This Friday, William H. Macy’s KRYSTAL, his third film as director, releases in the Triangle area. The movie is a intriguingly weird comedy drama about an 18-year old named Taylor (Nick Robinson), who falls for the title character, a 38-year old ex-hooker-stripper-junkie-alcoholic (she’s often referred to by these terms), played by Rosario Dawson.
I spoke with Macy about the film, in which he appears as Taylor’s father, Wyatt, alongside a strong supporting cast including Kathy Bates, William Fichtner, T.I., Grant Gustin, Jacob Latimore, and Macy’s wife Felicity Huffman, and he provided a lot of insight into the very offbeat production.
Film Babble Blog: Watching KRYSTAL, I kept thinking that with that cast, and those themes all being batted around it must have been a lot of fun to shoot.
William H. Macy: It was. You’re not wrong – it’s a very complicated movie, there’s a lot of balls in the air. It has a very delicate tone because it goes from high farce to high tragedy in a nano second. But I just loved the dialogue that [Will] Aldis wrote, and I loved the characters.
FBB: How did Aldis’s screenplay come into your orbit?
WHM: The film was produced by a woman named Rachel Winter, who I’ve been working with a long time now, and Dan Keston, and they sent the script to me to look at to perhaps act in, and when I read it – I just saw the film in my mind’s eye completely, and very much out of character for me, I said “can I direct this thing?” So they told me, “Yeah, you can direct it.” So this is the first one I ever tried to direct. It turns out it’s the third one I actually directed because it took us 12 years to get the thing made.
FBB: So you said there were many balls in the air, and I can see why because it’s a number of things – it’s a coming-of-age story, an ensemble comedy, and there, are like you said, farcical elements, but I really didn’t expect it to get as surreal as it did with the visions of Satan.
WHM: One of the things I really appreciate in films these days is surprise. I love it when I don’t know where the plot is going, and I’m surprised by where it does go. And, more importantly, when I’m surprised by the solution – ‘I didn’t see that coming!’ And this one has that in spades.
FBB: I was indeed surprised by all the visual tricks with the Satan imagery.
WHM: Yeah, it gets supernatural there, the magical realism. I really liked that element. Yes, one could say it was a coming-of-age story, certainly it is, it’s a love story, it’s a ‘bromance,’ but I like to say that it’s a lighthearted, frolicking look at the world of addiction, and when you really unpack addiction, at the root of it is fear.
Life is a scary thing, and some people medicate themselves to face life, and it’s all about fear. And I love that Aldis decided to give fear a personality. I loved that – I thought what a great way to look at it.
My hope is that someone even in the depths of despair over addiction could watch this film and laugh, not feel attacked, not feel accused.
FBB: My takeaway, with all the messed-up souls there, all the things this film touches on – theology, unconventional love, dysfunctional family, the concept of a tiny Satan on your back – my takeaway was that it’s about people realizing that it’s time to ask for help.
WHM: Well, there it is. We agree, and we talked about that on the set. The takeaway is ‘hey, everybody is afraid, but you’ve got to move on. You gotta keep moving. You gotta keep striving. The fear will never go away. That’s part of the human condition, but you can do it.
FBB: It seemed like Aldis’ script was pretty set – there were specific lines that had to be said, and keyed into other lines, and all that, but was there much room for improvisation in the movie?
WHM: Not really, I mean, there were some things that were underwritten so there was a little. A perfect example is when Rosario Dawson comes back, and she’s fallen off the wagon, and she’s clearly high. Her son is there, and she didn’t have any dialogue. So she came up with that kind of stoned-out, sing-songy thing – I couldn’t make heads or tails of what she was saying, but it really filled it in.
So there were little things like that, but everyone loved Will’s dialogue, and wanted to do it as written, because it’s pretty wonderful. It’s unusual for a film to have such a literary approach to this. I mean, these people do love to talk.
FBB: One scene I wanted to ask you about is when Nick Robinson’s character, Taylor, first takes on the “Bo” persona. He’s walking along with Krystal, and he’s spouting out these things that he lifted from Rick Fox’s Bo moment at AA. I thought there were times that it looked like Rosario Dawson was about to break, because some of the things he was saying were so funny, so over-the-top, so I was wondering if there were flubs on those takes?
WHM: It happened a couple of times, but it was a pretty happy set, I’ve got to say. But you bring up a good point – I can tell you from an actor’s point of view – that’s sort of a dicey section there. The audience knows what he’s doing, there’s no secret there, he’s imitating another actor so they’re judging him on how well a Bo he’s doing, so Nick, very wisely, said to me, “tell me about Bo – do I believe I’m Bo, how far do I take it?’ And what we all decided was well, the text is does Krystal buy it? Rosario Dawson – does she buy it? She’s the only one you’ve got to convince that you’re Bo. And to Rosario I said, ‘well, it’s his job to convince you he’s Bo, and a tough hombre. If you don’t buy it laugh at him.’
And there were times when, as you said, that it just beyond the pale, and she laughed, and I thought they were delightful moments. Because you know, Krystal has been around the block. One thing she knows about is men, she knows men, very, very well. She knows this young guy is full of crap.
FFB: You can really see that in Dawson’s performance.
WHM: Yeah, I mean, everybody is really good in it. I really scored with this cast.
FFB: Was there much stuff that was on the cutting room floor, are there going to be DVD extras?
