Q&A with David Duchovny

The writer/director of 'House of D' talks about writing the film, casting his wife as his mother and the 'X-Files'

David Duchovny wrote, directed and starred in 'House of D'
David Duchovny wrote, directed and starred in 'House of D'
David Duchovny wrote, directed and starred in ‘House of D’

This may sound strange, but when David Duchovny first entered the room the first thing I noticed about him was that his eyes were small. Odd, right? But they are. He’s a rather tall fellow, but for some reason my attention settled on his eyes. And they seemed small for the rest of his face.

The soft spoken actor talked about writing like it was something he really enjoyed. At least when it came to the script for House of D (for which we will be featuring a review this Friday). The interview with him was also strange because of two questions, both of which I thought were kind of rude. One I left in here, but the other I opted not to bother with. I couldn’t understand why the question was asked, and it only led to a rather awkward exchange.

But over all he came off as a friendly person. Sometimes you can get a vibe off people when they’re faking it, and I didn’t get that here. Anyway, enough about that, here is the interview.

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Question: What was it like shooting House of D?

David Duchovny: It was fun, but it was hard. It was an independent film, so I had a lot of responsibility, and it was all kind of new to me to have that kind of responsibility. It wasn’t like laughing fun, but it was fun in enjoying every aspect of it.

Q: Where’d the story come from?

DD: Basically the germ of the story began with the image of the Women’s House of Detention, which is now a garden. And knowing that that was an actual urban transformation that has happened, that a prison became a garden. And also that it was a prison in the middle of the most exciting neighborhood in the most exciting city in the world. You got a prison in the Village where women can actually hang out of the bars. I mean, it’s bad enough that you have to be in prison, but to be in prison in a great neighborhood. It’s like being on Alcatraz, and you can see San Francisco and you keep thinking, ‘If I can only get there.’ So, on the one side I thought that was interesting, and on the other side I thought that they could really influence people. They could yell out there. We don’t have interaction with prisoners in this world that we live in now. We’re removed. But in this time and place, they were right in your face when you went to school or walked your dog. And I thought, that’s something dramatic.

Q: Did you connect with that idea for any particular reason at that point in your life?

DD: Probably, but not consciously. I think that I’m beginning to realize that I thought the movie was about a boy growing up, and it is. But that was the movie I was making. And also a man discovering a mystery of his own life. Why he’s miserable, or why he’s not really in his family. And I realize in talking about it that the move that the boy makes, he has to isolate himself from all these forces that would hold him back. From his overprotective mother to the Robin Williams character because he can’t mentally accompany him into adulthood, and Erica Badu, she can’t physically go. So I thought that in all ways that’s covered, that’s what a boy has to do. He has to go it alone. And then I realized that it’s kind of the opposite at 40 when you’re a man and you’re still isolating yourself, then you’re not really being a man. A man at that age really has to rejoin the family, and that’s what that part of the movie was about.

Q: What films or filmmakers inspired you?

DD: I’m very much inspired by having been on the X-Files, because it was technically such a great show and the directors were so competent, in terms of action and tension and stuff like that. And I didn’t know anything about that. I don’t know what kind of director I would have been if I wasn’t on that show. Because on TV you have five acts and four commercial break, but it’s good because you have to ramp it up before every commercial break. And I learned to kind of ramp things up throughout a movie and keep people interested. Otherwise I probably would have just laid there. I think X-Files taught me a lot about tension, which I wouldn’t normally have done. And I think Cinema Paradiso, the frame of the man looking back. And Stand By Me, which was a movie about kids for adults. It was nostalgic, and I wanted sentiment in my movie without being sentimental. I thought it was very hard to find that in American films. The Europeans seem to do that a little better, like Il Postino, where they’re able to go for that real heartbreaking moment without people going, ‘Aw, that’s sappy’. Here in America, we get angry when people want to make us feel. So I tried to make it an honest, sentimental film.

Q: How was it directing your wife, Téa Leoni?

DD: It was a pleasure to have her do what I say. (laugh) Honestly, the truth is that Téa was too young for the role, but she asked me to do it and I thought, she’s so great, I’m a big fan objectively. I can be objective because I saw her before I knew her, before I fell in love with her. And I thought, wow, she was one of a kind. So when she asked me to be in it, it was like Meryl Streep saying to me, ‘Can I be in your movie?’ And I was like, ‘Yes, whatever you want to do.’ But she, on the other hand, was very nervous because she thought she’d screw up my movie. Or she felt like she might. And you know, that’s natural. But I sit on the outside, and I can see how great she is. And she sits on the inside, where all you know is how lousy you are.

Q: She plays your mother. Discuss?

DD: (laugh) Well, if I had appeared in a scene with her as her son, I wouldn’t have done that. That would have been too weird. But because we’re not in the same frame together ever, and there’s such a great distance between the two stories, I felt like it wasn’t an issue. I never really gave it that much thought. I realize it looks a little strange, but I don’t think it gets in the way of the enjoyment of the film.

