Interview with John Doe

I kinda wanted to talk about the music industry, and I wanted to get into it by talking about the character you played in Georgia, because I’ve never been in a band, but watching that it seemed like the most realistic portrait of a real working band that I’ve seen in a movie. Playing bowling alleys and bar mitzvahs, but still being able to make a living at it, which is kind of a triumph in itself. I wondered: is it really that authentic, and is that what drew you to the project?

John Doe: What drew me to the project was working with [director] Ulu Grosbard and Jennifer Jason Leigh and Mare Winningham, and it being a great script. But I think it is accurate, to a bar band. Luckily, that’s the only time I’ve played “Hava Nagila.” Guaranteed. And I hope it’s the only time that I play it; not that it’s a bad song, it’s …

[Laughing throughout] It’s of a situation you’re not often in …

Yes. It sort of has a certain … je nais se quoi. [Laughs] But … the only thing that I don’t think a movie has ever captured in the music world is the speak that musicians have, the way that people are constantly capping on each other, and the banter that goes back and forth at rehearsal and just as they’re hanging around. I think that would be really difficult to script; you’d have to record it and then transcribe it. Even in Spinal Tap, it didn’t have that. I think of that sometimes in rehearsals and stuff.

The sickest part about doing acting is that then you find those same situations coming up in your real life. And then you’re wondering what’s real and what’s not.

Flashing back …

It’s just weird. Right around that same time when we were promoting Georgia, I was doing a tour on my own, and there’s this one place in Cincinnati called Sudsy Malone’s, which is a Laundromat-bar-gig.

One-stop shopping.

And it’s very popular with a certain level of musicians, because then they know that there’s one place they’re going to have clean clothes. And you can put your laundry in between soundcheck and the show and have it pretty much done. I’m sure that someone has probably gotten offstage while they’re playing so they can put it in for the …

[Laughing throughout] Put the fabric sheet in the dryer …

Right. [Laughs] I don’t think they’re worried about fabric softener with their jeans and t-shirts.

Your character had a line in that movie, something like “Look Sadie, things are really happening for us, and I don’t want you to fuck us up.” And to most people, for this band, nothing’s really happening; they’re playing bowling alleys. But for that band, to be able to just make a living playing is probably a pretty big deal.

Right, right.

They don’t have to worry about the day job anymore.

I think a lot of people would be better if they did have a day job. And in a way, acting has provided that for me, to do it for the right reasons; to do it because I love it, and because I need to do it, for creativity and stuff. And you can get—when you have a major label contract, you can get distracted, or you can get too far away from the reason you’re doing it. Because it becomes a job. And I think I was there—I was there with that Geffen contract, and I was there with kind of losing the reasons to write songs, or writing songs just for X, and it kind of came back after doing that Rhino record [Kissingsohard, 1995]. I’d collected a bunch of songs to do that record and then toured that, and then, just through personal life and things that happened, I realized I’d lost a sense of discovery, and a sense of searching for something and trying different things. Doing that Kill Rock Stars record [For the Rest of Us (EP), 1998) was—I tried to be innovative and tried to do different things, and carried it over into this one. It’s important.

Do you feel that you’re still “paying your dues”? Is there a point in your career where you thought “OK, I’m here; this can now be my job, I don’t have to worry about where the next paycheck’s coming in”?

Everybody has to worry about where the next paycheck’s coming in. Because everyone extends themselves over and above what they actually make. [Laughs] Everybody does.

This being America, after all.

Yes. Not just because it’s America, because you develop a lifestyle. I’m still having character-building experiences, let’s put it this way. [Laughs] You know, once you accept the fact that life is struggle, then you can embrace it a little bit better. My priorities are not security and comfort, although it’s nice to have in moderate amounts.

Well, you do have a family to help keep up—

I do.

—and that’s always a consideration.

It’s a great source of love, it’s a great source of happiness, and also it can take you away from what you really need to be paying attention to, which is a difficult balance. My wife is finishing school, she’s been going to school for five years, and so I’ve been taking the kids to dance classes and Girl Scouts and crap like that, and sometimes I have to turn down auditions, and say “I can’t do that, because I’ve got to be home.” And that can be really frustrating. Because you’re not paying attention to what you’re supposed to be doing. But that’s part of the tradeoff.

