, and put the audience in the POV of the driver. If he mounted the camera on a dolly next to the car, the street would jiggle, and the audience would identify with the people in the street. (or so he said)

    To solve the problem, he laid tracks down for the CAR, and his crew PUSHED the car down the street on the tracks. Took forever to figure out, but totally worth it as it’s mesmerizing. But to be on that crew while these conversations were happening must have been frustrating.

    Later on, there is a brief scene between Mark Ruffalo and Jake Gyllenhaal outside a courtroom. Nothing fancy, but Fincher said it took at least 50 takes. Said Fincher” I want to cut when I want to cut- not because an actor muffed a line or there was a camera bump or something was out of focus. So we keep doing it until it’s right”.

    Maybe THAT is what makes a great director, having the BALLS to make great actors like these do take after take until it’s perfect.

    I wish ALL directors were as “obsessed” as Fincher and Mann!

    • sheila says:

      I love that story from Zodiac too.

      It’s like Hitchcock finally putting a small lightbulb in the glass of milk Cary Grant carries up the stairs in Suspicion. He wanted that poisoned milk to GLOW. And how could you do that? Have a small spotlight follow it up? No. That wouldn’t look right.

      They experimented and hashed it out. Finally it was like:

      Okay, so someone figure out how to have a bare lightbulb immersed in a glass of liquid – and then somehow turn it “on” – so that the whole glass glows.

      And of course someone did figure it out and it’s such an unforgettable and creepy image.

      I think a lot of this is not just making sure you get what you want – but knowing what you want in the first place.

    • sheila says:

      Oh and I watched that opening sequence of ZODIAC last night (I feel the same way about the film as you do – and best of all, that feeling doesn’t lessen with repeat watchings – I’ve probably seen it 20 times at this point).

      Obviously David Fincher knew what he wanted for that car ride through the neighborhood – and I think his instincts were so spot on! You’re moving with the car – but you’re somehow separate from the car – you’re locked in to a point of view (like the overhead shot where you follow the cab) – there is no escape from that particular point of view – and you just wouldn’t have that omniscience if the camera was attached to the car, or if the car jiggled in any way – or if the outside world jiggled.

      I love that – it shows just how specific the great directors are. They see it in their head. They know what the story needs. And then they have to figure out how to execute it.

  10. Todd Restler says:

    Yes, I’m starting to understand that great film-making has less to do with “happy accidents” (wonderful though they may be- example from Zodiac: Downey stopping the cab so he could bend down and retrieve his notebook) and more to do with good old fashioned elbow grease and hard work.

    Yes, I think these great directors often know exactly what they want, and the success of the film hinges on whether they can actually find a way to get it. I’m not sure I described Fincher’s explanation of that opening shot perfectly, but that was the general idea. He KNEW the look he needed, and wasn’t going to quit until he got it. I’m sure many directors would have given up before they figured it out.

    Another funny anecdote from the filming: There was a bar scene with Downey and Jake G, and Downey told Fincher he had this neat trick where he could balance some drinking straws together into a triangle and pick them up with a 4th straw, and would Fincher mind if he did this in the scene.

    Seemed like a great idea at the time, and he nailed the trick on the first take. But when the went to get “coverage” of the scene from a different angle, they needed Downey to repeat the trick for continuity, and he couldn’t do it. It took more then 50 takes until he got it right. Gyllenhaal wanted to KILL Downey!

    Fincher ” The actors inspiration becomes the bane of his existence.”

    I’ve devoured everything on that DVD, 2 great commentary tracks, and interviews with pretty much every principal figure in the case. Also really cool stuff on the filming of certain digital effects, which were everywhere in the movie but seemed to be nowhere.

    I’m becoming a little obsessed with the case myself! While it’s officially “unsolved”, the circumstantial evidence against Arthur Leigh Allen is pretty overwhelming, so it’s less about finding the right guy than proving it. But doubt will always remain which is why the case fascinates.

    • sheila says:

      And – something I think critics don’t give directors enough credit for ever – because most (male) critics think the director is the be-all end-all: if they actually listened to what Fincher said, he’s talking about the miracle of his actors CONSTANTLY. That the majority of the film was a success merely because of how he cast it and the TYPES of actors he got.

      I get so frustrated when people talk about great films and leave out the acting. It’s like talking about baseball without giving the players their due. As though the club manager or pitching coach is solely responsible.

      Drives me crazy.

      At one point Fincher says, “This is the kind of scene with Robert Downey Jr. where you just need to stay out of his way.”

      And by casting, say, Anthony Edwards – he knew what he wanted, and he knew that Edwards could bring it – or Elias Koteas (the sudden close-up of him in that masterful interrogation scene is – actually – why I think the whole thing works. Everything else works beautifully – but if he wasn’t there it flat out would not be the scene that it was. And Fincher loves him as an actor – who the hell doesn’t – and there’s a REASON he gave HIM that sudden close-up and not the two leads. )

      Fincher said he would occasionally just watch the scenes unfold in awe at the magic of what these actors were doing. How Ruffalo would “adjust’ himself physically during the first couple of takes – and then suddenly, Voila, there was this whole “person.” Or how he would give the actors slight adjustments, and they are so skilled that they could run with it fully – so that Fincher could then choose between a couple of different options. You need actors who can do that in order for you to see what DOESN’T work as well as what DOES.

