Film Scouts Interviews

Costa-Gavras, Dustin Hoffman, and John Travolta on "Mad City"

by Henri Béhar

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Los Angeles, November 13, 1996

Culture clash on Washington Boulevard in Culver City, L.A. To the right, the ultra-modern buildings and the manicured lawns of Sony Entertainment's landscaped parks. To the left, the Colonial-styled bungalows of the old Culver Studios. These used to be Clark Gable's and Orson Welles' dressing rooms-cum-hideways, for this is where "Citizen Kane" and "Gone With the Wind" were shot. This is where Greek-born, Paris-based Costa-Gavras (of "Z" and "Missing" fame) is shooting "Mad City", starring two American icons, John Travolta and Dustin Hoffman. He couldn't use the Warner studios in Burbank "because all twenty-four stages were taken up by 'Batman'."

At 7 a.m., the Culver City stage is deserted. The set - the rotunda of a Museum of Natural History - has been up for days. Lining the (faux) dome, a battery of lights that can pivot and swivel. Below the dome, two gigantic dinosaurs. Halls on the side lead to other galleries. Here, "A Hundred Years of American Quilt." There, a chasmosaurus, a sixty-feet-long grass-eating mastodon from the end of the Cretaceous period (83 million years ago). Further down, an allosaurus, a hundred-feet-long meat-eater right out of "Jurassic Park". Bas-relief and friezes with dinosaur motifs separate displays of buffalos, mufloons, and assorted "florae and fauna from all eras". On one side, a Native American village, complete with teepees made of wood (quite rare), and the statue of a Miwok chief, his hand up, his arm stretched.

An already harried assistant rushes in and informs the director the stars have arrived, they're already going through their dialogue in their respective caravans. "Yes, great, oh *no*!" says Costa-Gavras as the head Special effects propman empties at his feet a whole case of half-exploded heads, punctured hands and severed arms - those, supposedly, of the Miwok statue after being hit by a bullet accidentally fired by Travolta. Unfazed by what looks half-way between a butcher shop and Dr. Frankenstein's lab, Costa-Gavras examines the tortured remains carefully.

"They always overdo it," he whispers to a visitor. "I asked for just a fire shot, not an explosion a la 'Die Hard'."

Back to the workshop.

"I have to find a mother buffalo, a father buffalo and a baby buffalo. By tomorrow." Production designer Catherine Hardwicke has two days to duplicate elements of her Culver Studios "museum" in San Jose, Northern California, where production is setting up for the next six weeks. 5'3", ninety pounds when wet, a bird perched on her head, Hardwicke never lets go of her sketch book. The (fake) bird in her hair? "I've sported different one every day since I was twelve." The birds in the windows? A exceptional loan from the Los Angeles Natural History Museum. The dinosaurs, she found, of all places, on the Internet. "You have sites for every type, every era, in every position. It makes your research much easier. And it's cool."

Catherine Olim, vice-president of PR agency PMK, swears Hardwicke's set is the exact replica of the "Pink Museum" in Memphis, where she was born. "That means I have achieved what I was attempting to do," Hardwicke comments, "which was to remind everybody of the museum in their hometown, whether it's Los Angeles, Denver or Memphis. I've never been to Memphis, but between 1915 and the 1920s, a lot of public buildings were done in that mixture of American Beaux-arts style and classical elements."

The energy level goes up one notch on the set. The first of the superstars to come out of their Winnebago, Dustin Hoffman has just walked in. Wearing dark pants and a white shirt, fast as a billiard ball just hit by the cue, he carries on several conversations at the same time, yet with equal (read total) concentration. With his assistant ("I left my sides in the Winnebago"), with a female grip ("Do you know how beautiful you are?"), with the cinematographer ("How are you going to frame this?"), with another grip, also female ("Does your boyfriend let you go out without a bodyguard?"), with the director - and the "problem I have with this line" turns into a complete reassessment of today's scene.

"Mondays are always difficult," the director smiles philosophically. "Since the actors have had the entire weekend to think things over, they come with 350 acting and 106 directorial ideas. You just have to sift through them and calm everyone down."

Nobody saw him come in, but suddenly Travolta is there, sitting on a stool by a pillar. His hair a mess, sideburns down to the middle of his cheeks, he rehearses his dialogue with Hoffman. After consultation with the director, the rehearsal resumes. Hoffman tries his lines with Humphrey Bogart's voice in "The Harder They Fall", then clears all the way to the right. "The line would be much more effective if I delivered it from *here*," he says. In true Broadway-hoofer form, Travolta spins on his heels and sings "Monday, Monday", a hit from the '50s. The crew bursts out laughing, even Hoffman smiles. The actors rehearse again, Hoffman finds the right tone, the right beat. Costa-Gavras is happy, the actors go to make up.

