"A great milonguero dancer in Argentina once said in order to be a great tango dancer you should be a thief, a pimp, a bookie or some kind of gambler. But it's just not true. It's a myth." -- Robert Duvall
It took under seven weeks to shoot but twelve years for Duvall to release his latest love child Assassination Tango. The film opens in selected theaters on March 28, 2003. Reelwriter.net spoke with Duvall from his farm in Virginia about his fourth time in the director's chair. "I always heard it was very tiring to direct," says Duvall. "I've done a couple of smaller projects before. But I'll tell you what. I had more energy by the end of the day than if I was just acting because everything was an extension of myself whether I was writing, directing or acting."
What Duvall brings to a character is part tough guy and part poet. Like good writing, his emotions are sparse, pure, never overly sentimental and always strong beneath the surface. He is an artist in the purest sense of the word. His characterizations are diverse. He is consistently surprising. Yet, as Duvall says there's always a thread of his own truth in his portrayals. "You become different," says Duvall. "But you're always in touch with yourself."
Film audiences first met the actor in To Kill a Mockingbird (1963) in his stoic, sensitive portrayal of Arthur Boo Radley. It's been a love affair ever since.
In a career that spans more than thirty years of great film roles, his Lieutenant Colonel William Kilgore in Apocalyspe Now (1979), and the soft spoken, steely reserve of Tom Hagen in The Godfather trilogy are among some of his most recognizable roles. And with good reason, especially when juxtapositioned: the bad ass military man versus the thoughtful Hagen who captures attention by underplaying the part.
Perhaps his most nuanced performances are in lesser known projects: The Great Santini (1979), Tender Mercies (1983) which earned him the Academy Award for best actor, Rambling Rose (1991), and Wrestling Earnest Hemingway (1993). And then there's Tomorrow (1972) in which Duvall plays Jackson Fentry, a simple man living a simple life with his father. When Fentry discovers a desperate woman in the woods, pregnant and in need of care, a love story develops that is as simple as the character he portrays. Duvall affects a nearly indiscernible accent that's touching and appropriate to the character. "How is it I met you when you was all wore out?" He asks actress Olga Bellin as she lies dying by the fire in his cabin. To see his emotions ripple beneath his skin is to watch a master craftsman.
The following is a conversation with Duvall as he talks about his passion for the tango, his leading lady in life and on screen, Luciana Pedraza and what keeps him juiced after thirty years in the business. Here he talks about his craft as an actor and how as a director he intertwines non-actors and trained actors, giving his films a gritty sense of reality. Duvall has the ability to take fictionalized drama and give it an underbelly of truth only duplicated in documentary films.
Kelly McCarthy: When were you first introduced to the tango?
Robert Duvall: About fifteen years ago when I went to see Tango Argentina. I started to go to Argentina and getting into the culture more than you just saw on the stage. And really began to appreciate the music and to appreciate Buenos Aires and anything Argentine, which the tango is principally from; although its gone all over the world now. The great era of the tango was in the 30s, 40s and 50s.
McCarthy: What style of tango do you dance?
Duvall: The club tango. You know each person has his own style. For me the beginning and the end of the tango is the walk. Pablo Verone was the great dancer, and when he was young he went to various clubs and he would sit and watch the old men walk.
McCarthy: Is the walk where your personality comes in?
Duvall: It's an extension of something about yourself. Every person has their own style and that's what's unique about the dance. Everybody rips everybody apart in criticism. Nobody thinks anybody's as good as they are.
McCarthy: Is there any measure of truth that you bring a portable dance floor on your film shoots?
Duvall: Oh no, no. I did that on one show because I was dancing and did a song when I played that old Cuban guy, in that movie with Richard Harris Wrestling Ernest Hemingway (1993) and we put a dance floor in the hotel room.
McCarthy: When you set out to write the script for Assassination Tango did you set out to center the film on the dance?
Duvall: Because of it, yeah. In the back of my mind in some way without overloading it, you know connecting Buenos Aires through social dancing through the underworld. It was that kind of aspect.
McCarthy: How does the dancing fuel the characters?
Duvall: I've heard of guys in New York that are underworld guys that are very good mambo dancers, good swing dancers. A great milonguero dancer in Argentine once said in order to be a great tango dancer you should be a thief, a pimp, a bookie or some kind of gambler. But it's just not true. It's a myth. All the great dancers I talked to said that's not true at all. But it's kind of attached in history. You know going back in time it's kind of tacked onto the tango and to a lot of the guys in New York who were like wise guys and guys from east Harlem and Brooklyn who were terrific mambo dancers and terrific swing dancers.
McCarthy: What's the experience for you to write a script, to be in the film and to direct. How do you handle all of the hats you are wearing?