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Million Dollar Babies

Remember the Million Dollar Homepage, where some kid managed to sell a million pixels on his home page for a dollar apiece, and got rich?

Can anyone argue convincingly that The Big Word Project is anything different? I wonder who’s buying sucker?

I’m not criticizing, actually. I’d love to come up with a gimmick to get people to pay me for doing no work.

13 Writing Prompts

1.

Write a scene showing a man and a woman arguing over the man’s friendship with a former girlfriend. Do not mention the girlfriend, the man, the woman, or the argument.

2.

Write a short scene set at a lake, with trees and shit. Throw some birds in there, too.

3.

Choose your favorite historical figure and imagine if he/she had been led to greatness by the promptings of an invisible imp living behind his or her right ear. Write a story from the point of view of this creature. Where did it come from? What are its goals? Use research to make your story as accurate as possible.

4.

Write a story that ends with the following sentence: Debra brushed the sand from her blouse, took a last, wistful look at the now putrefying horse, and stepped into the hot-air balloon.

5.

A wasp called the tarantula hawk reproduces by paralyzing tarantulas and laying its eggs into their bodies. When the larvae hatch, they devour the still living spider from the inside out. Isn’t that fucked up? Write a short story about how fucked up that is.

6.

Imagine if your favorite character from 19th-century fiction had been born without thumbs. Then write a short story about them winning the lottery.

7.

Write a story that begins with a man throwing handfuls of $100 bills from a speeding car, and ends with a young girl urinating into a tin bucket.

8.

A husband and wife are meeting in a restaurant to finalize the terms of their impending divorce. Write the scene from the point of view of a busboy snorting cocaine in the restroom.

9.

Think of the most important secret your best friend has ever entrusted you with. Write a story in which you reveal it to everyone. Write it again from the point of view of your friend. Does she want to kill you? How does she imagine doing it? Would she use a gun, or something crueler and more savage, like a baseball bat with nails in it?

10.

Popular music is often a good source of writing inspiration. Rewrite Bob Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna” as a play.

11.

Write a short scene in which one character reduces another to uncontrollable sobs without touching him or speaking.

12.

Your main character finds a box of scorched human hair. Whose is it? How did it get there?

13.

A man has a terrifying dream in which he is being sawn in half. He wakes to find himself in the Indian Ocean, naked and clinging to a door; a hotel keycard is clenched in his teeth. Write what happens next.

Originally published on McSweeneys.net.

Batman Revisited

June 1989: My friends and I are just a few of the hundreds of people crowding the halls at Orland Square theater, shuffling nervously with our popcorn and cokes, waiting to be admitted to a special Thursday night advance screening of Batman. The manager appears and hollers above the din: have your ticket stubs out; you need to show them again before being admitted to the theater. We grumble, but secretly we’re thrilled. This added inconvenience only confirms our belief that we’re about to witness something special: not merely a movie, but an event that really is as important as we had thought.

Most of you reading this probably don’t need to be reminded how wildly anticipated Batman was, how it seemed to promise the restoration to greatness of a character who had languished for decades in camp-TV hell (more on that later). Superman had been the movie of our childhoods: vast, sweeping, touched with reverence and just enough self-deflating humor, it sought to fill you with wonder, an ambition worthy of the greatest superhero ever. Batman, though, would be the movie of our adolescence. It wasn’t going to delight us — it was going to kick ass.

And for the most part it did. Beginning with the massive stone bat symbol that ended the opening credits, Batman was a movie of Gothic excess. From the shadowy Expressionist spires of Gotham City to Jack Nicholson’s calorie-burning turn as the Joker, everything in Batman is both exaggerated and obscured, vibrant and colorful yet hidden in shadows. Watching it joyfully that summer night, it was hard to think how it could’ve been improved: Michael Keaton was a surprisingly capable Batman (or at least a capable Bruce Wayne; as those OnStar commercials have shown, anyone with a decent chin can play Batman), the script was funny (“This town needs an enema!”), and best of all, the movie was dark-just as we knew Batman ought to be.

Except it really wasn’t.