The set cranks up - a beehive on speed. Under the bemused (and amused) gaze of producer Arnold Kopelson ("Platoon"), the sound mixer hangs his earphones on the dinosaure's tail. Costa-Gavras runs from one end to the other, adjusting a spotlight, bringing a stool closer to a pillar, discussing a camera angle with the cinematographer. There is no video monitor in sight.

"This is a man that is so organized he will not use video assist, which is unheard of in America," marvels producer Kopelson. "Did we all freak out at the beginning? You bet!"

The director didn't. "Apart from the fact that what we do is to be seen on the big screen, the video is such a tiny box that you miss the essential: the actors' eyes, what they express through their eyes. The video assist allows you to check the frame. Great. Well, I've worked with (cinematographer) Blossier for years, I know he knows how to frame."

"It was quite a revelation," Kopelson comments. "For once, you don't have everybody's wives and mothers giving their opinion about the shot, or what the director got or didn't get. So here we are, on schedule, on budget, and the dailies look great!"

Spoken like a true producer. The unit photographer is equally practical: "At last I can photograph a director with his camera!"

His face more drawn than before, his hair messier, Travolta slumps on his stool. Hoffman stands behind him as they both watch, on the TV set, a tabloid reporter interview Cliff (Bill Nunn), a security guard who was wounded when Travolta accidentally fired a shot.

"I've known Sam for a long time," says the wounded guard in full video close-up, "I really don't think he meant to hurt me... I got no problem with him."

"You're lucky," Hoffman comments, "you've got his blessing."

"Mad City" tells the story of Sam Baily (Travolta), a low-level employee at the local museum who, downsized from his job, takes the curator (Blythe Danner) and an entire class hostage, along with the children's teacher. A network journalist demoted to local news for impudence, now routinely covering the municipal layoffs, Max Brackett (Hoffman) seizes the opportunity to pull himself up and back into the saddle. The hostage situation quickly gets out of hand, becomes a "media event" -- enter the "big feet" of telecast, the Dan Rathers, the Larry Kings.

The storyline strongly recalls that of Billy Wilder's classic, "Ace in the Hole" (a.k.a. "The Big Carnival"). Kirk Douglas then portrayed a cynical, ambitious reporter who used a miner stuck at the bottom of the pit for his own benefit. Different time, different media, but...

"Flattered" by the comparison ("Wilder's film is a masterpiece!"), Costa-Gavras concedes that indeed, he thought about it when he first read the script.

"I think the writer must have been inspired by 'Ace In the Hole,'" says Kopelson cautiously. "There's a big difference, however. The character that Mr. Douglas played was mean-spirited, he was conniving, he created a situation for his own benefit. He was clearly the villain. We don't really have a villain in our movie."

There was one in the original script. "But you can't be so black-and-white anymore," says Costa-Gavras. "In fact, the whole rewrite process was about exploring all shades of grey, injecting some ambiguity to what would otherwise have been cut-and-dry cliche characters. By bringing to the foreground the social shattering caused to Sam by the loss of his job - consequently of his social coverage, insurance, medical (the so-called 'benefits') and the destruction of his family that would ensure - his motivation became much stronger."

The journalist's character was similarly transformed.

"One line in the dialogue jumped at me when I first read the script," the director continues. "At one point Ms. Banks, the curator, calls Max a brashly selfish, shamelessly manipulative man. 'Yes,' he replies, 'I am doing it for my career. At the same time, I am helping this man; without me he'd get at least ten years. It's also put your museum on the map, and yes, it helps the ratings. See, everybody wins.' That's the idea that guided me throughout."

"This is a movie where everyone has their own problem, their own agenda," producer Kopelson elaborates. "One wants to go up the corporate ladder, one wants to go back to the network, this one is after ratings, they all have very valid and legitimate preoccupations. So, in a way, it's nobody's fault, is it? It just kind of evolved that way in this 20th-century media.

"And it goes beyond the media," Kopelson continues, drawing a parallel with Joel Schumacher's "Falling Down", a film he also produced, "which didn't have a clear villain either. Yet it provoked enormous discussion around the world, debates and talk shows on television, cover stories in Newsweek and Time Magazine about the white man's burden in today's society. I feel that this film will be understood and perceived as an interesting exploration of human nature and human frailties."

Yet Hollywood loves villains (they make movies easier to market), and Americans have such a love-hate relationship with their media stars that making the journalist the devil was almost a natural. Costa-Gavras immediately indicated if that were to be the case, he was not interested; he was joined, after a while, by producer Arnold Kopelson.

"Being a former practicing lawyer," the latter says, "we like to think in terms of black and white. But there is no such thing in real life. Whether he likes it or not, John/Sam becomes a spokesman for the middle-class, people that are out of work, with families to support. Maybe the villain is life when people are not up to the challenge of supporting themselves, and have to think what they're going to do with their children."

