Today’s Guest: Bob Balaban, actor Close Encounters of the Third Kind, “Seinfeld,” director, Bernard and Doris
No matter what role he’s in, Bob Balaban always makes an impression, from Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind to playing the President of NBC on “Seinfeld.” And the same is now true of his work as a director, which you can discover in Bernard and Doris, starring Susan Sarandon and Ralph Fiennes.
BOB ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: Tell us a little bit about Bernard and Doris. This is the story of Doris Duke, the tobacco heiress, and her butler, but maybe you can define it a little more.
BOB BALABAN: Doris Duke, as some people may remember, was known most of her life as “the richest little girl in the world.” Her dad had hundreds of millions of dollars. She inherited a lot when it was a lot to have a hundred million dollars, and by the time she died in 1993, she had managed to amass $1.3 billion, which, in those days, was a lot of money. Now it’s pocket change.
Doris was sort of famous for not ever finding a guy who would ever love her for herself. When you have that much money and you’re a lady, it’s not always the easiest thing. I suppose if you’re a man, it’s not all that easy anyway cause everybody wanted something from her.
Later in her life in 1987, an Irish butler named Bernard Lafferty came to work for Doris Duke. He had worked for Elizabeth Taylor and Peggy Lee and was thrilled to come and work for this sort of famous, exotic creature, Doris Duke, who was known for being rather eccentric and generous in many ways, certainly with her foundation. And the two of them bonded. When Doris Duke died in 1993, she left this young, alcoholic, itinerant Irish butler guy, fairly uneducated, basically in charge of her $1.3 billion fortune.
We made a movie, starring the brilliant Susan Sarandon and Ralph Fiennes, in which we imagined what might have transpired behind closed doors during the six years that Bernard came to work for Doris Duke that would enable this very unlikely fellow to get to that trusted point in Doris’ heart where she would entrust him with so much of her beloved fortune. We have made a story of how this relationship came to be. It’s kind of a quirky love story between two unlikely people.
ANDELMAN: I’m very interested to know how you were sold on a biographical film in which, right up front as we watch it, we’re told, “Some of the following is based on fact.” I just love that.
BALABAN: Well, thank you. First of all, the legal department of HBO was thrilled that I wanted to put that in the front of the movie. It helps, somebody thinks. But truthfully, they’re two real people, and we did attempt to, more or less in a broad sense, place these two characters in a real context. Doris Duke did have a house in New Jersey. Bernard did come to work for her. In a general sense, many of the things biographically that we say about the two of them are true based on my non-extensive knowledge of the two of them, which is mostly headlines in newspapers and public record. But this is an internal journey of an emotional relationship between two people, so we wanted to be very clear that, as we made that journey, this was something we posited. This was something we invented. Something did happen between the two of them, but we made it up as to what really happened.
ANDELMAN: As I watched, I kept thinking of this line, and I think it’s from an Elvis Costello song – “Some of my lies are true.”
BALABAN: I love that you thought of that. And that may very well be true in this case.
ANDELMAN: Now, with something like this, I’m thinking that Doris Duke would be considered a public figure — and so she would be in play — but what about Lafferty? He was hired by a public figure. He never asked to be a public figure, and, of course, he’s passed away now.
BALABAN: Yes, and he has no relatives. You’re talking about legal issues possibly with somebody who was a real character?
ANDELMAN: A little bit, yeah.
BALABAN: Basically, there’s nothing that we say about him that you wouldn’t have learned from going to the library and looking up a lot of newspaper headlines. And there’s also nothing libelous or scandalous about the way we present it.
I have to say it’s a very entertaining film.
BALABAN: I like that. You didn’t have to say that as you were saying that.
ANDELMAN: I just gotta call it like I see it. It’s funny. It’s the kind of thing where, if my wife had described it to me Saturday and said okay, I want to go out and see this movie tonight, I would say, “Naah, isn’t there like a Jackie Chan comedy or something?” But I watched it, and I was very entertained. And I think one of the things that really struck me about it, your lead actors, of course, Susan Sarandon, Ralph Fiennes. Fiennes, this is not the guy from Schindler’s List. This is certainly not the guy from the Harry Potter movies.