There’s a curious disconnect between the way enthusiastic Batfans (including me) embraced the movie and what’s actually visible on screen, lo these many years later. Certainly, Batman is hardly the sunny, optimistic adventure that Superman was. Roger Ebert disliked the films partly because he always assumed that it would be fun to be Batman, as if anyone other than a borderline psychopath would look forward to donning a silly costume and placing himself in mortal danger every night. Burton, at least, wasn’t that naive, and the few moments of Batman that really qualify as “dark” are the ones where Keaton is allowed to show the toll that being Batman takes on Bruce Wayne’s psyche. We see him in his Batcave, dressed in sombre black and watching a party in his own house (Wayne Manor is more wired than the Nixon White House) from a bank of security monitors, fearfully eavesdropping on his guests; we see him rocking himself to sleep in a pair of gravity boots after a romp in the sack with Vicky Vale. Bits of disturbing ambiguity flash up here and there: when he tells Vicky that parts of rambling Wayne Manor are “very much me,” is he simply referring to the Batcave and its trove of gadgetry? Or is there still a corner of the mansion where Bruce Wayne remembers the happy childhood that was stolen from him?

Such moments are rare, and the rest of the movie is about as “dark” as a vintage Warner Brothers gangster picture, the ones that relished their anti-heroes’ nefarious exploits for 80 minutes only to gun them down mercilessly at the end (remember kids, crime doesn’t pay). From the boozy Det. Eckhart in his Columbo raincoat to Robert Wuhl’s intrepid newshound to Jack Palance as the aging-but-ineffectual crime boss, Batman calls again and again on the stylistic language of B-movie film noir, but without the deep moral ambiguity that suffused that genre at its best. In short, while it might be closer to pastiche than straight-out camp, Batman is far less dark and serious than its gloomy compositions make it appear. Even Danny Elfman’s score, still often held up as the ideal “serious” superhero movie score, is a tongue-in-cheek genre exercise; I can’t hear it without picturing vintage black and white footage of Packards and Cadillacs swinging around corners, tommy guns blazing from their windows.

There’s nothing wrong with this, of course. But I do think it’s time we all lightened up a bit and realized that if Batman took its title character out of the camp ghetto, it didn’t take him very far. Moreover, I realize as I get older that the original “Batman” TV series is nothing to be ashamed of: it’s superbly designed, funny, intelligent, and far more sophisticated than just about any other comedy on the box today. (It had the worst test scores of any ABC show up to that time, and wouldn’t stand a chance in hell of getting on the air now.) It also saved a comic series that was teetering near cancellation; the Batman films, for all their self-conscious distancing from the TV series, probably wouldn’t exist without it.

And finally, in one of those funny accidents of history, the whole process is primed to start up again. With Joel Schumacher having sunk the series into a new morass of cheesy puns, hyperkinetic editing, leather fetishism and banal homilies, Batman needs rescuing today far more than he did in 1989. Supposedly a film adaptation of Frank Miller’s terrific Year One series is now underway that promises to take Batman once again back to his dark, turbulent essence. When that summer comes I have a feeling I’ll be there again, my popcorn and coke (and ticket stub) in hand, once more eager to witness the rebirth of a legend.

Originally written for Entertainment Geekly in June 2003.

The Adventures of Bill Kurtis: Terror at 5,000 Fathoms (Part 5 of 7)

“Dive, Frenchy! Dive, damn you!” hollered Bill, hauling himself back to his feet as the crew slowly recovered from the blast. Alarms blared angrily throughout the sub and Bill’s sound technician’s head was bleeding.

“But monsieur,” Frenchy cried, his dishevelled hair falling in his face, “zees boat, she is not rated for depths —”

“Don’t argue with me!” Bill grabbed Frenchy by the collar and held the stolen disk in front of his face. “We’ve got six renegade Russian submarines who will do anything to get their hands on this. We’ve got depth charges falling all around us. And there’s an underground cave system directly beneath us on the ocean floor, which I’ve explored in another documentary here on A&E, The Unexplained: Mysteries of the Depths.”

“Bill, that klaxon’s really cutting into everything,” said Phil, the sound technician. “We might have to loop this when we get back.”

“If we get back,” muttered Frenchy.

Bill tore Frenchy’s beret from his head and slapped him across the face with it. “Frenchy, are you going to give that order … or am I?”

Frenchy sighed. “Mon dieu.” He turned to face his crew. “Take her down. Stern planesman, fifteen degrees down bubble.”

