The prominent actor discusses stepping behind the camera for his writer/director debut, Jack Goes Boating.
Philip Seymour Hoffman is synonymous with one of the most fruitful artistic kinships in modern cinematic history. Since 1996 casino caper Hard Eight, Hoffman has played major parts in all but one of Paul Thomas Anderson’s five features – the exception being 2007’s There Will Be Blood. After a near decade-long break, Hoffman and Anderson are back together filming The Master, a 1950s-set drama about a charismatic preacher whose new faith takes America by storm.
Right now, however, the New York theatre nut is focused on directing his own movies. With his feature debut, Jack Goes Boating, in cinemas, LWLies grabbed Hoffman for a quick chat to find out how this change of aim is working out.
LWLies: What made you want to develop this from the stage for your first directorial feature?
Hoffman: Well, it was a play that was developed at the Labyrinth Theatre Company – which was the company at the time that I was artistic director of with John Ortiz, who plays Clyde in the movie. We had developed it with a playwright named Bob Giardini and it had run Off-Broadway for a while and done very well there. And then Big Beach, this film company in New York, and Overture saw the play and they thought it would make a really good film, which was interesting because when we were rehearsing everyone would always comment on how cinematic it felt. So we thought it would be a great thing to do, and because I had directed with the company for many years John thought it would be a great thing for me to direct – it would be a logical extension of what we’d been doing for a long time. We kept going down that path and collaborating and working on the film as we had done the play. That’s really how it came about; it wasn’t something that I’d been searching for or that I made happen. They came to us and we accepted the job.
So you weren’t looking for a project to direct at all?
No, I really wasn’t. In the back of my mind I always thought it’d be nice to one day direct a film, because I’ve been directing in theatre for years and act in film all the time, so I thought it was something that I should probably do at some point in the future. It’s always been interesting to me, and it always felt like an organic extension of where my life was going. But I wasn’t really looking. I just assumed that it would happen somehow and that something would find its way to me. And that’s kind of what happened. It came and it made sense.
What were the main challenges for you in adapting from the stage to the screen?
I think there was a time when a lot of plays were developed into films, it’s less common now, but every film today still comes from that same place; an idea. This just happened to come out of a playwright’s head, and throughout we just tried to stay true to the story and let it tell us what to do cinematically. And it did, we didn’t try to force anything. I was just be there yelling cut and deciding how and where to bring certain characters in, and it was a lot of fun doing that.
It is daunting directing something where you’re on screen in almost every scene?
That was a tricky thing. I had a hard time with it, but I’ve got to give some thanks and gratitude to the other actors because they really did such good work and that really helped me out. I was helping them as a director but then when I had to act they really helped me out and guided me when I needed guidance.
This is a film about relationships, but the most interesting one is yours and John’s characters’. Was that fun developing?
Yeah, well that was always the central relationship is the story, which is what I find so fascinating about Bob’s writing. You think you’re going to follow this one relationship – Connie and Jack’s – and then you slowly realise that the relationship you’re following is the one that started the movie; the two men. You begin with them and you end with them. It’s a really nice development and it’s where a lot of the sadness lies. It should be called ‘Jack and Clyde’ to be honest with you.
You describe Jack as a ‘cool’ guy. What do you mean by that?
Jack is a working class guy, you know; he’s the guy that minds his own business and has his job where he works for his uncle and he’s let life just pass him by without really engaging in any meaningful relationship with another woman. I think like a lot of people out there he’s just alone, but he’s a cool guy because he’s not desperate, you know? He’s got his own way of doing things and his own style; he’s never conformed to society’s expectations. But the more time you spend alone the harder it is, as we all know, you got to take a risk and go out there. So he’s a bit of a loner, but he’s also part of this world and he’s definitely a good guy. He’s a kind man, but he hasn’t had anyone to mirror him, to reflect off of him. It’s hard to better yourself without other people. So the movie’s really about meeting someone at a time when they’ve made a decision somewhere inside of them that they want their life to change somehow. What’s nice in this case is that his friend is here to help him.
Who do you hope this film relates to?
I never really think from an audience’s point of view to be honest with you. I just guess I kind of hope that the audience will be wide, I think it will. There’s so many different ways of watching film now that we know the movie will get out there and I think there’s a lot of people out there who will be able to relate to the story and the characters. It’s about middle-aged people, but it’s got a youthfulness to it, too.
What got you into cinema?
I'm theatre guy; I got interested in acting through that. With movies I always saw that as something I wanted to do, but I didn’t really know how you got into that. I went to college and started acting in a theatre there and did plays after that and to this day that’s what I still do. I’m best known in movies because that’s what’s got the higher profile, but the theatre is where my heart is. Film just kind of happened, I started auditioning and getting jobs, so now I do both. But the theatre was where I had my epiphany moment that made me want to get into acting.
Do you find it hard to balance the two?
I don’t actually because there’ so much theatre in London and New York and other big cities. It’s all around you and if you live in one of those cities then it’s a big part of your life as an actor. But I think an actor’s life should be about both; it should be about doing films and theatre and not necessarily prizing one over the other. I think you see more and more nowadays that actors are doing that. And London is a great example and it’s really exciting because many of the most prominent British actors, and actually a lot of American ones, work in London theatre productions.
Do you have any future plans as a director?
I don’t know, I definitely want to direct another film some time but I don’t know when that will be. I’m more immediately interested in directing more plays, and acting still takes up the majority of my time, especially film because you’re often away on a shoot for weeks at a time and that can be pretty disruptive sometimes. I think it’ll be at least a year before I direct anything again, purely because I’ve got other things going on. But after that I will direct a movie again because I had a lot of fun doing this and there’s a lot more I want to achieve as a director.
What do you love about movies?
Umm... I think... that... I don’t know, I think that there’s something that touches you when you go to the movies, you kind of get sucked into this dream state. There’s something that happens when you’re in a dark room watching something that has a certain impact on you that reaches a very deep, subconscious part of you. It’s indelible. It stays with you for a long time. I think that’s why when you go back and watch a film that you loved from when you were younger it’s never quite the same experience. Even though it’s the exact same film. In the theatre you’re not in a dark room, and there’s a sense of interaction that you don’t get with being in a cinema. It’s a very communal experience, but cinema is isolated, it’s just for you and it affects you on a much deeper level in that sense.