House of D (2005)
David Duchovny’s first stab at writing and directing takes him to a place close to his heart - the New York of his youth. In his ode to Greenwich Village, Duchovny paints the portrait of a man, Tom Warshaw, (played by himself) looking back at his childhood, his friend, Pappass, (Robin Williams playing mentally challenged), his miserable mother (Duchovny’s wife Tea Leoni), and the prostitute whom he would speak to through the window of her cell at the centrally located house of detention. The film was a family affair – beyond the director and his wife collaborating, Robin Williams’ daughter, Zelda, in her acting debut, plays the childhood love interest of Tom (Anton Yelchin doing tremendous work as young Tom). Bangitout.com had the opportunity to speak with the cast and hear their reflections on family, New York, and whatever else Robin Williams was talking about.
On filming a story about New York in New York:
Robin Williams: You have to shoot a movie about New York in New York. You used to not be able to do this but now with tax breaks you can do it.
Duchovny: I was just desperate to shoot. I’ve written things before, but this was just the first that got produced. You get ideas all the time, but the idea chooses you and this idea chose me and I went after it. After I wrote the movie I though maybe this could be a novel. Some of the movie is from my actual childhood growing up in Greenwich Village. There was a house of detention, we played stickball, and I had a job delivering meat. I didn’t have a friend like Pappass and my mother was a sweet woman. And I never actually spoke to the women in the house of detention, but people did. I would have shot the movie in Romania just to get it done. I was so eager and because of that there were many mistakes. We scouted other places to be New York, like Paris. To film in New York we thought we would have to pay off a lot of people and we didn’t have a lot of money in the budget. It is very difficult to recreate New York. We filmed much of the Greenwich Village scenes in Brooklyn and you’ll notice that some of the streets in the movie are clearly two-way and there are only one-way streets in the village.
On recreating New York of the 1970’s:
Duchovny: If we had the money for CGI it would have been easier. I kept saying, “We need more garbage….there’s not enough garbage….can we paints in some garbage.” Cars add a lot to change the look of the time. It was also interesting that when we started to film we realized that we had to take down all the American flags people had hanging in their windows. After 9/11 everyone put up flags but in the 70’s people were burning them.
Leoni: I grew up in New York…and it’s changed. I remember being in Sheep’s Meadow at thirteen with like a frisbee and a joint. The city used to have an edge. I miss the dirt. It was creepy back then in the park at night. That’s how it’s supposed to be. People were up to shady things. Manhattan has become tame and gentrified.
On working on the movie and working with family:
Zelda Williams: This is my first movie role but I have been on sets all my life. I bug Mom about once a year about wanting to act. With this opportunity I just took it and ran with it.
Robin Williams: What I am most happy about with Zelda’s work is that she was no diva on the set. She was nice and kind and decent to everyone. No Paris Hilton video here. Of course we want her to continue school. We always say to her, “Natalie Portman…Jodie Foster.” (Both actresses pursued degrees).
Zelda Williams: My parents were worried about my education. They were like, “Don’t ruin this. She’s doing well in school”! And my grades did suffer because of the shoot. I had to travel back and forth to San Francisco. I am in a very demanding school and take demanding classes…and we literally do our homework on the set.
David Robin Williams: I didn’t stay on set for the kissing scene. It is a scene of beautiful innocence and the last thing she needs is me on set saying, “I know you’re in a meat locker but I don’t want to see any meat.” It’s bad enough that there’s a teamster watching saying, “Hey, you want I should get you some water”.
Zelda Williams: Dad is dad. There are no microphones in our living room at home. We have craziness in our home but he can’t be “on” all the time. If he was we’d be crazier than we already are.
Leoni: I didn’t initially want to be in this movie but after reading it I changed my mind. Listen, I’m sleeping with him [Duchovny], I knew I was gonna get the part…but it was so awkward to bring it up. I waited. I waited in the bedroom, the kitchen, the living room. Finally, he was going to make an offer to a better actress…and so I just asked. And I don’t remember his reaction. I didn’t want to see his reaction so I asked and then I just blacked out. I wouldn’t want to see him say (feigning joy) “Oh…great idea honey…why didn’t I think of that.” What he actually said rather diplomatically was that he was looking for an older actress so that’s why he didn’t ask me. Now he was in the awkward position because he had to give it to me. The thing is I just felt so strongly about this part, about this role that was essentially a woman grieving, that I was willing to go out and screw up my husband’s first film because I felt something.
I thought it would be funky to be directed by my husband but it just added another dimension to our relationship. As a director, he wasn’t maniacal or anything – he was the same calm, rational, brilliant man I married. It was good and sexy the relationship. My only dread was there would be that review that would say, “Duchovny does nice work in first film, but why did he have to put his wife in it.” That really is my nightmare. One time though, I came to him in a panic before a scene and said I don’t know what to do, I couldn’t find my angle. And David of course said something that made sense and as I was leaving he called me back and said, “I love you anyway”.
On their roles in the film:
Leoni: For some reason I keep getting offered the role of the crazy mother [Leoni has gone back to back after performing in Spanglish]. Actresses are afraid of the mother role because…y’know… then you become “the mother”, but the mother is a great role. It has many levels and it opens up a huge area to explore.
Robin Williams: I did research regarding a high functioning mentally challenged person – back then we called them “tards.” The script was not changed for me. I followed the script – there was no riffing. My object is to find the humanity in a character…just like in Insomnia (where Williams played a psychotic). Even the most twisted people have a self-image and my job is to find that. Pappas is verbal but slow. He’s fully functioning like an eleven or ten year old would be. He sees Tom as an older brother.
Zelda Williams: Dad and David were sitting in the house one day going over lines and I just asked if I could read.
Robin Williams: She read and David took me in the kitchen and said, he thought he would give it to her. She earned it on her own.
On the movie’s themes and filmmaking:
Duchovny: Sometimes you look back at things that happened thirty years ago…you go back...and you just can’t make things right. You can have resolutions in movies that you can’t have in life. People want resolution in movies. Lot’s wife is a theme in this movie. Y’know she looks back and she turns into a pillar of salt. I went on line to look for Talmudic interpretations of that story and I found a few that agree with that premise…that looking back is the problem sometimes. Lot’s wife is the imagery of not looking back…and needing to look forward. I found some really wild Talmudic interpretations that didn’t fit with the movie.
On working with Robin Williams:
Duchovny: People think he did this movie because we were friends…we weren’t. I mean we might wave hello to each other but not friends. He liked the script. I remember he came up to me and said, “I like this…I’ve never seen anything like this before…it’s like an urban fable.” The first thing that came to my mind was The Fisher King but I didn’t say anything.
Robin Williams: I was a big time X-Files fan. One time I was in Vancouver and I went to the set and waited to meet him. I especially liked the first couple seasons when it was the creepiest.
Duchovny: There should be another X-Files movie at some point. I’m interested, Gillian is interested, Chris Carter and the studio are all interested. If you have those things going and a successful franchise, it’ll happen.
Most influential movie:
Leoni: Jaws. I still am uncomfortable in the ocean. I think about a shark every time.
Robin Williams: 2001. I was addicted. So surreal. It knocked me out.
Zelda Williams: Benny and Joon. I fell in love with originality of the characters.
Yelchin: Anything by Fellini. Donald Sutherland told me though that Fellini was the worst person ever.
Random strange things said by Robin Williams:
• There is a new Jewish superhero coming soon – Retail Man!
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