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Trixie Says A Mouthful
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By J. Sperling Reich
American Psycho may have been the most anticipated film at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Hamlet also received a fair amount of pre-festival buzz. Rated X was certainly one of the hottest tickets in Park City. Yet the one film that was premiering at this year's event which received little advance word was Alan Rudolph's latest film, Trixie.
Maybe that's because anyone who knows anything about modern day filmmakers knows Rudolph's reputation for delivering quality material. Certainly everyone knew what to expect-- a decent independent film made for under $7 million dollars. That's what Rudolph has been serving up for years, with such films as Endangered Species, The Moderns, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, Mortal Thoughts, Afterglow and 1999's Breakfast of Champions. As well, Rudolph is known for putting together a stellar cast and getting the most out of them. Trixie stars Academy Award nominated actress Emily Watson, Dermot Mulroney, Nathan Lane, Brittany Murphy and Rudolph regular, Nick Nolte. So why would anyone be talking about the film before it screened in Park City? After all, how could the movie possibly be bad?
Trixie features one of Rudolph's most unique characters ever. Trixie Zurbo is a blue-collar security guard who yearns for the life of a real police detective. Unfortunately, Trixie isn't the sharpest tool in the shed. Indeed, she goes through life saying things like, "That's the truth, the hole in the truth and nothing but the truth" and remarkably, she does so with a straight face. Trixie finally gets her chance for some real undercover work when she is assigned to the night shift of a lakefront casino. When not nabbing pickpockets, she befriends Kirk Stans, the casino's lounge lizard, Ruby Pearli, a young woman yearning to be a starlet, and Dex Lang, the casino's ladies' man who becomes smitten with Trixie.
Before much time has passed, Trixie becomes entangled in a murder mystery, which involves State Senator Drummond Avery as well as the local real estate developer, Red Rafferty. Through her innocent approach and bungling methods, Trixie actually manages to track down the killer, though not before knowingly or unknowingly causing havoc in the lives of everyone whose path she crosses.
The day after their premiere, when Rudolph and his cast show up at the Yarrow Hotel to be interviewed, they seem tired from all the press attention they have been receiving. "We've been under the gun to finish it," Rudolph explains, before stating that the Sundance audience was the first true showing of Trixie. "We had a little screening to show Emily, the actors and Sony. But this was the first time we had the music, the mix, the negative had been cut and the picture was sort of timed."
Actually, while the public's first glimpse of Trixie was in Park City, the idea for the movie had been brewing for quite some time. Rudolph admitted, "Movies are my life. That's all I think about: movie things, ideas, and the next script. This is a story I'd written with a friend twenty years ago. Just the story of it. It had nothing to do with malapropos or language. I never got interested enough in the story to do anything about it. Then, watching the 1992 presidential campaign, watching Dan Quayle and George Bush -- the two greatest American linguists of the 20th Century. Just standing there and saying things that were great in their awfulness. But they somehow told me more about these shmoe's then anything else. And I thought, "God, that's great". I've always been very interested in language of all kinds. I had this story that was just sitting there. So I just took and started writing it."
Nick Nolte, who worked with Rudolph on Afterglow and Breakfast of Champions, appears in Trixie as Senator Avery. He chimed in, "That character is built like all of Alan's characters are built -- out of the writing and the script. The thing that Alan had structured for that character was he had four or five political quotes that the guy would say in the dialogue. So I said to Alan, 'Wouldn't it be neat if we make everything he said a political quote?' So we made over ninety percent of his dialogue political quotes. The story about the cupboard and the cookie; that's Newt Gingrich. 'One word sums up the responsibility of each of us, that word is to be prepared', Dan Quayle. 'I am guilty of no wrongdoing whatsoever', Bill Clinton, Richard Nixon, George Bush and Ronald Reagan. 'A lie gets half way around the world before the truth has a chance to pull it's pants up', Winston Churchill. 'It's very easy to throw grenades, but it's very hard to catch them', Jesse Helms. So you see, it's all quotes."
t is no surprise that Rudolph should turn to politicians for dialogue; after all, the director has very specific thoughts on what everybody says. "I have come to the conclusion that there is no such thing as verbal truth. It's impossible," Rudolph proclaimed. "Tell me one part of our lives where verbal communication is true, certainly not in a relationship, it's definitely not in anything public, like advertising. This business is all lies. Poetry is the only thing I can think of, because it's about the mysteriousness of our lives, which is the only thing that counts. The rest of it is all about defining things, and of course, that's impossible. But we all accept it so that Dan Rather can say, 'This happened, and then this happened, and we're going to sell you some hair tonic.' Instead of saying that it's f--king chaos. And as soon as somebody tells me that, I'll believe 'em."