Mon capitan,” said a crew member, “she will fly apart!”

Oui,” said Frenchy dully. “Oui.”

As Frenchy gave further orders the deck began to tilt beneath their feet. Charts and papers slid from the table and poured onto the deck. Bill’s cameraman, Carl, grabbed an overhead rail for support while continuing to shoot with his free hand. Bill turned to the lens, pausing as the makeup girl gave him a quick powder.

“On a submarine,” Bill intoned, his resonant voice cutting through the chaos around him, “there’s no such thing as a ‘routine dive.’ As the boat submerges, the pressure on the hull from the surrounding water increases, and so does the tension in the air. There is an added urgency and care in the way these men go about their jobs. They know that, a quarter-mile below the ocean’s surface, there are no second chances. They know that –”

Suddenly a noise like a pistol shot ripped through the cabin.

“What the hell?” said Bill.

Sacre bleu!” said Frenchy, shouting to be heard over the eruption of conversation among his crew. “The hull rivets, they are flying loose!”

Two more steel bolts burst from their sockets and ricocheted through the cabin. One hit a monitor and shattered it; the other struck Phil in the forehead, killing him instantly.

“Phil!” Bill hollered, holding Phil’s lifeless corpse in his arms. “Noooooo!!”

Carl retreated under the table and continued filming. Men rushed from station to station, ducking their heads and protecting themselves with their arms while all around them the ship groaned and cracked with the ever-mounting pressure. Frenchy surveyed the ruined monitor.

“Main sonar control,” he said, looking down at Bill cradling the dead crew member. “Until we fix her, we are flying blind.”

“We keep going,” Bill said grimly.

“Monsieur Bill, you do not understand. We cannot keep going without-”

“Damn it, Frenchy!” Bill leapt to his feet and threw a solid left into Frenchy’s jaw. Frenchy dropped to the deck. The crew stopped to watch, aghast; an eerie silence fell over the room, punctuated by the increasing groaning of the hull.

“Diving officer,” Bill said, breathing heavily, his face shining with sweat, “what’s our depth?”

The diving officer spoke no English. Another officer read the guage: “Nine hundred and eighty meters.”

“Get us down to one thousand and fifty. Then level your descent and bring us about on a course of 35 degrees, speed five knots. Follow that for two minutes.”

The officer relayed these instructions to the diving officer, who burst into a tirade in impassioned French.

“He says even if the boat does not crush like paper, there is no help for us down there,” the officer translated. “He will not follow this course.”

Bill glanced down at the body of his dead technician, blood from his head still oozing onto the floor. Damn it. It’s all going to be for nothing.

“Take the boat down,” said Frenchy suddenly, pulling himself to his feet. A red welt was growing on his chin. “We have come zees far. We will trust zees American a little longer, heh?” He smiled at Bill, who nodded. He repeated the orders in French, then added, “Sound collision alert. We must be ready for anything.”

Bill and his team crouched down along the wall as the crew drove the sub ever further down. The grinding of the hull plates grew louder, ever louder, until ordinary conversation was impossible. Warning sirens rang incessantly. The lights began to flicker.

“Carl, let’s roll,” Bill said.

“Bill, it’s bedlam in here!” Carl said. “And our sound guy’s dead!”

“Never mind that. There’s work to do. Meg, powder me and then pick up that mike.”

Meg patted the shine from Bill’s face and gingerly picked up Phil’s boom mike. Bill faced the camera once again.

“The sea is an unforgiving, merciless mistress. Even now she tears at the hull of our ship, searching it for weaknesses. We are now engaged in a race against time-a race we never wanted to run. Can we make it to the bottom before our vessel tears apart? Will we find the protection and assistance we need? These questions-”

A terrific crash sounded deep within the ship. Officers shouted in French.

“Hull breach!” Frenchy said. “How bad?”

“Capitan!” an officer yelled. “We have reached the destination, and …”

“And what?” Frenchy replied. “Zees boat, she will be filled with water in five minutes!”

“I cannot be sure,” the officer stammered. “But I could swear … there is another ship alongside us!”

Frenchy looked at Bill, a look of dumbstruck surprise on his face.

Bill smiled at him. “Shall we see who’s at the door?” Then, turning once more to the camera:

“That’s next … here on A&E.”