BALABAN: One of the things I love so much about Ralph in this movie is he’s utterly unexpected, does nothing in it that you’ve ever seen him do before, and manages to make the most complex character, who’s sort of simultaneously very, very creepy and sort of adorable and vulnerable and strange. I agree with you. I haven’t seen him do anything like this. I haven’t seen anybody really do anything like this.
ANDELMAN: It was very interesting to see him, eyes down, for so much of the, at least for the first half of the movie. He’s in that butler, servant type of mode, and I just keep thinking, “Okay, when is he going to burst out?” And appropriately, he did not. That’s the whole thing. That’s what makes it such an amazing performance, I think.
BALABAN: His character kind of blossoms. This is a journey that these two people make is basically a journey to opening up to each other, which did in our movie takes a couple of years for this to happen. Fortunately, the movie is only 106 minutes long so you won’t have to watch it for several years. But the journey that they make is not an Indiana Jones journey where they travel by bus, truck, and camel to get to an exotic location. The exotic location to which both characters are journeying is each other’s hearts. And it’s a twisted path, and it’s a difficult one, but it had to be very measured on both of the actors’ parts, for Susan as well. She just barely pays attention to this fellow for about the first 12 or 14 minutes of the movie so that when she finally looks at him, you realize that she’s had hundreds of servants in her long and exotic and rich life, but there’s something about this guy that is causing her to pay attention in a way that she hasn’t done before. And that’s the beginning of her journey. And in Ralph’s case, you point it out very accurately. He can barely look at the woman. When he starts being able to say a direct sentence to her and look her in the face, you can sense something flowing back and forth between the two of them because they’re great actors, and they’re very good at telling an emotional story.
ANDELMAN: I think I read that Susan described the film also as a love story, which is certainly what I thought while I was watching it. But it’s not, in any way, a love story where these two fall in love, and they live happily ever after. It’s not so much a romantic love — more of a devotional one.
BALABAN: Yes. I would say, if we were playing at your local multiplex, it would say, “A different kind of love story, the love that dare not speak its name.”
ANDELMAN: I don’t know if we should go that far!
BALABAN: Well, we would if we wanted to get more people into the audience.
ANDELMAN: At what point in the process did you sign on? I think I read it was before Susan and Ralph…
BALABAN: I shuttle about between being an actor, a director, a writer, and a trash collector. My friend Ilene Maisel, who is an executive at New Line Cinema, a brilliant producer person in her own right, sent me the script. She knew the person who wrote it, I believe, had come across it, and just sent it. She was in London, and she said, I think you might find this thing interesting,” which I did. The script has gone through many incarnations since that point. We chose to make the movie on the East Coast so the movie can’t begin the way it used to begin, which is Bernard Lafferty arrived in a Tour of the Stars bus as they were saying, “… and on the left is where Doris Duke, the billionaire heiress, lives…” And we got to explain Doris’ background through the loudspeaker of the tour bus. We couldn’t do that cause we made the movie as if it were in her estate in New Jersey.
I was, from the beginning, struck by the compelling nature of this needy, needy woman who could never find anybody to love her and this butler, who himself felt unworthy and unlovable, and yet their stations in life were so different. Sexually they were so different, and yet something happened between the two of them to drive them together. And I thought even if she had never been a real character, this would have been a very interesting story.
I gave the movie to Susan Sarandon. She loved the idea of playing this kind of character. We discussed literally making sure that the movie we would eventually make was much more an internal journey and much more about an emotional ride between these two characters and therefore, focusing much more on the two of them and their path to, as you and I are talking about it, falling in a kind of love. And then we decided that Ralph Fiennes would be the only person we’d like to make the movie with, and Ralph felt the same way about us.
I went around and found $500,000, and these two “A”-tier actors decided to make this very brave decision to come and be in a movie with nothing to support it except two wonderful performances. We had no money. We barely had a location. We couldn’t find shoes. And yet we had a very wonderful working experience making this thing. Maybe that’s why. It was so pared down. It was so essential about the two of them and their two characters.
ANDELMAN: Let’s talk a little bit about the budget on the film. I want to point out that this was not commissioned by HBO. It was acquired by HBO after it had been made, right?