Rudolph may be blunt, and he may be considered harsh by some, but actors are lining up to work with him. "He's adorable and has such enthusiasm," said Nathan Lane, who plays Kirk Stans. "He's so happy to be making the movie and to have you be a part of the process that it's infectious. Even though you are working under time constraints, you don't feel the pressure. He was a great deal of fun to be around and very supportive and everything you could hope for."
Making everyone who works on his film feel as if they are an integral part is something that Rudolph strives for. "This is the most important thing in my life and these people's lives," the director said of his crew. "I treat everybody down the line to the craft service guy as an important part of this thing. They're all invited to dailies if they want to come, and they are generally thrilled. The ones who are thrilled to work on something, I like to move people up so they are eager to do something."
Nolte has become a lifelong fan of the filmmaker. "There isn't a film that I know of that Alan does that I don't do," he said in his raspy voice. "And that's just the way it's been, ever since Robert Altman conned me into working with him. You see, Altman sent me Afterglow, he said 'I've got a script I want to send over'. I read it and it was just a wonderful script and I said, 'Wow, I'm going to work with Altman on this piece?' I called Bob and said, 'This is great Bob, I would love to do it.' And then he said, 'Well the director will be right over. You're going to love him. This guy Nick, I don't know how to tell you, but this is going to be special". And he hung up the phone. Now Altman is Alan's mentor. If Altman can sense that, then. . ."
Some actors, like Brittany Murphy, who plays Ruby Pearli in Trixie, never even have to meet Rudolph before he casts them in his movies. "He cast me over the phone, and he had never seen anything I had done before," Murphy confessed. "There are some reasons for that, one is that we got along really well, we hit it off. He knew that we would get together great on the set. He said it would be like summer camp for actors. It was just sick, to learn from Nick and Nathan and Emily and all these extraordinary people. I couldn't believe that I was there. And Alan allowed me to be there. He seems to mold the film around the personalities that he casts."
"The most important thing to him is the casting," Nolte interjected about Rudolph. "The reason he doesn't read somebody, is because he doesn't want the actor to second-guess himself. And if you read an actor, the actor has to try and get the job and that means the person didn't trust you to begin with. You never overcome that in the film. It's a subtle thing. And Alan will get it out of a voice. He'll hear it in a voice."
To play the lead, Rudolph went after Watson, who has quickly become one of the world's most acclaimed actresses. "I didn't think I could ever, ever, ever get in contact with Emily Watson," Rudolph said shaking his head. "I mean, it's a low budget movie, which I knew she worked on, but she was up for her second Oscar in two tries. And because of who she is, she read it and responded. I mean, she's the real thing."
However, Watson claimed to have fallen in love with the script from the very first paragraph. Truly, despite her critical success, she isn't looking to cash in by appearing in mainstream Hollywood films. "I have a policy in which I try and work with what I consider great directors," Watson explained. "You can't ever plan. I'm not averse to the idea of being paid a ton of cash. I couldn't live with myself if I didn't want to do this, but I'm going to do it anyway for the wrong reasons. Maybe with the right script, and under the right circumstances, I might be eating my words."
Murphy couldn't fathom even having the opportunity to turn such lucrative offers down. "It's not within my realm of thinking right now. It's not a part of my world," she said.
This surprised Nolte, who turned to Murphy and asked, "What would you do if you sat down at a table and they took $10 million and put it on the table and shoved it at you?"
"Tomorrow?" Murphy answered with a question.
"Yeah," Nolte coaxed the actress.
"And asked me to do a picture? Would I have to take my clothes off?" asked Murphy.
Nolte was quick to respond. "You don't know, they're shoving $10 million at you. You never know quite what it is."