WHM: (laughs) No, this was a true indie film. Everything you see is on the screen. Uh, there were two or three scenes that we cut, and a couple of others that we cut sections from. The first film I did (RUDDERLESS), the producer called me in as I was cutting it and he said – “look, you always have this conversation with the directors, especially new directors, I know you love it, I know it’s near and dear to your heart, but you have to cut it.” And I said, “Oh, well, what do you think we should cut?” And he said, “No, that’s not what I’m saying to you, you always have to say that, but what we’re saying to you is stop cutting it! You’re cutting all the good stuff out!” All three films, I’ve argued with producers where I say, “I’m gonna cut it,” and they’re “No, leave it – it’s good!” I’m a cutter.
FFB: I noticed there were a couple of Bob Dylan lines in the film – “He not busy being born is busy dying,” and “remember when you’re out there tryin’ to heal the sick, that you must always first forgive them.” Were those deliberate or am I, as a Dylan fan, just picking those out?
WHM: No, wait – did Dylan say that? “You must always first forgive them”? I’m a big Dylan fan too. Man, I feel foolish – I didn’t know that was a direct Dylan quote, I thought it was just Dylanesque. That’s Will Aldis, he’s a great rock and roller.
FBB: Now, you’ve worked with a lot of great filmmakers, like Paul Thomas Anderson or David Mamet for example, so of course those are present influences, but one thing that really stuck in my mind was seeing you on some talk show years ago talking about FARGO, and you said that the Coen brothers really knew exactly what movie they were making, so I wanted to ask – did you feel like you knew exactly what movie you were making with KRYSTAL?
WHM: Well, that’s a very cagey question, a good question. Uh, Yes – the first time I read the script I saw it so clearly, which was unusual. I saw the whole film, and I loved it. But in all candor, when we put it on its feet – some of those scenes that read so beautifully were awkward, and there was something wrong with them when we actually mounted them. It was fascinating to go in and dissect the scenes, and figure out what’s going wrong – why did it work for me, and now it’s not? What am I looking for? What am I seeing? What am I missing here? It’s a fascinating process and I love it, it’s just that I’d rather not do it when I’m directing an independent film and the sun is setting.
I got caught flat footed a couple of times; it’s the tone of the piece. It’s very, very delicate.
FBB: I definitely could feel that it was a tricky tone to deal with there.
WHM: Yeah, I underestimated it. Rachel Winter, a who is a lovely filmmaker herself, kept warning me – it’s the tone, it’s the tone, we’ve got to get this tone right. And I think we did, but, as I said, I was caught sadly lacking a couple of times.
FBB: There was an interview you did with the AV Club around the time of WELCOME TO COLLINWOOD, where you were talking about what makes a good actor’s director – coming to set prepared, talking action not emotion, since this was a while before you directed, is there anything you’d add to that? Do you feel you are a good actor’s director?
WHM: I hope so – you should probably ask others that. I do believe, as an actor, I don’t need to be told how to play it and, like, if I ask, I’m lost, I’m brave enough to say ‘okay, I’m lost, give me some help, I don’t know how to play this.’ But I like a director who talks subjective. You know, ‘I’ll figure out how to do it – let’s make sure we agree on what I’m doing.’ The what is up for discussion.
What I’ve discovered from directing three films is that if you have to stop and talk about acting with an actor – you’re lost. (laughs) You’re really in trouble because there’s no time for that. I’ve discovered what you really pray for as a director is that everybody walks in as the character and they’re brilliant every single take. All you’ve got time to do is take pictures of it.
FBB: The last several days I was at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, and saw Amy Scott’s excellent documentary about Hal Ashby, and it reminded me that a while back you narrated the EASY RIDERS, RAGING BULLS documentary that was all about that period. Do any of those filmmakers like Ashby, Altman, Bogdanovich, Coppola, Hopper – the New Hollywood kids –register as big influences on you when you work as a director today?
WHM: Yes, I mean, that was a time of the actor because they were brave, they were really brave. I mean, it was the summer of love and everybody was smoking a lot of pot, and everybody gave themselves a mission to act impulsively, to not make every moment in a film completely studied, and allow mistakes to happen. And all stories didn’t have to have a nice ending all tied up in a bow. Stories didn’t have to have a happy ending. But as I mature, I realize that when I go to the movies, I want to laugh, I want a good old fashioned story.
FBB: You want to feel something.
WHM: I want to feel something, and I want a good punchline that I didn’t see coming. I’m old fashioned you know, and KRYSTAL is kind of an old fashioned film. I’d like to try one that’s out there and improvisational. I’d like to give that a shot some day.
FBB: Well, that brings up the question – as a filmmaker, do you have any projects lined up after this?
WHM: Nothing is scheduled right now. I directed three films while I was doing Shameless during my hiatuses, and that was really, really tough. It was tough on me and really tough on my family. I missed all the vacations because I was working all year around. I go back to Shameless in about four weeks for season nine, I believe there’s going to be a season ten, but I think things will open up after that. I don’t know what I’m going to do after that but I would love to direct another film. I’d like to get a little bit of a bigger budget. I’d like to pay people, if I can be blunt. I’ve done three films where everyone is doing me a favor. I’d like to be able to pay people.
William H. Macy’s KRYSTAL opens on April 13th in the Triangle area in N.C.