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L.I.E. Interview, 27 September 2001, Stephen Brophy

One of the things the Boston Film Festival always does well is to bring in lots of cinematic artists to meet their publics, and tangentially to talk with the press. During the ten or so days of the Festival we writers make a daily trek to the Lenox Hotel (one of the Festival's sponsors), where all the actors and directors and writers are housed. There we go into meeting rooms and purposefully chat with these artists, sometimes going from the director of a romantic comedy like "Italian for Beginners" to a black comedy like "Novocaine" within minutes of each other, hoping not to get too mixed up.

This year all that was cut short by the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, with its attendant grounding of the nations airplanes. But one of the most dynamic interviews I've ever participated in happened on the weekend just before September 11, with five principal artists for the almost universally praised coming-of-age story, "L.I.E."

Sitting across from each other were the director, Michal Questa, and one of his co-writers, Stephen M. Ryder. Questa, a man in his thirties, is thin with a tendency to understated elegance. His co-writer is a different personality altogether - a retired cop in his mid-fifties, voluble and rumpled and full of entertaining war stories.

As if this were not enough, further along the table was Brian Cox, who plays the pedophile character, Big John Harrigan, and who is considered by many people, myself among them, to have portrayed the one, true, cinematic Hannibal Lector, in an under-valued little move called "Manhunter," which came out a couple of years before that other actor took the Oscar for his more colorful depiction of the cannibal psychiatrist. Last, but certainly not least in the volubility department, were the two teenaged actors - Paul Franklin Dano who played Howie, the protagonist, and Billy Kay, who was Gary in the film, Howie's bad-boy friend. Sitting behind us were Kay's parents.

We started the interview with the observation that, while much of the publicity for the film focuses on the pedophile aspect, that's not really what it's all about. Questa kicked off the discussion by remembering that "I always told Steve that the film was Howie's journey, his coming of age, and that every kid hits some bumps in the road on this journey. It's like his own little Vietnam, his own little war story." Kay piped up to say "no kid comes of age without meeting someone like Big John."

Kay is more dynamic in his conversation, but Dano seemed more thoughtful. "In the script it was clear that's what it was about, because it was about Howie, and his father, and his friend Gary leaving him, and his mom's death. And intertwined in it all is Big John." This prompts Cox to interject, also in a ruminative way, "it's no question that it's a rites of passage story, how he comes to terms with himself and learns about the world. Big John is just a lesson along the way."

Ryder thinks that this unbalanced perception of the film" might come from the need for people who comment on the film to distance themselves from Big John's character. "The film has been almost universally applauded from every corner, by the press and by the audience, but people feel some obligatory need to weigh in and say 'what a bad man. I love this film, I love the acting, but what a terrible person.'

"It's so parenthetical and so forced and so PC. With the political landscape of America, if you say 'this is a great film, a great story, with great acting, you also have to say, 'but this is a bad man' or else people might think that you're a bad man." Kay interjects again. "There's probably more evil than good in the world, and it's all mixed up. There's good and bad in every person, and that's the way it should be in films."

Ryder continues to talk about this perception of the film. "To Michael's credit, when you see the film you see that not only is this not what the movie is about, but it's also not a big deal in Howie's life. This is part of growing up. In 21st Century America you can not be a boy growing up in or near a metropolitan area and not run into one of these guys in one way or another, whether knowingly or unknowingly. But he also runs into a bunch of other guys. Some of his friends are also dirtbags. His best friend betrays him."

This brings on an onslaught of analysis by the artists. Dano believes that "it was important to balance Marty's father with Big John, and to balance out the morality and immorality in all the characters - like the friend who sleeps with his sister, or Gary's lying to Howie. That was premeditated."

Ryder, agreeing, goes on to say "we wanted to show the sort of multi-various amorality that teenagers can grow up in. I mean here we have a guy who has sex with his younger sister, and charges his friends money to watch. Which of course we only refer to verbally, letting it come up in conversation. But nobody ever refers to it when they're talking with us. Nobody ever asks a question about that."

Finally Brian Cox puts it all in perspective. "This isn't the 'Sound of Music.' There were probably all kinds of reasons for my not doing it, not playing Big John. But after I read the script and talked with Michael about it, there were a lot more reasons for doing it. You don't get roles like this every day. I'm an actor, so I'm looking for something to act.

"I am not one of those actors who is trying to project myself, to always look for hero roles. I think the business of acting means getting inside other people and projecting what they are. When you have someone as rich as John Harrigan, you would have to be nuts not to play him, or else very paranoid. And I admit that I went through a lot of wavering about this after I took it on. My agents were also all against it."

Explaining why he now has fewer hesitations about this kind of role, Cox tells a story. "I went through a crisis a few years ago in which I wondered to myself 'why am I playing all these bad guys? I'm not sure I really like this.' And then I had a chance to play King Lear in a hospital for the criminally insane. In the audience were all sorts of people who had murdered other people - their fathers or mothers or sisters in all sorts of grim ways, knives and axes and such. So everytime a knife comes out in the play - and there's a lot of dying in Lear - all the eyes would look away.

"And then I came to the line, 'is there any cause in nature for these hard hearts.' There was a young woman sitting in the front row who had slashed her sister, and was now aphasic - her speech was just a few words that came in stutters. And when I said that line she said 'no. No. No cause. No cause.' And everyone in the audience and on the stage just froze. And I thought 'my god what a great job I have, when I can do something which causes a troubled person to have a moment of peace, of coming to terms with some terrible thing in their life.

"So that's why I can be at peace playing bad guys. There are a lot of people who have done some pretty terrible things, but we are all brothers and sisters under the skin, and that's what we've got to understand. Nobody should be cast aside because of what they've done."