Duvall: I wouldn't necessarily look at dailies or the rushes till the weekend, sometimes until the film was over. I'd go out at night, get rest. And in Argentina we had a five-day work, week so it wasn't that wearing on me as I thought it would be, in either of the two movies I did there. (Duvall acted and produced TNT's The Man Who Captured Eichmann (1996), which also filmed in Argentina).
McCarthy: That's surprising. You actually had more energy at the end of the day?
Duvall: Yeah, I mean more than if I was just acting or if I was at home. The hours weren't that long. We had sane work hours and it was a pleasant, wonderful experience in both instances.
McCarthy: When you are directing yourself, how do you keep an impartial eye?
Duvall: Well it's the same way I do if I had another guy out there. That if I would say, 'What do you think?' He'd say, 'Well, what do you think?' And I'd say, 'I feel pretty good.' He'd say, 'Well I'm satisfied let's go on.' So instead of having that person out there it's just an imaginary thing. I've done it enough that I know what I'm doing is O.K., that what I'm doing fits if somebody was there but they're not.
McCarthy: Did you and Luciana Pedraza do the choreography yourselves?
Duvall: Each of the professional dancers did their own choreography. With us, we just improvised. And when she danced with the professional dancers at the beginning, there was a choreographer that helped them with that. But as far as the regular dancing I just wanted everyone to choreograph their own. I didn't want it to be a dance movie per say.
McCarthy: Do you think that allows more of the character's emotions to come into play?
Duvall: I think so, yeah. It's such an individual dance with individual styles.
McCarthy: I've read that the tango itself is much like a language and that it speaks to each person. Do you go to a different place when you are dancing?
Duvall: People can do that. It's a quiet dance. One of the great dancers said Tango to him was sweetness. So it means different things to different people. It's a very personal space you go into without becoming overly philosophical about it. It's a joyous thing. It's fun.
McCarthy: What does it mean for you? Is it the fun that attracts you? Is it the quiet you talk about?
Duvall: It's a pleasurable thing to do when it goes well. Sometimes it doesn't go well. It's a very beautiful thing, the tango. I asked a friend of mine yesterday. I was talking to him in Argentina. I asked him, what is the tango for you? And he said the Tango is bonito, beautiful. The tango is many things to people. So, it's just a quiet, nice experience. It's satisfying.
McCarthy: How did you guide Luciana in the part, being this was to be her first time acting?
Duvall: That's a good question. When I was looking for someone to do this I needed someone who could dance, act and speak English. And I'd written it for the older woman who plays the aunt, but she couldn't speak English. So I broke it into three parts: Maria Nieves plays the aunt, Luciana plays her niece and the younger sister is played by Geraldine Rojas, whose arguably the best tango dancer in the world, she's a young girl. I've known her since she was about six. So I broke the part up into three. For a couple of years Luciana and I would improvise. I would put her in casual social situations with friends who were professional actors. I'd give them a situation and then let them improvise and play act without a script. And then when we began to work we rehearsed some in a special coffee shop in Buenos Aires and we'd rehearse. And then when we did the coffee shop scene I said what I want to do here is put up two cameras and we're going to improvise and nobody's going to know what's next, everybody clear the set and lets just do it twice. We had certain things that we had set in her life, special emotional things in her life that meant things to her became fictionalized. And since her two-year old niece played her two-year old daughter in the movie, that meant something to her. So we had a reference point. It wasn't a wandering process of improvising it was something that meant something within a form. And we rehearsed, partially improvised, partially scripted until she got comfortable with the language and she's very quick to learn things so she took to it well.
McCarthy: Did she do this for a couple of years off and on?
Duvall: Yeah, at my house in Virginia we would just rehearse things, little exercises, play act. We'd have fun play acting to get into the sense of being in the moment without being above the event or outside the event but being in it in a nice relaxed realistic way.
McCarthy: Do you think there's an advantage to directing an actor whose completely new to the process?
Duvall: Yeah, because there's no bad habits. And once you get non-actors to a certain level I find that they put the professional actors on notice. They really become very pure and very good.
McCarthy: Did you visualize how you wanted the film to look? Did you storyboard?
Duvall: I don't do any storyboarding. And I don't rehearse much at all. We'll stage something and we'll just go. The cameraman was so quick with the lighting we'd block it and show him whatever we'd want. They had a hand held operator from Rio de Janeiro who came down and he was just absolutely world class. If I didn't know what to do I would just say follow me with that camera and he'd follow me anywhere. We were fulfilling the schedule in a sane way without going crazy. There were things we had to do over but not many.
McCarthy: What were the scenes you decided to re-shoot?