Murphy thought about this for a moment as everyone's eyes fell on her. "But I know a roundabout idea of what it is? It's something okay?"
"Yeah," Nolte grinned.
"Hell yeah," Murphy blurted out, easing the tension a little. "I'd buy my grandmother a house on the beach."
As everyone's laughter subsided, Nolte didn't let the issue of multi million-dollar roles fade away. "Do you know what that's about? Did you grow up rich?"
"No, working class," Murphy replied.
"And when you were a kid, did you look through magazines and say, 'I want that and that and that'?" Nolte continued.
Now Murphy hesitated, "Well, yeah."
Finally Nolte laughed. "And that's what they have on you. And I don't think there is anything wrong with that," he said. "When you get that kind of money, basically the first year you buy all the toys. That doesn't get it. So the next year, you get all the booze and all the women. Then you get to die! And be in a huge house all by yourself."
With salary not an issue and with a world-renowned director at the helm, Watson signed onto Trixie which presented her with a few new acting challenges, not the least of which was playing an American. "It was strange for me -- to sort of become American when it's not your background," the actress recalled. "I had a dialect coach from Chicago and we both worked on it. She felt, to me, like she was the midwife in the birth of this character."
Attempting to nail down Trixie's language gaffs didn't come naturally for Watson, either. "The only thing I had to buy into was the fact that Trixie thinks that everything she says makes perfect sense," said Watson. "So I had to stop worrying that they were mistakes, and that had to do with getting into a speech pattern in which you speak before you think. It's not what an English girl does at all. That was the distance I had to travel. I'm a very nice and polite young lady. That was the challenge for me, to get rid of all my preconceived notions of my own intelligence."
To be sure, Watson gives most of the credit for her pulling off the role to Rudolph. "It's like a safety net situation when somebody asks you to do something that's kind of out there," she continued. "It's obviously a big departure for me to do a character like this. It's very different territory. I felt very, very safe and comfortable with Alan."
For Rudolph, being able to work with Watson was the ultimate pay-off after years of hard work. "Hearing Nick and Julie do Afterglow was a turning point in my life," Rudolph reflected over the past several years of his career. "To hear these actors, I've worked with great actors, but I had never really worked with people who had been around and been good at it for so long at that caliber. Even though I had made fifteen movies, I'm talking to Julie Christie, I'm talking to Nick Nolte. . . and they're listening! To hear them say the dialogue when they are totally free to change anything they want, gave me a confidence, and it's grown since that. With Emily, I felt validated, not as a director, but as a person trying to do something. I didn't have to question certain things about myself, because she's as high a standard as I've ever dealt with. She's the real thing. She's the most genuine person you'll meet."
Nolte is surprised Rudolph ever had any doubt of his abilities as a filmmaker. "There isn't a thing he wants to do that he doesn't do," he said of Rudolph. "He does everything he wants to do. Now another brilliant director will complain, and will say, 'Well I wanted to do that but they wouldn't do it.' Well, to Alan, there is no 'they'. He just does it. He doesn't care about the arena, and the reason the other guys can't do it is because they care about the arena, not about the film."
Not all of Rudolph's seventeen films have been critically well received, and few have ever been big winners at the box office, a fact that Nolte shrugged off. "Failure is very important," he added. "I mean, Alan uses it as a metaphor, he says, 'I have never had a successful film, therefore I get to do anything I want'."
Rudolph began to laugh when he heard Nolte start in on this line of reasoning. He broke in before things got out of hand again, "We had a fun time one night at some festival, and Brian De Palma said one of the greatest things I've ever heard. He said, 'You're nothing until you've brought a studio to its knees'. And Nick said, 'You know why Alan's a success? Because he's never had any [success] and he doesn't need it. They think he's a failure, but he's a real success because he doesn't have to deal with that.' I don't know what success is. Success in Hollywood is if they think you are. I've left that game years ago. I can't imagine anybody more successful, maybe because I managed to figure out how to get my movies made. I must say, except for a few missteps early on, no one has ever told me what to do. I won't accept that. I've had more articles written about me. About, 'How the hell does this guy keep going?' Angry, jealous, bitter articles. Because it means I get to work with people like this. And I'm just starting to get good at this game inside."
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