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Meeting Clark Gregg was an absolutely normal experience.
There was no hovering publicist, no throng of people who are just seemingly “there” when you do an interview like this at a swanky hotel which was where I was at and there wasn’t a thing about Clark that would suggest that in front of me stood a man who made a movie about a sex addict whose best friend is a chronic masturbator.
I was just glad I was the first guy he got to talk to.
Clad in his jeans, a nondescript shirt of no fashionable importance, rocking a tarnished platinum wedding ring and a watch that looked like it could have belonged to the guy who delivered a couple of pitchers of water to the room we sat in. The guy was just smiling, proud of his little movie that could, and we simply had a laid-back, casual conversation about a flick that has some heady themes.
Clark exuded a lot of that comedic vibe that he sports in shows like THE NEW ADVENTURES OF OLD CHRISTINE and as we had the place to ourselves, cut off from the usual claptrap and hubbub of observers and minders, what follows is simply the best example of two guys talking about a common theme, with the exception he’s worth a lot more money, posses wheelbarrows of fame and while he would be able to tarry away to his posh room after we were done I still had to go back to my 9 to 5 job. The experience couldn’t have been more pleasurable.
CHOKE OPENS TODAY AT THEATERS EVERYWHERE
CHRISTOPHER STIPP: First of all, it was a good movie.
CLARK GREGG: Thank you.
CS: I think in order to start things off right I have to find out something first – I can see why this film wants to be made if you read the book but how hard was it with the topic that it deals with to actually get made?
GREGG: You know most of it – I don’t know how I circumvented all that but I thought this is going to be impossible to get made but I was so focused on successfully make an adaptation and then once I got the adaptation working, which took a couple of years off and on between when I was doing other stuff. In the back of my mind I thought, “Come on, it’s a conservative era these days – and here’s yet a sex addicted colonial theme park movie.”
And then I thought it might be a long shot and I loved it and I already put years in and I thought “What the hell…” I got to take a shot. We went about it in a way that we just sort of side-stepped all that. We got actors that we really liked. Sam Rockwell, Angelica Houston who got us a small amount of money but a substantial amount of money that got it done as long as we forwent all luxuries and then, we had a movie. So I guess we were lucky because we found financier producers – in ATO Pictures.
Because we went to them with Sam Rockwell already attached, and a script that they liked, they knew they were signing on for the package. We weren’t inviting people in for development. I did that with a friend and a partner and partner in the project for many years so luckily people signed up who were with the vision. I think that’s probably where the miracle is, that people were willing to put up some money to risk making this. And then I think the second scary part was taking it to Sundance at a time when they sat us down in a condo the day before our movie premiered – last of all the competition films - and said, “None of them has been bought. Nothing has been bought. One documentary may be being bought even as we speak but 32 movies had been shown and nothing has been bought so just have a good party.” Well of all the movies that will be bought I doubt the sex addicted colonial theme park movie is going to be for sale but then it turned out to be the first narrative sale and I guess we just got lucky that there are some off-kilter people out there, fortunately some of them finance small movies, some of them apparently work at Fox Searchlight.
CS: How’s it been coming off the festival circuit? What’s the process? You made the movie, obviously working in Hollywood for as long as you have, you have such good experience with the production side of being an actor. Being a filmmaker now…what’s that process like now since the film has been bought and released? Has there been anything – now that it’s been bought by someone - or any second thoughts when you had to turn over your baby?
GREGG: That’s a good question.
When a company like Fox Searchlight shows up at the after party and says they want to buy the movie which is just everybody’s dream to have happen at Sundance and some good friends of mine, many who made very good movies, didn’t have so we just feel lucky to have had that meeting.
When they kind of – we feel each other out and every one feels OK - they adjourn to another condo and they negotiate stuff until – I was so exhausted from the relief of showing the movie to Chuck Palahniuk who liked it, that I was ready to go home. I basically went to semi-sleep and I would get these phone calls that are exactly what you are talking about. They bought the movie as is, which means they weren’t entitled to change anything but I had finished it on the tiny budget that we had to make it and that means you have less time to mix and edit and the sound stuff is really hugely important, which is one of the things I learned.
By the end of that process and watching it with huge audiences at Sundance I really felt like there was some things that I wasn’t 100% happy with from the basic things like the lines – the dialogue wasn’t clear enough and it would get a better laugh to ways that I felt like what I intended the ending to mean wasn’t focused enough so I took what I felt was a risk because all artists are a little bit suspicious of studios even the kind of cool artsy ones like Fox Searchlight but their track record is so magnificent that I went to them and I said, “Look, I see things that can make this movie better. I don’t feel like I need to reshoot and I suspect you wouldn’t let me but there some kind of things that we can change with the way the score and the soundtrack are used and kind of re-cutting a couple of things. It’s small stuff but I think it would add up. And, I guess with your track record I would feel lucky if you guys chimed in.” I didn’t want to be like, “No one knows what’s good but me, “ although all directors including me are tempted to feel that way.
I wanted to hear what they had to say.
