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Interview: The Last Photograph’s Danny Huston

by Charles Trapunski

The Last Photograph‘s director and star, Danny Huston is a bit of a legend, and the opportunity to discuss his return to being a director wasn’t to be missed. What was not anticipated was the in-depth nature of Huston with his anecdotes and answers, which was welcoming as we sat down one day before TIFF was set to begin, and as it will become apparent, the conversation has a couple of revelatory turns and remained thoroughly fascinating throughout.

The following is a condensed and edited version of our interview with the loquacious and talented Danny Huston.

Brief Take: What brought you back to the director’s chair after two decades?

Danny Huston: You know, I started as a director. I had the most wonderful possible teacher: my father, John, and I spent a lot of time on film sets with him and observed him, and went to film school and my career started as a director. The first, first directorial thing that I ever did was a title sequence for a film that I did for my father, called Under the Volcano. My father was, like pretty much everyone’s father: a God. But he truly was a filmmaking God and he was my buddy, my partner. And I made a film called Mr. North, and during the making of it, he became rather ill and he found Robert Mitchum to replace him. I remember when I was in the hospital and Mitchum came, and when Mitchum arrived, he visited my father and then left the room, the hospital room, my father lowered his oxygen mask and said: “Biggest hoax I ever pulled” [laughs]. And we had this great relationship and sadly, tragically, he passed away while I was making that film. I went on to make a couple of other films: The Maddening with Burt Reynolds and Angie Dickinson, and then my career sort of flattened out in a seasonless Los Angeles environment in which I felt that I was going to meetings and getting things done, but actually, nothing much was happening. And friends, fellow directors out of the kindness of their hearts started giving me small roles in their films just to keep me busy, and I saw it as an opportunity to observe them. I worked with people like Mike Figgis, Bernard Rose, who were doing experimental stuff at the time, and then, suddenly, I found that I was an actor. And I was working with the likes of Martin Scorsese, Nicole Kidman, Jesus, take the stairs! By all means, it was another way to experience how other people work, but also a way to dedicate myself to the art of storytelling, and I consider myself a storyteller, mainly. That’s how I got involved in acting, and then I always wanted to get back in the saddle and direct, and a friend of mine who was an agent in London, at ICM in London, turned into an author, an agent turned author and he gave me this story, The Last Photograph, and with it came some money attached. I read a screenplay and, from a director point of view, I was really intrigued because I saw it as an opportunity to play with different mediums, different film stocks, to create different timelines as a piece of a collage or a tapestry of storylines. And yet a very simple story – a man has a photograph that means something to him, and you rarely have that and you don’t know what it is, and as the story propels forward and different timelines propel forward, including the man’s drive to the airport to pick his son up at the airport on October 22nd, 1988. While the story unfolds, we realize that this is tragedy on a big level and possibly one of the first big terrorist attacks on American civilians. And these storylines that are small, that hopefully people feel are delicate, suddenly carry a greater meaning than what they did before, and that was exciting from a director’s point of view. And I really decided to cast myself because I knew that I would be available. [laughs] I knew that I’d be around and I knew that I wanted to shoot it in a not so conventional way and I wanted to shoot London at Christmas with the Christmas lights and then wait a while for the seasons to change to shoot in Battersea Park, and I could wait and shoot different scenes at particular times of the year.

BT: How has your view on directing changed since you first started?

DH: I had a slightly macho view when I was a teenager or starting film school. I remember on The Man Who Would be King, which was one of the greatest experiences for a kid. I mean I was a late teenager, but I was in the Atlas Mountains, my father, Christopher Plummer, Michael Caine, Sean Connery, The Blue Dancers, [chuckles] I mean, it was a Kipling story, which as you can imagine was one of the most majestic, fantastic experiences for a boy. But I remember going into the trailer and seeing Michael Caine put mascara on his eyelashes, because his eyelashes were very fair, and Sean Connery getting a little hair piece [laughs] to cover his bald patch. And I thought to myself, “that’s not where I want to be”, I want to be like my father in the director’s chair and be a real man, that sort of thing. And then I started acting, [laughs] and it has completely changed my point of view, and where I had no patience for people, I suddenly realized that, my God, acting is like “the last man standing” in a way. With The Last Photograph in a way, I try to invite the characters into the world. With Sarita Choudhury, we spent some time in shop office of the bookshop and saw how it all functions. All places in the film are basically real places. The house that my character lives in belonged to Simon Astaire’s, the writer’s father, who passed away recently, it felt like of another time. With Stacy and Jonah, the young lovers, to be able to sit back and observe them and to see how they interact. I tried to keep it easy and to try to keep it comfortable and to let the scenes play out.

BT: How has working on this film affected what you would like to do next?