BALABAN: HBO does that occasionally. Yes, we made an independent movie with Kevin Spacey’s company, Trigger Street Independent, that had raised $2 or $3 million to make a certain amount of $500,000 movies. This, they decided to make one of them. We were on our way to the Toronto Film Festival to look for a buyer at which point Colin Calendar from HBO saw the movie, loved it, said, “I’d love to take you off the market,” and we paused. We went, “Well, gee we could get bought up by Spinning Films Independent if we go to Toronto.” I sat down at that point and discussed this with Susan and Ralph and all of our people and said, “I think this is an opportunity to have two fantastic performances seen by a number of millions of people as opposed to in a little theater on the Upper East Side with 65 people a day seeing it for about three weeks. And we could also pay back the wonderful people who had come and helped us make this movie for no money. I thought that’s kind of a winning combination. Let’s do it,” and we did, and HBO bought it, and here we are.
ANDELMAN: I think we need to talk more about that budget. It’s $500,000, I think you said.
BALABAN: Yes. It ended up, if we were being exactly exact, a few dollars more but substantially less than a million.
ANDELMAN The thing that’s interesting, and I think it’s important that people know that budget when they see the movie, it does not look like a low-budget movie. And I wanted to ask you how do you make a small-budget film about a billion-dollar subject still look like a million bucks?
BALABAN: Well, thank you. Hopefully, it looks like $5 million, but a million bucks is a good way of saying it.
ANDELMAN: It was a joke.
BALABAN: I thought you were using the expression. When a million dollars seemed like a lot of money which, of course, it is, but it isn’t, you beg, you borrow, you get actors who usually make a large amount of money to be so interested to work together and to make this movie that they forego, that they defray all of their costs. You follow the John Sloss. He’s the wonderful lawyer/producer who has a company called Indigent, which makes a lot of very, very super-low-budget movies, and he came up with a formula. He said here’s what you do: “Just pay everybody a hundred dollars a day, have very low budgets for production design and art design in terms of things that you make or build or acquire, and give everybody who works on the movie, for the most part, a gross participation in the back end.” So the art department, head of the art department, got one point of the movie. It’s just simple. There’s no adjusted gross as they say in Speed The Plow. There is no net. And it’s a way of dealing with people fairly. If you make no money from the movie, then nobody makes any money, but if you have a windfall, then everybody participates in a fairly, accurately-scaled version of how much they should participate.
Now, having said that, we had Frankie Diago, a brilliant production designer who is a friend of Susan’s and of mine, do the production design. I knew that she could call in some favors. She’s worked a lot. She’s very successful. And I also knew that I could be helpful. So anybody that we knew who had things that we could use in the movie, I called them, and I begged them. Joe Aulisi, the costume designer, did the same thing. He’s done Susan’s wardrobe design for many Hollywood big-budget features. So when he called the costume house and said we need to construct a pad for Ralph Fiennes’ stomach so he doesn’t appear quite so thin in this movie. He was playing a character who should look a little chubby, and he drinks a lot. He probably has a beer belly. That alone, that item, probably would have cost the entire budget of the costume department if we’d had to pay the correct amount of money for it. So down the line, Chris Doff gave us silver. Fendi gave us furs. Vuitton gave us vintage luggage so that when you go into Doris Duke’s closet, if we didn’t have Vuitton, we would’ve had “Sportsack by Bob Balaban’s Closet” in Doris Duke’s closet. Bulgari was fantastic with the jewelry. They called and said, “We love it when Susan wears our stuff. She’s so loyal to us. Let us send you Bulgari jewels for her to wear during the movie.” And we said, “Thank you, but we can’t afford the guard to hold onto the jewelry, basically.” And they said, “Oh, well, we’ll send the guard.” So anytime Susan Sarandon wears anything by Bulgari in the movie, which is fairly frequently, there was a guard standing by who then took the jewels, put them in a vault, and went back to Italy or wherever he came from when it was over. We had to do a retake. We added a close-up of Susan on the staircase wearing a fabulous necklace. They had to fly back the necklace from Italy cause it was six months later, and we did the additional shot. That’s what happens sometimes when you work with established movie stars that are also beloved by a lot of the people that they’ve come into contact with.
