May 13, 2001

Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh: From Co-Stars Turned Co-Directors, a Marriage Tale

An interview

Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh met backstage in 1998 at the Broadway revival of "Cabaret." Mr.
Cumming had won virtually every award the theater world gives for his blazing performance as the musical's provocative, androgynous M.C. And Ms. Leigh, celebrated for her bold and intense performances in such films as "Last Exit to Brooklyn," "Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle" and "Georgia," was soon to join him onstage for her Broadway debut, replacing Natasha Richardson in the starring role of Sally Bowles. Doing the show together for seven months, they formed a friendship that led to their making "The Anniversary Party," a digital video film, which they wrote, produced, directed and starred in. It opens on June 8.

Ms. Leigh said she had been inspired by her experience acting in another film, "The King Is Alive," which Kristian Levring shot on digital video as well. The emerging video technology, she said, had created a new way to make modest, intimate films quickly and cheaply. She and Mr. Cumming came up with a story that was centered on a married couple and their social circle and that could take place in one day in one location. They enlisted a stellar group of their friends to act in the film, among them Gwyneth Paltrow, Kevin Kline, Phoebe Cates, John C. Reilly, Jane Adams, Jennifer Beals, John Benjamin Hickey and Parker Posey. They landed the services of the A-list cinematographer John Bailey ("Ordinary People," "As Good As It Gets"), who was eager to explore digital video. And they located a set ideal for their purposes, a spacious glass and stone house in the Hollywood Hills designed by Richard Neutra. Backed by Fine Line Features, the film was shot in 19 days for $3.5 million.

The story goes like this: Recently reconciled after a yearlong separation, a couple gives a party to celebrate the sixth anniversary of their very shaky marriage. Sally (Ms. Leigh) is a once-hot actress whose career has cooled; Joe (Mr. Cumming), a hotshot pop novelist, is preparing to make a movie based on his novel about their marriage, on the strength of having signed the younger, hotter Skye Davidson (Ms. Paltrow) to play the wife.

As the party games are played, the night rolls on and the drugs kick in, the movie feels like a field day for actors: Chekhov meets Cassavettes in Laurel Canyon.

Ostensibly novices behind the camera, Mr. Cumming, 36, and Ms. Leigh, 39, bring a wealth of experience to their directorial debut. Scottish born and theatertrained, Mr. Cumming has acted in 33 films, 12 of them in the last two years, and he directed two short films for British television. Ms. Leigh, besides acting in more than 50 movies, grew up in the business. Her father was the actor Vic Morrow, who was killed in a helicopter crash while making a movie. Her stepfather is Reza Badiyi, a veteran television director. Her mother, Barbara Turner, is a screenwriter whose films include "Pollock" and "Georgia," and her half-sister, Mina Badie, plays a major role in "The Anniversary Party."

The co-directors reunited recently for an interview in Mr. Cumming's dressing room at the American Airlines Theater, where he is appearing on Broadway in Noël Coward's "Design for Living." Ms. Leigh was on a break from shooting "The Road to Perdition," a Depression-era gangster film directed by Sam Mendes (who also directed "Cabaret"), in which she plays Tom Hanks's wife. Mr. Cummings and Ms. Leigh play off each other with comfortable familiarity, and both fly in the face of gender stereotypes. He's highly social, flamboyant and uncensored. She's a little reserved, obsessed with gadgets and details, and given to calling male friends by their last names. They spoke with the author Don Shewey, who collaborated with the photographer Susan Shacter on the book "Caught in the Act: New York Actors Face to Face."

DON SHEWEY How long after "Cabaret" did you start thinking about making a movie together?

JENNIFER JASON LEIGH We both finished in "Cabaret," I went to do a Dogma movie in Africa, and Alan was doing——

ALAN CUMMING I was in L.A. shooting all that summer you were in Africa. It was 1999.