DH: Well, you know, I just finished something that screened in Venice, a long short film by Guillermo Arriaga (No One Left Behind). And I’m looking at border stories at the moment, the Mexican-American border. I’m interested in smaller stories, I’m interested in fear and conflict, I’m very interested at the moment in stories about “they”, the others and immigration. For example, with the Guillermo Arriaga, if this could start as a series of small stories, I would love to direct something there. What I really love about directing is that you’re forming it from conception to all the way through to the release, which can sometimes be painful and hard in terms of getting the film out there. That requires a lot of time and dedication, but when you put in the time, [chuckles] you’re more than happy to do it and absolutely nerve wracking and I don’t know why I’m going back into that. [laughs]

The wonderful thing about acting, and my credo in a way, is to work with people I respect. And you’re able as an actor to do your job as best as you can and then step away. The studios, if you’re lucky to have a studio, the producers, the director, their job has just begun, in a way, once the film is completed. It’s a completely different pacing. And I, as an actor, can work on three, four, films a year. If lucky, of course, but I can do that, I can be a bee and taste the nectar from many different flowers. [chuckles] But as a director, you have to be far more single-minded, but you are making films that you are creating and that means something to you, either emotionally or politically.

BT: Did your experience working with Patty Jenkins on Wonder Woman influence how you project yourself as a director?

DH: Yes! I mean the wonderful thing about Patty, direct from an acting point of view, the wonderful thing about her directing is that she’s so contagious in her excitement, she’s so contagious. You can feel when you do something that is possibly a little off book or different than it is written, you can feel her excitement [chuckles] and it’s stimulating. I just love that about Patty. Also, we were making what I guess would be considered a “big” movie and yet it always felt intimate. She creates that feeling on set. And with the character that I was portraying, (General) Ludendorff, there was a certain amount of research that we did together, and yes, we were fulfilling this fantastical world of Wonder Woman, but we were interested in keeping the moviegoer as a real character. We talked a lot about the First World War, how pride and a sense of humiliation having lost his son, the battle, where Ludendorff was psychologically at that point in time. And once we figure that out, well, we’ll also have fun with it, you know? [laughs] We’ll also play it a little arch and fulfill the requirements for a villain in that kind of fantastical world.

A question that I read in your interview with Jack was “what type of actor are you?” and [pauses] I ponder that question and I also read his answer carefully. I guess that my answer would be that every film requires a different technique, some of them are more heavy and more wordy, machine-gun dialogue, or the show that I am working on at the moment- Succession- it’s like fast jabs. And another show that just finished that’s called Yellowstone, that required a different technique. I think that every film is its own world and requires different techniques.

BT: Do you have a through line in your career?

DH: I’m not completely aware of what that is but I feel like my job as an actor is to get my scalpel out and prod and see where my characters feel and why they feel the way that they feel, and I’m looking for that arc. I find that the challenge is sometimes with television, because it doesn’t break down into that react formula. And I like to know what is the moral to the story [chuckles] and so I know where to start, like in The Last Photograph, he has to be a curmudgeonly, closed, slightly difficult, maybe unpleasant person, so that we can discover why he is that way, what happened, what made him that way. I’m always on the course of discovery. There’s another film that I made that’s a good example: The Constant Gardener. I found one line in it reprehensible, which was where he says “those patients would have died anyway”, when they were experimenting throughout on patients. And I thought: “Wow, if I can read that, if I can make some sort of sense out of it and understand why this man is speaking like this, then maybe I’ve cracked that character.” I’m also looking for that key. With my father, there was a wonderful story on The African Queen, Katharine Hepburn was struggling, she said “John, I’m struggling, I don’t know how to portray this character. I’m having a bit of a hard time, I’ve thought about it”. And his reply was “Eleanor Roosevelt”. And she went “Ahhh. Okay, I get it”. [laughs] That’s kind of what you are looking for, and that’s where a story, or a book, or a poem, a piece of music, art- You suddenly have this opacity when you get it and you understand what it means -that’s really for what I am searching.

BT: How would you like an audience to experience The Last Photograph?

DH: I think that most people who make a film want it to be watched on a big screen, as sometimes you see the detail that goes into it that you lose on the smaller screen, but home screens and sound systems at the moment are so good and there is something with a film like The Last Photograph that is [chuckles] not necessarily a popcorn movie or a Friday night film, it is a really sad, tragic story. There’s something to be said for watching it at home, with a friend, or alone and having that be a private experience, an intimate experience. I think that the film works that way, but I’m also extremely excited for the screenings at Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica. Big screen, big theatre, and in terms of The Last Photograph, very big theatre [laughs]. There’s a lot to be said for the moviegoing experience. And just the other night, I watched Quentin (Tarantino)’s film and it was an incredible experience, and I would recommend that I would want people to watch that in a theatre, not that it won’t blow you away at home.

When I was a kid growing up, a lot of the films that I saw were in Ireland, and my father would organize for the projector to come out and the film would rip and then the projector would sort of be balanced underneath books, on top of his books, I should say, and we’d screen these films on the wall, and there was, I’d never met my grandfather, but there he was: Walter. And I thought my grandfather was a gold prospector. [laughs] It was a fantastic experience to watch films that my father had made and my grandfather had his family around and there was something so magical about that projector flicker, we don’t have it any more now. But yeah, it’s all storytelling, right? Even if you’re sitting by a fireplace looking at the shadows against the walls and start telling a story to your kid, it all stems from that.


The Last Photograph is available On Demand

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Brief Take