I ran into a young man in the subway. Eric Gaskins came up to me: “I like your work, Bob.”
“Thank you so much. What’s your name?”
“Eric, what do you do?”
“I’m a dress designer.”
“Hey, how’d you like to make a free dress for a movie star in a movie we’re making?”
And literally ten days later, he was there with Joe Aulisi sketching something. And a week after that, Susan Sarandon was tripping down the stairs in a fabulous-looking, vintage-looking 1989 ball gown that Eric had whipped up for us and given to us. There’s a full page in Vanity Fair of this dress in this month’s Vanity Fair where they give us our very lovely review. So that’s what we did down the line.
We worked with the mansion, Old Westbury Gardens, in Old Westbury, Long Island, which gave us the house to shoot in. We did have to pay them. It was our entire production design budget, but we deferred some of their costs, and they eventually made a reasonable amount of money considering how we did the entire movie in their house. Could never have done it otherwise. That was one of the reasons the movie looks rather nice. It is because we’re shooting in a place where the Phipps family used to live. They moved down in 1955, established their house as a trust for a museum, and that is how those particular rich people lived. And that’s where Doris got to live in the movie. It’s a beautiful estate. I recommend visiting it at any time. You can picnic in the garden when the weather’s nice.
ANDELMAN: I’m thinking now back to the film. There’s a lot of reference in the film to Doris’ global travels.
ANDELMAN: But we never actually see her anywhere.
BALABAN: Yes. You figured it out. They write letters, and you hear about the fabulous places they’re going and buying and doing. And a couple of years pass during the movie as the servants basically take on and off the furniture guards from the furniture so it won’t get faded by the sun and various other conventions. I’m glad when I look back on it that we didn’t have the $20 million that you might have made the movie for. I probably would’ve been tempted to take the two of them traveling in India and Afghanistan or wherever it is they might have gone. Of course, even then you couldn’t go to Afghanistan too easily. I’m kind of glad we didn’t have that money, looking back on it, because it forced us, again, to concentrate on these two characters, which that’s what we have in the movie. We have great actors playing interesting parts, and there’s very little to get in the way, you could say.
ANDELMAN: In directing Susan and Ralph, how much do you actually direct people like this, and how much do you just kind of get out of their way?
BALABAN: A lot of it is getting out of their way. A lot of it is spending some very quiet time before the movie begins “rehearsing”, but rehearsing isn’t, “How will I say this line?” and “Where do I stand?” and “What’s my motivation?” There is some of that, but rehearsing is really making two people feel comfortable knowing that there’s a short amount of time, and they’re going to live another person’s life. We talk about their relationship. We answer questions, the simplest things. “Oh, am I really going to be doing needlepoint? Let’s have a needlepoint person teach me how to do needlepoint today.”
In Susan’s case, a lot of it was, “What’s the inside of this woman like?” She wanted to be very careful that she didn’t simply present herself as the idea of a fabulously wealthy and eccentric person. That’s the thing I love about both of their performances. You could say, in three sentences, you could describe both of these characters, but it wouldn’t tell you anything about the complex way that both of them figured out to show you these people on screen. Susan could’ve done Joan Crawford, “No more wire coat hangers!” and there is an element of that to her character, but there’s so much else.
I liked what you pointed out. In the beginning, you think these two people are the stereotypes that you imagined them to be. And after five or ten minutes of looking at them, you go, “Wait a minute, there’s something else going on here,” because the two of them spent some time in rehearsal investigating the more complex nature of these people and not putting them into a stereotypical box in any way. So, yeah, directing them is getting them to do the movie, making sure they’re comfortable, answering questions, and as you’re shooting, being a little bit more flexible than you might be for a big-budget Hollywood movie. “Hey, I’d like to stand over there. Why doesn’t this thing happen? Could we, perhaps, approach this?” I call London, and five minutes later, we’d have, from our wonderful author, Hugh Costello, a new opening monologue for a scene. And it was a little more flexible, and I think that was helpful, too.
