In the documentary, SEDUCED AND ABANDONED, premiered in the UK to an audience of four people (myself included) at the 2013 Cambridge International Film Festival – so much for late additions – director James Toback asks the question: how much is the screen couple of Alec Baldwin and Neve Campbell worth? The answer, quoted by Head of Nu Image Films, Avi Lerner, is $5 million. Toback wants $25 million to make LAST TANGO IN TIKRET about a military hawk (Baldwin) and a liberal journalist (Campbell) who have a passionate affair in Iraq; a lot of sex will feature. Baldwin and Toback hawked the project at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival and took a film crew with them, reportedly earning the ire of Bob and Harvey Weinstein (who do not appear) in the process. There is the tiny suggestion that it is a bit of a joke.
This is Toback’s latest flirtation with documentary after TYSON a few years back. On the evidence of his movies, Toback is a serial groomer, hanging out with, and subsequently flattering the likes of Warren Beatty, for whom he wrote the screenplay BUGSY, Robert Downey Jr, with whom he made THE PICK-UP ARTIST, TWO GIRLS AND A GUY and BLACK AND WHITE, and boxer Mike Tyson, who appeared in BLACK AND WHITE and the titular documentary. Toback is interested in getting his subjects to lower their guard but he doesn’t follow through. He’s the dysfunctional erectile of filmmakers. He quotes Orson Welles that filmmaking is 95% trying to get the money and 5% making movies. Why is that way? Well, if you have a commercially iffy record it will always be a struggle. The trick is to make the package as attractive as possible and your budget to be realistic.
Toback has assembled an engaging group of interviewees, including Martin Scorsese, Francis Coppola and Roman Polanski - broadly speaking his generation. He speaks with the motorised wheelchair user Bernardo Bertolucci, interviewing him in the Bertolucci Suite in the Hotel (Petit Carlton?) where Baldwin is staying. Bertolucci gives anecdotes (or ‘anchor-dotes’ as Toback quotes another guy) how Brando essentially riffed on the script during the making of the movie, giving something of himself to the role. It was a hateful, self-hating performance that magnetised audiences back in 1972 but caused Brando to recoil. He didn’t speak to Bertolucci for years afterwards. Toback asks whether the performance was stolen; Bertolucci says not, but he was a 31 year old directing a 51 year old; it must have felt strange for the older man to go so far for someone who was not his peer.
By contrast, Scorsese laments the end of the elegantly composed tracking shot. He re-tells the story of his work, essentially a variation on the lives of his parents: Charles Scorsese, Martin’s father, forever bailed out his brother (Martin’s uncle). ‘He showed up for the sit-downs.’ More vividly than in any previous interview, Scorsese spells out why his childhood was so terrifying. His asthma meant he wasn’t allowed to run or laugh. Church was a refuge from his tough neighbourhood. So were the movies. Scorsese’s best story is how he won the Palme D’Or in 1976. Tennessee Williams, who was head of the jury, hated it. Two other jury members, including Costa Gavras did not. Scorsese had a good time with his supporters, but left after two days, never expecting to win.
There are plenty of great ‘anchor-dotes’ here, notably how Fellini got Mastroianni to appear in LA DOLCE VITA using a blank script with only an illustration of a man with a – ahem – protruding penis pointing down. ‘I want to make that movie,’ said Mastroianni. Conscious that neither Baldwin or Campbell are bankable, Toback goes for other stars, failing to win over Diane Kruger but getting good stories from Ryan Gosling, who provides a mini-masterclass in how to get the best out of actors; shooting a mastershot first, which is never used, is one way to drain the life out of a performance. Auditions that are interrupted are similarly degrading.
Berenice Bejo notes how being the flavour of the month does not make your opportunities any better. Producers will always try to cast you in parts for which you are unsuitable because you are bankable. You have to give these projects a wide berth.
Toback’s sometime collaborator James Caan also describes the chores of being a star. He wants to act and does not want to walk through a part. Jessica Chastain describes how she uses filming as a learning exercise; always act opposite someone better than you and learn from them. She went to Juilliard and enjoyed it. She is also being tapped for a role in Toback’s movie.
These interviews are interspersed with attempts to get the money, first from established distributors, then the one-off vanity producers, who have the money to kiss off. Toback wants to give them immortality, but who apart from film critics, can name the producer of a given film?
The one sequence that tips you that this just might be a put-on has Toback and Baldwin visit a series of Middle Eastern Film Commissions (Abu Dhabi, Tunisia and Jordan) looking for tax breaks. They are all interested. Toback tries to tease out whether the censorship authority from the potential host might shut down the film on moral grounds. None apparently answer.
We learn that some producers see Baldwin as a TV actor and Campbell as, well, no one with profile. No wonder the latter didn’t travel to Cannes. The Weinstein Brothers are a notable absence; Brett Ratner, a curious friend to two money men, is a notable presence.
Toback’s flattery of the money men, hand on their arms, is almost embarrassing to watch. His approach does yield some success. He gets the money for the film we watch (all four of us) and then wants more; one senses he needed the cash for clip and music clearances.
The music of Dimitri Shostakovich forms the score. Toback reads a poem and Baldwin flatters him. He is almost doing a Toback; one wonders whether the joke is on the filmmaker, who is being played.
I sincerely hope that LAST TANGO IN TIKRET is never made. It sounds crass, awful, condescending and very far from art. SEDUCED AND ABANDONED is very entertaining, right down to Baldwin’s Woody Allen impersonation.
Reviewed at the 33rd Cambridge International Film Festival, Sunday 29 September 2013, Cineworld Screen 4, Cambridge