27 September 2001, © Stephen
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."
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
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
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."
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
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."
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
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."