The seemed smart, everything they said was smart so it felt scary to walk into the office and say that and I may have been imagining it but they may have been a little surprised that I did and it ended up being a real cool thing. I got to go back and work with an editor and kind of do a lot of little things that would have bugged me for the rest of my life seeing them but also do the little things that I think make the movie now superior to the one we did at Sundance. And they had some really cool ideas.
CS: Really? Did they suggest something you never would have thought to do?
GREGG: Well, as is often the case you live with something, certainly it’s a novel and it’s been rattling around in your head. You think things resonate because you read the book and basically know the book by heart but it doesn’t really resonate for someone who is just watching the story for the first time. So a lot of what they had to offer was the ways they were experience in the movie. When I talked about what I felt about the last fifth of the movie might work, they responded to that. If that’s what you’re intending I feel like this moment isn’t as clear to us as it seems to be to you and so if you have really smart people giving you those kinds of ideas and feedback that’s really valuable. And it was never like, here’s some ideas that will help appeal it to a broader audience and they were never things like, “Here’s how we can bump this down to a PG.” I think everyone knew that was never going to happen.
CS: Right. There’s no way. Not a chance. You mentioned that it was a tough sell for some people, expecially when I was watching it. What was your idea going into this film with a character that is so hard to like? He shows glimmers of it in the beginning when he visits his mom and you’re thinking “Here’s a dirt bag but he’s got a great heart” but how did you keep that level, that there’s something icky about him but there is also something wonderfully sensitive about him.
GREGG: Wow. I don’t want to give myself away but I always felt a lot of compassion for that character. I always felt like there’s a lot of stigma attached to sexual compulsion and he’s also working as a con artist, he’s got a lot of other things that don’t really recommend him but I feel like Chuck in his book had a certain kind of compassion and I feel like it’s easy for us to stand in judgment of people especially people that are on the extremes of our compulsion but I feel in a society where we all love to consume – whether it’s food or cars or alcohol, you name it, whenever something doesn’t feel right I feel like people are using sex to the detriment of intimacy to satisfy those unhappy feelings in a lot more homes than one might be aware of. At least I trusted that more people would relate to him than one might think. And certainly people who we talked to about financing the movie why is anyone going to relate to this guy. I don’t know, maybe it’s just me but I think a lot of people will. I went to some sex addict meetings. It not like you go in there and see creepy unshaven guys in trench coats, it’s just the most normal people in the world.
CS: So was that the idea when it took you so long, off an on – a year, two years, to get it actually written? What did you want to distill most of all from this book to a feature length film?
GREGG: The problem was that I started out not wanting to distill anything. I liked the dialogue. There was so much funny stuff and so much moving stuff and half the things that the narrator says I didn’t want to lose because it was so damn funny but you can’t make a 5 hour movie but even if you could it wouldn’t be focused. At a certain point the movie has a different kind of focus because it’s a different medium than a book so I had to try and find what’s a story in this book that would make a good movie and that took a long time, took some distance – write it, leave it alone for a little bit – come back to it – try and retry. There’s a line that says, he’s just freeing the figures from the rock and I think that’s right. You are freeing the movie from the book. And the only way to do that is to chip away some really beautiful pieces of granite.
CS: Exactly. And I was reminded…and I wasn’t going to bring Harry Potter into sex addiction but…
GREGG: That’s the next one. You haven’t seen it yet.
Don’t do any spoilers.
CS: When kids had that book read to them, long before the movie was made, the teachers would ask “Do you want to see the pictures in the novel?” and the kids said no because they already had an idea in their head of what it was.
GREGG: Exactly. When you read a book you kind of watch a movie of sorts in your head. Certainly it’s a scary thing to adapt something because everybody watched a movie and the odds that my scenes are just going to be what they saw or my Victor is going to be exactly what they saw are very slim and they are going to have to let go. And on the other hand I something that equals or surpasses the movie they watched in their head, which on our budget was really never going to happen.
CS: But you have a wonderful guy in Sam who showed range that he can go from – he is Victor. At the end of the day…
GREGG: The thing is every time you see Sam do anything you say he is that guy and he’s actually none of them. That’s what makes him so amazing. He sort of connected to this and it felt like a really good fit. The first time I went over to his apartment and read a bunch of scenes with him I just breathed a sigh of relief that might have knocked down a wall. I just knew that the very largest part of my job was done. The others might be manageable. I knew he just connected with this guy.
CS: And at the end of the day, when you started piecing things together and you were on the set and you were the guy who had to be there from the moment everyone got there until even after everyone went home, what was that education like about seeing the other side? I know you’ve made some reference to it in another interview where you compare it to being a passenger on a plane and having someone say, “Fly it.” Two different things.
GREGG: Yeah. Two different things.
It was a really interesting combination of going well I spent a good chunk of the last 15 years of my life on movie sets and TV sets and writing and I had so many moments where I thought I learned a lot more than I thought I did or before that I was acting and directing theatre and plays are story telling where you tell the whole story and I found that those – I had a lot of days and moments where I went I learned so much more kind of in the school of on the job training doing this stuff for years than I thought I did. A lot of times I thought I couldn’t have been more equipped than I thought but then you have those days where you think, “I don’t know anything about this. How could I have been so close to these cameras all the time and asking questions all the time and not understand this part of it or that part of it?” But you know, I was lucky and smart enough to hire really good people on the job where I knew my education was lacking so I hired people who were not just really good at their jobs but who I tested were willing to answer questions.