LEIGH In September or October, we were hanging out in the living room, and I was telling you how much fun it was shooting digitally. The Danes don't like to work long days, so we only shot seven-hour days for six weeks. So I thought, well, if we shot normal hours, we could shoot a film in three weeks. Then we both started saying we wanted to direct a film, and we wanted to do a film that all takes place in one night, to do a study of a married couple and their friends, we could direct it together, write the story together, get people we love and know. We started brainstorming——

CUMMING Riffing. We had a treatment, and we kept adding to it every time I was back. We sold the idea first, then we had to write the screenplay.

SHEWEY Did you do the writing literally sitting in the room together?

LEIGH The first draft, yes. We'd improvise each scene, then we would type. Alan's a faster typist than me. We wrote the screenplay in February and put in changes later by e-mail.

CUMMING I was in Berlin and Texas and you were——

LEIGH Always in L.A., which was good because I was able to start with the preproduction.

SHEWEY When did you start shooting?

LEIGH July 24. Finished Aug. 17.

SHEWEY In most movies actors get to show a small fraction of what they can do. Were you itching to show more of your talents?

LEIGH For me, it's about control. As an actor, you have a vision of a film, you do a lot of preparation and research, and the director does what he wants, and you hope they end up the same. I don't like to open a drawer and see things that don't make sense for the character I'm playing. If you're the director, everything's so precise and detailed.

CUMMING I think whether you're writing, directing or acting, it's all about telling the story. I don't see it as that different. I've always been more than an actor. In school I was trained in all of the arts, not just acting.

SHEWEY Did you have that kind of training?

LEIGH No. But I've been involved with films from early on.

CUMMING And you produced "Georgia."

LEIGH As Joel Coen said to me when I was asking him some questions, "It's not brain surgery." That's true. It's a joy.

CUMMING It's about communicating, but also making people feel good to give their best. Getting to control the atmosphere of the set and how everyone felt going to work was the best thing. So often you see it going all wrong and you think: "This is stupid. This would be a much better film if everybody came to work thinking,`Hooray!' "

LEIGH You want the set to be the place where people want to be. A lot of times actors will X out days on the calendar, counting the days till they're done. They look forward to the days when they're not working. We wanted to create a set where people looked forward to being there.

SHEWEY What was different?

CUMMING We eliminated a lot of the external things that you see on Hollywood sets. No press on the set.

LEIGH No real hair and makeup. People did their own. And we had these amazing breakfasts every day that were so gourmet and delicious. Everyone was well fed.

CUMMING There were never any strangers around. People bonded and knew who everyone was. I made everyone wear nametags at first.

LEIGH There was tremendous trust from day one. Everyone had spent time together in real life. Instead of meeting and pretending to be friends and creating history, they had it already.

CUMMING Instead of trailers, everybody sat in the garden when they weren't working. There was only one day we weren't at the house, which was the night where we shot the big fight between me and Jennifer in the canyon. It was very disturbing. The crew were really shocked by the scene and how upsetting it was. The next day we were so-o- o-o happy to get back to the house again. It was great, though, because it made everybody understand we weren't doing an episode of "Friends" — 'cause it could have been that. It was the first big scene we shot where people realized, "Ah, it's a bit darker."

SHEWEY Did you have other co-directing teams as role models?

LEIGH Yeah, Joel and Ethan Coen, of course, with whom I did "The Hudsucker Proxy." As directors, they both do everything. They're low key and easygoing without a lot of hype. They were my icons.

SHEWEY What about you, Alan?

CUMMING I'd worked with two directors in theater before. There's always a danger that the director can become this isolated, didactic guru figure, so he stops being a collaborator and becomes a dictator. When there's two people doing it, that makes it immediately more open and relaxed. You have to discuss things in front of other people, and that brings other people into the circle. Also, it's nice having someone else to share the pressure.

SHEWEY What were the biggest obstacles, from the time you decided to do it till the first day of shooting?

LEIGH It was pretty effortless, surprisingly enough. There was a lot of effort involved, clearly, but I enjoyed figuring out the boards, how to shoot——

CUMMING Blocking out the schedules. You loved all that.

LEIGH We also hired people who are really good. We were so lucky to get John Bailey for our first movie.

SHEWEY How did that happen?

LEIGH We sent him the script. We wanted him very badly.

CUMMING He was also very keen to explore digital video.

