Steve Buscemi is nothing like the characters he brings to life on the big screen. He's not sarcastic or even quick-witted, he's not frenetic or eccentrically animated, and he's not that funny either. He's actually serious, alarmingly sedate, and, of course, he loathes being interviewed this despite the fact he just directed a movie called Interview.
"Usually, what happens to me is that, after a long day of doing press, I sometimes get tired and spaced-out and sometimes hostile," he explains in a hotel suite at the Casa Del Mar in Santa Monica. Then he adds, smiling one of the only times he will during this conversation "But don't worry, you're my first [interview] today."
Interview, starring Sienna Miller and Buscemi, is the first installment of a trilogy of adaptations of movies by Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh who was, in 2004, murdered in Amsterdam by a Muslim extremist for perceived heresy against Islam. While it's impossible to properly address the tragedy of Van Gogh's death in this context Buscemi seems interested in discussing it anyway his work will consequently now endure in American theaters as well. (That's certainly a loud rebuke of those who sought to censor him.)
The original Interview (2003) wasn't exactly controversial, though; an intense, two-person character study, it pitted an entertainment journalist named Pierre against real-life Dutch actress Katja Schuurman in a sort of battle of wills. It questioned the nature of celebrity and the public's obsession with it and Buscemi's Interview is pretty much the same movie, though from an American's point of view even if Buscemi insists celebrity was never a subject that interested him when he agreed to helm the project.
"No, what really attracted me was their relationship," he says when asked if, since he enjoys a certain amount of celebrity, the opportunity to comment on it appealed to him.
"When I watched the original, I felt like I was watching the story of a couple that was breaking up and it was fascinating because they had only just met for the first time and were spending only a few hours together."
It's interesting to note then that Delirious, which stars Buscemi as a celebrity paparazzo, is coming out soon and is, like Interview, an indictment of our celebrity-addicted culture. However, Buscemi insists that, yes, while the Tom DiCillo-directed indie "also deals with the nature of celebrity and the media ... it was [actually] the relationship between Les the photographer and his protégé, this homeless kid played by Michael Pitt that he takes under his wing, that was, to me, the interesting part of doing the film. A character that was so desperate for a connection, and then has to sabotage it. What in us compels us to do that?"
Interview Buscemi a few times and you realize he actually does choose roles based on characters' inabilities to communicate, like his last feature-length directorial effort in 2005, which he calls "a simple story with complicated characters that, you know, didn't necessarily know how to communicate with each other." Still, he can't expect filmgoers to believe the thematic purpose of Van Gogh's Interview, which survives in his version, held no real interest to him. If it didn't, he wouldn't have hired tabloid queen-victim Sienna Miller to play the blond, allegedly brainless actress Katya that his political reporter Pierre must reluctantly interview. Sure, she's actually a wonderful actress, but Buscemi explains that, when she was cast, he had only seen her in Layer Cake which she barely appears in and on a DVD interview she did for the movie that Buscemi says showed her to be "smart and funny and talented." In other words, he and the producers hired Miller to play an emotionally daunting, complicated role that demanded underacting based on a movie she's most notably half-naked in as well as an interview that showed her to be smart, funny and daunting. It's probably no coincidence either that Miller, who no doubt felt a giant vendetta against the entertainment media that publicized her relationship with Jude Law, accepted the role the day she was offered it, without reading the script.
For a director whose honesty goes lengths to define his work, in particular his time behind the camera on his debut Trees Lounge, Animal Factory, and Lonesome Jim, it's disappointing to find Buscemi unwilling to discuss the larger context of his work or, for that matter, not expect his audiences to want that larger context. Maybe he expects his audience to intuit the context, that everything is open to interpretation? If that's so, it isn't explained. It's especially disconcerting considering that Interview is an adaptation and, in a way, re-creation of Van Gogh's work; the Dutch director's camera crew and director of photography Thomas Kist were even brought in to execute the "Van Gogh style."
Buscemi explains: "He developed this three-camera system so that his actors would always be on camera. He was also fond of shooting close-ups first, which is the opposite of how we do it here. By the time we get to a close-up, the actor is pretty well rehearsed from doing the master and the medium shot. But Theo was interested in getting those unrehearsed reactions."
In other words, honest reactions, which is what Buscemi puts on screen in his work. But he refuses to be in interviews until, as it turns out, he realizes he won't be able to escape them. After 30 minutes, perhaps already exhausted by this conversation, he finally says of entertainment journalism, "It amazes me how many entertainment shows there are, but I guess it's filling some need. I'm not sure I get it. I understand it on the surface and I'm not different, because one does get wary from reading about all the tragedies and what we're going through in this country with the war and this administration. So yeah, sometimes you see a light piece of entertainment news and it feels like a relief. But I think there's entirely too much attention paid to Paris Hilton. ... Why is that even entertainment news? It's just really weird to me."
But that's what Interview is all about, even if Buscemi won't say it.
Interview opens Friday, Aug. 10, at the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.
Cole Haddon writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]