      I love his skill as a director, sure, but I love the kudos he gives to his actors, throughout.

      Have you read Graysmith’s book? I got obsessed with the case in college and read it. He sure makes a strong case – and I find it very convincing – overwhelming, like you say. DNA evidence would have solved this casein 5 seconds had it existed.

      I love the story about the cocktail straws and Downey having to re-create it in take after take. Ha!! I love that he’s that kind of actor, though – who sets challenges for himself. That scene lasts, what, 15 seconds or something?

      “Blue Rock Springs. Beriessa Lake.”
      “WASH — ington and Cherry.”

    • sheila says:

      One thing that really blew me away from Fincher’s commentary track is the discussion of the use matte paintings in the background. Amazing! What artistry, right?

      I love the other commentary track too, with James Ellroy (I love him!) and also Gyllenhaal and Downey Jr. – whose chemistry is so wonderful I’d love to see them work together again. They make a great team: JG’s earnestness up against RDJ’s world-weary humor. Love it.

  11. Todd Restler says:

    Oh I am so excited that you watched those commentaries! There is so much there they are really treasures. Yes, Fincher gives his actors a TON of credit. Love how he kept telling Downey to “just do what Anthony Edwards does, watch how he walks, watch how he drives…”

    I think Edwards spending all those years on ER doing technical, procederal, process type work really helped him here.

    I love how Fincher described the scene where the detectives search the trailer. He talked about how hard it is for actors to just “do” something with no dialogue and make it interesting, and how Edwards and Ruffalo were generous in that they were completely involved in the “process” of being detectives, rather then doing anything to call attention to themselves.

    And Elias Koteas is GREAT in a small role. I love when Jake G shows up in the middle of the night at the police station, you see Koteas for a few seconds deciding to let him in, and it’s like a miniature character study.

    Fincher talks about how Koteas and Edwards are like “great point guards in basketball”, they “facilitate”, making everyone else’s job easier by being willing to do just what is required, and nothing more.

    The casting was a huge reason the movie worked, having strong, recognizable actors like these (and Donal Logue and Dermot Mulroney and James Le Gros) in small roles really helps orient the viewer in a story that spans many decades and locations.

    Yes, the effort that was made through Matte Paintings and digital effects to get the desired look and feel was truly amazing.

    I have not read the Zodiac books yet but I definitely plan on it.

    James Ellroy was a pisser!

    • sheila says:

      Oh, I’ve watched those commentary tracks 100 times! They’re particularly good examples of what commentary tracks can provide. (I’m not a fan, in general.)

      and yes – Fincher said Edwards was great at the “assist.” PERFECT way to put it. That’s what a character actor needs to do – better than anyone. Be able to do an “assist” like they do on the basketball court. One guy needs to make the shot – but he can’t do it without a guy able to “assist.” Fabulous.

      The “process” conversation was awesome too – because these men are defined by their jobs – all of them – and they were obsessed with the case – while still trying to juggle having a life outside. And of course the job always wins because you can’t work the Zodiac case and have a regular 9 to 5.

      There was no “star turn” in Zodiac – another reason I loved it. It’s truly an ensemble picture. Dermot Mulroney in two scenes and killing it. Brian Cox – hilarious! James Le Gros!

      Think the film is a masterpiece, quite honestly.

    • sheila says:

      Oh, and look out. The Zodiac books have the potential to take over your whole life. hahaha I finally just had to stop.

    • sheila says:

      Elias Koteas has long been a favorite of mine -I think I first saw him in that one amazing scene in Living Out Loud (have you seen it, Todd? It is EXCELLENT) – and was like, “Holy crap, who is that.”

      A while back the AV Club did one of their “random roles” interviews with Elias Koteas – and it’s awesome. I love that series.

      You might have read it already but let me find a link.

      • sheila says:

        Here it is!

        The Dabney Coleman “Random Roles” is also a favorite.

      • Todd Restler says:

        Great Read! I totally forgot about him in Some Kind of Wonderful.

        Loved him in Thin Red Line too, I want to see a 20 hour Director’s cut of that film.

        I never get actors that can’t watch themselves – isn’t that the whole reason to be in movies?!

      • sheila says:

        // isn’t that the whole reason to be in movies?! //

        Ha. Not at all!

        Gena Rowlands doesn’t watch her movies either.

        and yeah, re-reading that – you realize 1. how long he’s been around and 2. how good he is – always.

        It’s my favorite kind of career!!

  12. Todd Restler says:

    I guess the acting is the thing for them, not the final product. It cracked me up to hear him say he had never actually watched The 4th Kind. So you mean I’ve seen a movie you star in and you have never seen it?

    The Coen Brothers say they NEVER watch their own films which I find completely bizarre. I mean, guys, they’re pretty freakin’ good, you should check them out!

    But then I remember the commentary from Thelma and Louise, and Geena Davis said she had watched the movie hundreds of times (now THAT makes sense to me), but I guess to each their own.

    • sheila says:

      Gena Rowlands says she prefers the memory of making the movie. She doesn’t want it solidified in her memory into the final product – i.e. – the movie itself – because it’s not about that for her. It was the experience of making it.

      She’s not a fan of herself. Most actors aren’t fans of themselves. They like working. They do the job, onto the next thing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.