Q: Can you talk a little about the casting of the film?

DD: Well first, Robin [Williams] is a movie star that will do movies like this. Even though certain actors have reputations for doing independent films, Robin was like the first guy to do that with Good Will Hunting. Now everyone kind of goes, ‘Yeah, I kind of like to make my money, and I also try an win an Oscar over here’. So, I knew Robin was open. I also thought he’d be perfect, because he’s so strong and childlike. He has access to that childlike quality, and he’s also very powerful in a weird way. He’s not tall, but he could kill ya. And I liked with Papas that he was a physical threat, because he’s a man among boys, and I wanted that with Robin. Even thought he was never going to go off on these kids, I wanted that weird possibility that he’s a man, and these are boys. And Robin as a performer has access to this limitless amount of energy and childlike nature and I thought, that’s what this guy is. As for Anton [Yelchin], I didn’t want to work with a 13-14 year old. His name was brought up to me early, but I said I don’t want to work with a kid that I can only work with for six hours a day. I couldn’t do it on my schedule. I needed a 16-year-old, which I wasn’t crazy about because that’s like an eight- or nine-hour day. I’d love an 18-year-old that looked 12, but that’s just odd. But I finally gave in and agreed to see Anton, because everyone kept talking about him. And when he came in, it was just like, ‘That’s the man I’m going to marry’. That’s the boy, that’s him, and I was so scared of losing him. I thought, this kid is undeniable, and if I let him go Spielberg’s going to have him in a day and offer him money I can’t give him. And I actually ran out and stopped him and his mother and said, ‘What do I have to do to get you say you’re going to do my movie, before you leave me right now’. It was like trying to get a girl’s number at a bus stop. He’s just an extraordinary person. He’s freakishly mature, artistic, and I learned things from him.

Q: Do you think it’s an asset or a liability that when people look at you, they’ll always think X-Files?

DD: Will they always think X-Files…? Well, then it’ll have to be an asset. Because I’d rather live with an asset than a liability.

Q: Do you think you’ll do another X-Files film?

DD: Yeah, I think we will. It’s just a matter of getting the script done, and getting everyone in the same place.

Q: Would you work on a film that your wife directed?

DD: I would have the same fear that she had. But, yeah, if she asked me.

Q: Tea said you wrote the script in four days, she said you’d say six. How much of the script was already formed in your head before you started writing?

DD: Well, I tried to write an outline, because I was told that’s the way to do it. And that’s probably right, because then you don’t write yourself into a dead end, you know where you’re going. But I was so excited by it as I was outlining it, so I just kind of outlined the first act, I got impatient and I started writing. But I knew the story in my head. What ultimately changed, though, was the ending and the crisis of the bike theft. I knew there had to be a crisis, I knew something had to happen and that Papas has to bring about this crisis. Out of his jealousy or confusion over what was happening with this kid. Originally I thought it was going to be something sexual, which is why the big penis jokes are still in there. But you know, even when I changed it, I left them in there because I thought they were funny (laugh). But then when I got to that moment, the movie that I was writing didn’t seem to be able to withstand that kind of difficulty. A mentally handicapped man sexually assaulting a 13- or 14-year-old girl? It didn’t seem to belong in this movie. So it just became the bike. The bike became a representation of the girl for him. Then it was really how I was going to resolve things. When my character comes back to New York, how much am I going to be able to resolve. Personally, in life, I don’t think you get resolutions, and I originally wrote it that way. But then I felt, you know, this is a movie. We all know what life is, we all get enough disappointments, we all know that there are very few resolutions and life doesn’t happen in a circular form. So, why not just be able to sit in a movie theater in the dark and get a fantasy of that kind of thing. So I let him close things up, let him see them again, let him move on with his life.

Q: One of the things I like was how he went from retarded, to mentally handicapped, to mentally challenged. I thought it was interesting the way you did that.

DD: Yeah, I thought I could get away by making it funny. I thought I could take the curse off him. Logically I thought, you see this guy’s day, and he’s a tough guy. And you assume that he lives with his dad his whole life until the dad dies. And I was in love with this movie, Best Boy, and I think that’s where a lot of that came about. It won the Oscar for best documentary in [1980]. It’s about this mentally handicapped guy who lived with his parents his whole life, and he’s in his 50s, and they’re in their 80s. His cousin comes and says to his parents, ‘Look, you are going to die soon. You can’t take care of him forever. He has to take care of himself.’ So the documentary is about this guy getting better, getting more responsible. So I thought when Papas’ dad dies, he has got to do more. He doesn’t become normal, but he does get better in a way. He does change. In his limited nature, he does get better.

Q: What are you going to do next?

DD: I’m going to Montreal to shoot a film called, The Secret.

Michael Sheridan

Michael Sheridan has written, directed and produced more than a dozen short films under the banner of Maynard Films, and has worked as a writer for more than a decade for websites, magazines and newspapers.

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