ANDELMAN: Speaking of acting, I want to use a couple minutes here before we have to go to talk a little bit about the wide variety to your career. As my wife was leaving for work today, I said I’m gonna talk to Bob. And in my mind, you are forever etched in my mind as Russell Dalrymple from “Seinfeld.” She said, “Close Encounters.” You’ve acted in these landmark films.
BALABAN: Well, the first movie I was in was actually the Midnight Cowboy, which happened to be the only X-rated movie ever to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. That was when I was about 20 years old, and I was going to New York University. So I’ve been around a long time, and I’ve been fortunate, not always, of course, but to be in a number of things that ended up being really interesting movies directed by wonderful, world-class, great directors like Steven Spielberg or John Schlesinger or Sydney Pollack or Sidney Lumet, some wonderful people.
ANDELMAN: Where are you going to go from here? You’ve directed a movie. It’s a wonderful movie to watch. You produced on Gosford Park. You’ve done all this acting. As you look ahead, and you think here’s my plan. What do you want to be doing?
BALABAN: I’d like to be directing more movies. I probably will write some more children’s books. I wrote a best-selling series of books for Scholastic called McGrowl. We sold two million copies. Really, I feel like I’m basically just beginning, the door is just beginning to open so there’s a lot of things I’m planning on doing. I have a movie that I’m hoping to direct this year called The Eustace Diamonds, based on an Anthony Trollope novel. Julian Fellowes did a wonderful version of the screenplay. I then hired him to write Gosford Park and won an Academy Award for Best Screenwriter. So we have that large mountain to hopefully climb this year. Like Bernard and Doris, it’s the story of mostly extremely wealthy and exotic people living in London, in this case in 1875. But unlike Bernard and Doris, we will actually have a few dollars with which to make some costumes and have some beautiful scenery, and it’s a great story. I do hope to make that this year. I just finished a movie, acting in, called Recount for HBO that will be on, I believe, in May about the Gore-Bush election in Florida and the hanging chad issues and everything else that went with that impossible and very unnerving situation. It’s really like a thriller when you see it.
ANDELMAN: Was there drama in that situation? I don’t recall it being all that serious.
BALABAN: I think you’re kidding.
ANDELMAN: I am kidding. (Laughs.)
BALABAN: It’s really a nail-biter even though you know exactly how it’s gonna turn out. It’s quite exciting, and Kevin Spacey is brilliant, as is Laura Dern and Denis Leary and Tom Wilkinson and John Hurt and Ed Begley, Jr. It’s got a wonderful cast, and it’s very exciting, and I’m in it also.
ANDELMAN: That was my other question: Are you going to be acting more or less?
BALABAN: You will see me in Recount next year or this year. And, yeah, I will as it fits in and as it arises. I’m very happy to have an ongoing acting career. I love sitting on somebody else’s set and not worrying when the scenery falls down, so to speak. I know it’s the end of the day, and I know there’s no overtime, and I know it’s starting to rain, and I’m not even anxious cause I’m just an actor here, and I’ll just sit around and have a great time. I love acting in other people’s movies. You learn so much by watching everybody direct other people, and you also get to meet a number of people. Part of my being a producer and a director is I have a good Rolodex, and I’ve really had some lovely times with a massive amount of actors. So if I’m casting a two-line part in a movie, that’s sometimes the hardest thing you can do, I can kind of roll back in my mind, “Who did I love last year who came in and said hello?” And we can have that person, and also occasionally, I am fortunate enough to work with some people who are famous enough to get movies made, and well, we got to know each other cause we spent nine months together on the Isle of Wyte last year.
ANDELMAN: In Bernard and Doris, it’s a very small cast. I didn’t see you that I noticed. I didn’t see you walk through any scenes or in background. Are you in there anywhere?
BALABAN: I’m sorry?
ANDELMAN: Are you in any scenes? Are you in the background or anything?
BALABAN: You might catch me in a reflection in a window somewhere, but it wasn’t on purpose.
ANDELMAN: Well, where I was leading with that is is there anything that ties together the movies that you work on behind the scenes? Is there any common thread, any mark of Bob Balaban?
BALABAN: I’d like to think that we all had a pretty good time working together. From the actors to the crew to the craft service people, I’d like to think that it was a harmonious experience. And it’s not always, but we do our best.
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