Led by an assistant sporting a Mohawk haircut, a tattoo and an earring under the inevitable baseball cap, a line of children (the hostages) snakes across the yard and onto the set. The kids behave normally, their mothers are more self-conscious. Made up as if they were to audition, they keep scanning the area, just in case a photographer happens to be around, or a journalist, or (who knows?) maybe a director?

The cameras rolling, two kids run animatedly from one display to another, amazed by a butterfly, a stuffed bird or a million-year-old bone; they then rush to join the rest of the class under their sleeping bags in the background.


"Yo, Costa," says one of the two sauntering toward the director, "you gonna give me a line or what?"

"Next time, my friend, next time."

As the kid struts back, laughing at his own boldness, the director tells the visitor that "none of those kids had any experience before this. Yet every time, they're right on their marks, same speed, a perfect match. They're great."

(The kids love "their" director right back. A few days later, when all their scenes were done, they all sneaked out, got a large sheet of drawing paper, dipped their hands in a bowl of ink, pressed their wet palms on the page, signed their full name, each one of them, and presented it to the director, who burst into tears.)

The scene between Hoffman and Travolta continues. Travolta's face is gaunt - it's the dawn of a third sleepless night. Cliff's interview now over, the two men remain silent. Leaning his head against the pillar, Travolta starts talking - his voice as hoarse as his complexion is gray. A cellular phone rings. Hoffman stands up, goes to his jacket on a chair by another pillar, answers the phone. "Yes... No." He slams his cellular shut, then slaps the pillar with his open hand.

"Can we do it again?" asks Hoffman, unhappy with his "double bang".

Back to position. Phone rings. Hoffman answers, slaps the pillar THEN slams the cellular shut.

"Wrong," the actor says. "Changes the meaning completely."

Back to the original "choreography". This time, he finds the right sounds, the right beat.

"Was he paid for this interview?" Travolta-Sam asks.

"It's a tabloid," Hoffman-Max replies. "Oh yeah. Big bucks. It's show business."

"How much?"

"I don't know. Ten grand."

A pause.

"If they'd pay Cliff ten grand, they'd pay me, what, maybe fifty? I mean, I'm the whole deal here."

"I thought this wasn't about ransom." says Max.

"It's not ransom," Sam replies, "it's show business."

No sooner has the director yelled, "Cut!" than Travolta, not missing a beat, erupts into a lively rendition of Irving Berlin's "There's No Business Like Show Business". Let me tell you, he does a mean Ethel Merman.

"I toured with her when I was seven," the actor says laughing. "She was doing Gypsy, my sister was in the show, so we all went."

"It's not ransom, it's show business." Chilling. Tabloid TV, talk shows, "human interest" cover stories, everything is for sale; the victims and their families are no slouches in offering their misery to the highest bidder. News is merchandise, packaged and sold as such. What a dilemma for a reporter forced to turn hard news into "entertainment", lest he be replaced overnight by one of the two hundred candidates vying for his post.

"You can't reduce the problem to individuals alone," the director elaborates. "There is this huge machine behind them, this monster that has to be fed constantly. The public bears part of the responsibility: it is the audience that turns an incident, minor today, into tomorrow's 'event', only to wipe it out and replace it, the following day, with another "'event'."

The TV set is now almost at the center of the rotunda. Hoffman and Travolta have sat on a bench as the latter is being interviewed, "live" as it were, by Larry King. Hoffman keeps barging in, Travolta keeps brushing him off. "I am the one he's asking the question to." Exhausted at first (two takes), then angrily raising his voice (three takes), eventually hissing at his co-star.


Hoffman walks toward Costa-Gavras and offers yet another approach to a particular line. From his bench, Travolta simply looks up; with a discreet movement of the hand, almost like a conductor, the director gestures "a little bit more here, a bit less there." Not a word is exchanged.

"Dustin will bombard you with all sorts of questions," Costa-Gavras comments. "Ethical, political, social; questions about his character, questions about all the other characters. John has a different approach, more physical, more instinctive, more - if I may - 'musical'."

The sound mixer sums it up more bluntly: "It's just like watching (concert pianist) Vladimir Horowitz jamming with (jazz legend) Chet Baker."

Teaming up Hoffman with Travolta was one of Costa-Gavras's ideal configurations. Hoffman expressed interest very early on. Travolta wasn't free, he was shooting a Roman Polanski film in Paris with Isabelle Adjani. Costa-Gavras started looking elsewhere. Rumor came from Paris that Polanski had put production on hold and that Travolta wanted to quit. Costa-Gavras alerted Warner Bros. but no, according to new(er) rumors, Polanski had resumed production. Costa-Gavras kept looking. Three days later, Travolta definitely quit the Polanski movie, his agent contacted Costa-Gavras and said his client was "quite interested." Knowing a Hoffman-Travolta ticket was too unexpected, therefore too intriguing, to let the opportunity slip by, Hoffman got in touch with Warner, then personally called Travolta's agent. Meanwhile, Costa-Gavras was having his first meeting with Travolta to discuss the character.