I wasn’t going to be content with, “Shoot it as you want, man!” I really wanted to be involved as much as I could – “This is what I want to do, what do you recommend?” Kind of having that dialogue having only a few hours to get the scene, that’s tricky.
CS: Now, the relationship with Sam and his buddy, Denny, why does Denny – it seems like a very abusive relationship – Almost like Victor is against Denny in a way - and Denny has his own problems but I was instantly connected to him.
GREGG: Chuck said he was one of his favorite characters.
CS: Why do you think Denny likes to be around Victor – I couldn’t understand why he takes Victor’s shit.
GREGG: To me, Victor always felt like one of those anti-heroes from the 70’s. He’s a cross between Bud Cort from Harold and Maude and Nicholson in The Last Detail. I think it’s about the nature of friendship, what is it that kind of pulls someone. I always thought that Victor had this charisma but also, that it could speak to Denny. He’s living at home, he’s a chronic masturbator who has been kicked out of art school, he’s met Victor at the sex addict meetings, he’s a chronic masturbator – that’s certainly a spear of some loneliness.
And here’s this guy who, as twisted as it is, he’s actually disappearing from the meeting into the closets and bathrooms with various female paroles or what have you. That has a certain allure. When they met especially Victor represented a superb mentor if one wanted to break out of the chronic masturbator thing. And I think what’s beautiful about the story is that the story captures that friendship in the moment where this guy who has been a follower and a lonely loser is actually developing some of his own ideas and what I like about it is he grows right past Victor. And some of the recover stuff that Victor’s been making fun of, Denny is embracing and is actually paying off.
CS: He keeps reminding him, his fourth step.
GREGG: Yeah, you got to do what you have to do, but in a compassionate way. That’s the other reason I think that Denny has a friendship with him despite whatever abuse Victor may heap on him is Denny’s got a little bit of Buddha going on and he understands that that is just a form of Victor acting out his anger or his sadness. He doesn’t take it personally too much. I think we can all take a page from Denny’s book and I don’t think it’s one of the books that he chronically masturbates.
CS: Your character in the movie - you decided to play the douche of the film. How did that come about?
GREGG: Well, I don’t know how familiar you are of my oeuvre of work.
CS: That you constantly play these guys?
GREGG: Well, it’s mixed up really. I play quasi-benevolent people or quasi-douche bags. But I certainly, within the realm of what I get hired for, are jackasses like Lord High Charlie and I was determined to cast somebody else. I had a list of great actors who I was going to con into doing it but I definitely dragged my feet because if you do play any of those guys to play anybody who’s name is Lord High Charlie seems like a hard opportunity to pass up. So when I put this cast together I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to act with those guys. If I would have known what an idiot I would feel like standing there in a puffy shirt trying to direct the movie and calling action while I was doing it I would probably not have done it.
I also felt like I was on such an “I can do anything” ego trip that it just felt like the perfect thing to include for the narcissism express.
CS: Well the thing ranges – the humor that we get from that is outrageous, and the humor ranges from dark to very superficial - but when you had this finished piece in the editing bay, you looked at all your footage, what was the first thing you said – “I need to start cutting…” – where did you start the process of editing this thing down?
GREGG: My first thought was “Thank God for my DP, Tim Orr” because I know that a lot of times we only have an hour and a half to shoot that people usually would take a day or two on. And I was mostly terrified that I would get in there and literally the story piece just wouldn’t be there and they were almost always there as if we had a day and a half and when they weren’t somehow the material was there to find a different way. So I mostly felt guilty, mostly felt grateful about that. And, I don’t know. You usually look at a rough cut, I’ve seen other people’s rough cuts and you just kind of go, “Oh Jesus, what a mess. This is never going to work. It’s the end of my career.”
And I guess it’s just a stillborn career.
But it was really clear that there was some terrific acting. It was really clear that there was some funny moments and I chose it because I wanted it to range from excruciatingly painful stuff to silly. And I liked that about the book, that it had that kind of breadth. So I had the pieces there, more or less and that it was up to me to blow it….or not.
CS: And my last question I have is now that it’s done and you’ve seen where it’s gone how do you look back, obviously it was quite a favorable experience you’ve had, what do you think the educational experience has been for you looking back on it?
GREGG: Honestly, it borders on miraculous. It was so difficult and so felt like my little delusions that I carried around my computer and noodled that for years and people would say, “Oh, you’re still working on that? Oh, that’s sad.” And to have it get made with those actors and have it come together and have some people not want to represent it for press purposes at Sundance and feel like we were taking this disastrous home movie up there and have it get picked up by a great company and really championed it, it’s just amazing and I don’t want to lapse into Tuesday’s with Morrie but you know it’s amazing how if you kind of find something that hits that bell chiming you if you stick with it long enough, I’m sure a lot of times it can end up being a nightmare that costs you years and does nothing, but in this case it has been an awful good experience and I hope people like it.
God I hope people like it.
CS: Well, I did. Thank you so much for your time.
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