Duvall: Well, one dance sequence at the end of the movie when Pablo Verone dances with the little girl. We had it but it wasn't good. It wasn't quite full figure. And the great genius Fred Estaire wanted everything full figure and I can understand why. So, Verone was on his way to the airport to go back to Montreal and New York and we called him on the phone and he did a U-turn and came back. And we did it again, and it's at the end of the movie.
McCarthy: Did you look at some other films with famous dance sequences in order to prepare?
Duvall: Not so much. I've been to Buenos Aires so many times that I just wanted to do it the way my eye would see it if I were that character going to that city at a given time.
McCarthy: How integral is the tango to the Argentine culture?
Duvall: I'd say maybe one sixty-fourth of one percent of the population dance the tango. So it's not that many. But enough to take it for export and there's a rebirth among the young. So there's a rebirth with the tango now. There are more professional dancers now coming into it as opposed to the old club dancers. What I gravitate more toward is the old club dancers.
McCarthy: Did you face any obstacles during filming?
Duvall: The second day they filmed the whole tango sequence, unbeknownst to me in slow motion. I said if this was the United States, you'd all be fired! I don't know what possessed them. There was no reason given. Maybe they thought because we did one other thing in slow motion, but it was just blind willfulness. Anyway, we were able to salvage that.
McCarthy: Are there typically other things that happen that you don't expect?
Duvall: Oh yeah, surprises are the best part, to let it wander like an improvisation. Like I would say to people we don't have to get anywhere. Nothing is precious. Change any lines that you want. We'll see where we go. Start from zero and we'll see where we go. So hopefully there's no beginning and end. People are just relaxed. But then if things would go a little array sometimes, logically about camera angles and so forth I depended very much on my script girl Tracy from Canada. She was excellent. They were a little bit macho conscious those guys, and didn't want a woman telling them, but I totally went to her before the others because I respected her and she was covering me. If there was something I didn't quite understand I would go right to her and she protected me.
McCarthy: Which directors in your acting career have given you the kind of freedom you give your actors?
Duvall: In a certain way Coppola did in The Godfather , though a little different. He gives good freedom, not so much freedom but it allows a certain kind of relaxation. Altman allows that relaxation too. Sometimes you don't even know the director is on the set, other times you just wish they'd fly back where they came from. (laughs)
McCarthy: How did Coppola give you that sense of relaxation?
Duvall: In the Godfather he would see what you bring and then accept that and then maybe offer his ideas. All the good directors are like that I think. Rather than getting in there and posing all these preconceptions right from the beginning on the actor.
McCarthy: Any other director other than Coppola who has influenced you as a director?
Duvall: Kenneth Loach the English director. I never worked with him but he's very good. And Lasse Hallstrom when he didMy Life as a Dog. Some of the Iranian directors I like, they allow things to happen for real within movie time. They allow real moments to happen. Some people if a real moment or an accident would happen they would cut the camera. But some let it run and see what happens. Like when Brando had the heart attack in The Godfather(1972) that little kid that played his grandson from Staten Island started going crazy running around crying. So at that moment it became like a documentary. And that kid didn't know what was going on. So that was an accident that became very precious in the final result. You look for those things.
McCarthy: Can you recall certain happy accidents in the filming of Assasination Tango?
Duvall: In the coffee shop scene where we were just talking, it's an eight-minute scene and every line was like that. We didn't rehearse at all. Certain things we knew meant things to us as actors, as characters and we just rolled two cameras and each person was covered at the same time. Some wonderful things happened. They were unplanned, unwritten and totally accidental in the best sense of the word.
McCarthy: What if you allow things to just happen and you don't get any happy accidents?
Duvall: What if you do?
McCarthy: That's true, but doesn't that take a certain amount of courage?
Duvall: Yeah, it does. For first time actors like Luciana, she's marvelous in the scene. She's so alive and fresh she gets almost the best feedback than anybody in the whole movie. So it's good. Yeah you are taking a chance. You have to be with people who go with the moment and make things happen.
McCarthy: Have you used that method in other films you've directed?
Duvall: I did it when I directed a gypsy boy in a gypsy film a few years back. And then also on The Apostle (1997) I allowed those things to happen by casting people really from those Southern Evangelical churches and putting them in the part so that at any moment they knew what to do if they needed to yell out an amen or whatever. They knew what to do at any given moment because they grew up with that.
McCarthy: You do get a sense of realism in that film.
Duvall: Yeah, it's a reality you can't buy with an extra from Hollywood, or most actors even.
McCarthy: In the films you've worked in as an actor have you let things happen, do you go buy your instinct?
Duvall: Well, I try to but other considerations come in. There's the monetary thing or if it's a good director or who are the other actors? Or is it a good script? Usually it boils down to is it a good part? Can I do something different from what I've done before? Even after all these years I get excited when that happens.
I'm busy working on my blog posts. Watch this space!