But which one? The initial plan was to have Hoffman play the hostage taker and Travolta the journalist. On the surface, the parts appear interchangeable.

Almost, according to the director. "John could indeed play the journalist - and we talked about it - but had Dustin played the municipal employee, the character would have been substantially altered and perhaps slightly more limited. It's purely a question of age. Losing one's job at 45 or 50 is horrendous. But losing it at the age of 35, when you have no degree, no skills, no hope to shield your family from poverty, that seems to me all the more dramatic as everyday, the media - society! - keep telling you you're "in your prime", at your 'most productive'. How can you *not* despair? How can you *not* resolve to drastic action?

"According to several analysts," he continues, "it is precisely in that demographic bracket that vigilante movements and extremist groups that seem to be mushrooming throughout middle-America get most of their recruits. Brutally laid off by the export of more or less unqualified labor, particularly manual, those people lean more and more to the right, much as they did in the 1930s. With the same arguments, the same idiotic 'solutions'. Having Travolta play Sam instead of Max allowed me to broach on that preoccupation, and it was he, actually, who gave me the physical key to the character. The sideburns."

The first thing you see when you enter John Travolta's caravan is... Travolta's head on a shelf. It is on that sculpture, with its bluer-than-blue glass eyes, that film after film the actor and his makeup artist perform their "capillary investigation", i.e. that Travolta researches the look of his character. It was his idea to let his sideburns grow down to mid-cheek.

"Often to get attention," he explains, "some working-class types get tattoos, or goatees, or funny hair. I just felt it was not that unusual for a guy like Sam to have something he would use as... a signature, a way to assert his individuality. I am not analyzing, just observing. It seemed logical to me that he would let his sideburns grow. We are not talking Elvis-type 'lambchops' - Sam wouldn't go as far as that - but just a little touch, with short hair here and a little longer on top," he adds, pointing at what looks like a seven-dollar haircut. "Which it should be," he says laughing.

Warner Bros. didn't think it was so funny, at the beginning. How dared one tamper with the superstar's aura? Since the tamperer was the star itself, the studio relented, Travolta got his seven-dollar haircut, lost his muscles' definition and let his body go, acquiring a fairly conspicuous beer-belly in the process. "My best profile" was never discussed.

"There was no reason to discuss it," Travolta expands. "Along with Dustin, Costa-Gavras was the first reason I got involved in the project. When I read it, I was certain that if he saw something in it, and felt that I had to be part of it, being who he is, there had to be some validity to that."

Travolta confirms he was offered the journalist's part initially. "Didn't see myself in it, though, didn't think I had anything new to give the role. That's when I recommended the switch. Dustin had a twist on the Max character, I had a twist on Sam. At least, I liked the fact that it was not a cut-and-dry character, but one I could make just a little more ambiguous. Blur the line a bit".

Jumping to his feet, he recalls, and mimics, a scene where his character is holding his hostages at gun point.

"I thought the whole hostage-taking situation and Sam's attitude toward his use of a gun had to NOT look too professional. I didn't want him to look like he knew what he was doing - which he did in the original script; he was very slick with the gun. 'You're gonna listen to me now? Huh? Huh?'" he says imitating the Bruce Willises and Kurt Russells of movieland.

"I thought it might be more interesting, in the first scene, to hold the gun like this", he continues, arms and hands stretched forward, "as if I was making a gift or something. I just wanted Sam to be trapped by circumstances. It was stupid to bring the gun, it was stupid to bring the dynamite and to use them as a threat. But it's SO stupid that I didn't want him to be slick, so corny, so cliche. 'Cause he's not! This guy just wants his job back. He may have held a gun maybe once in his life, when he went hunting with friends or something. And even when he shoots it, he shoots, like, to the side; he's not even looking at where it's going! That's how he hits Clifford. And that, I felt, makes it all the more threatening."

Because Travolta is making another film right after "Mad city", all his scenes are shot back to back. And in chronological order - "which helps," says the actor with the hoarse whisper of a man who hasn't slept for days. "It allows you better to gauge, from one take to the next, the character's energy, or lack thereof... Besides, I figured that if Costa-Gavras has a variety of takes, when he puts the piece together in the editing room, he can mold it at will. You know, if he needs a little more energy here, he can pick Take 3; if he needs less, he can take 2. With a less competent director, you would not give so many choices, because then your performance would be taken away from you. But Costa, I trust completely, I know he'll do whatever is needed to be done."

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