LEIGH And he really liked the script. We also got Carol Littleton to edit the film [her credits include "E.T." and "The Big Chill"], who we also loved, and the fact that she and John were married——

CUMMING It was like having your mum and dad.

LEIGH It was great for us to work with them on a film about a marriage.

CUMMING Carol Littleton is an artist. She's a woman, she's older, she has a much more interesting overview than most people working in Hollywood.

LEIGH Her background is music, so she understands the music of the scene. There are some scenes in this movie we didn't touch from her first assembly. I loved spending 10 hours a day with her in the editing room. I learned so much. And I got so fat.

SHEWEY Did you do that, too?

CUMMING Less, 'cause I was in Vancouver making "Josie and the Pussycats." I'd get tapes the next day, and I'd come back on weekends.

LEIGH I got to be the detailed, anal person in the editing room, and Alan could look at a tape and give brilliant, precise notes. That's probably when we would have had a major divorce, if we'd both been there all day every day. It also would have been hell for Carol.

SHEWEY Jennifer, what turned you on about working with digital video on "The King is Alive"?

LEIGH The first thing is that I'd seen "The Celebration" with my sister, and we laughed ourselves sick. I hadn't been so shocked by something like that in a while. That's my favorite kind of humor, brutal, like "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" It's shocking and painful and so real. And being shot on video makes it all the more immediate. I did not want our film to be a Dogma film and stick to those rules, but I could see the advantages of video.

SHEWEY What are they?

CUMMING You don't have to stop between takes. On films, it always feels like, "We're doing a take now, everybody clench your buttocks, it's got to be right." With video, you can leave the camera rolling between takes. It's a more relaxed feeling throughout the whole experience.

SHEWEY It's a fascinating cast of film and theater actors. Obviously you were both in "Cabaret" with John Benjamin Hickey and Denis O'Haire, and Gwyneth Paltrow was in "Emma" with Alan, but what's your connection to Kevin Kline?

LEIGH He's married to Phoebe Cates, who's been one of my best friends for 20 years, since "Fast Times at Ridgemont High."

SHEWEY Jennifer Beals?

LEIGH She played Benchley's wife in "Mrs. Parker," and we became really close.

SHEWEY And John C. Reilly?

LEIGH I've also known him forever. We worked on "Dolores Claiborne" together. The first day I said, "Can you play the drums?" because I knew I wanted him to play the drummer in "Georgia." He said, "Not really, but I can learn."

SHEWEY What parts of the film were improvised? The scene where you play charades?

LEIGH No. It was all scripted. But to get that fever pitch, that rage and excitement, you need the experience of actually playing. All of us have played charades in separate groups. At Alan's birthday party during "Cabaret," we played charades, and Hickey went insane. There's always one person like that in the group. I loved it. It makes me love the person so much to see their true passion and competitiveness underneath their sophistication. For us, charades was a key scene where you see the animal side of all those people.

SHEWEY What about the scene where the guests deliver toasts to the two of you?

LEIGH That's the only part of the movie that is improvised. Alan and I talked to the cast about our relationship, what had happened that year we were separated, and then we asked each of them to go off and write something in the character's voice. We didn't know what anyone was going to say. We wanted to be surprised.

SHEWEY Where in the movie are examples of the kind of brutal, scathing humor you like?

LEIGH When Alan says, "Scrape 10 years off of your face." (giggles) I love that.

CUMMING "If by some miracle we could have scraped 10 years off your face, there's still no way you could have been in this film." And when Gwyneth's character says to Jennifer, "I'd like to spend some time together because I know the part I'm playing in Joe's film is based on you as a young woman!" There are many mentions of age. Even Gwyneth's character lies about her age, and she's only 22 or 27. We're very truthful about people's insecurity about aging.

LEIGH And not wanting to grow up. We focus on actors and the movie industry because we know that world so well, but really the movie is about something that speaks to a lot of people. It's about growing up and making choices and having children and how flawed all relationships are and how hard they are to make work. At the core, it's about friendship. Who but your best friend is going to say, "You're not moving to London to raise the offspring of a sexually ambivalent manchild"?

New York Times, May 13, 2001

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