"The Reach" Team Takes New Mexico
Six years ago, we spent the day with Kirk Douglas at his modest, single-level home in Beverly Hills – apart from the amazing artwork and legacy of epic signatures (Ronald Reagan, Joanne Woodward, etc) scribbled into the cement stones of his garden pathway, what struck us as unique were the family photo frames around the house – featuring a family that didn’t just seem like it belonged in a magazine, but had grown up very centrally in the eye of the media.
Meeting Michael Douglas at the Toronto International Film Festival a few months back, the feeling is similar – there’s an understated significance, like meeting a four-star General in civilian clothes – Douglas first received the industry’s top awards as the producer of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, followed it up with an additional Oscar for Best Actor in Wall Street in the late 1980s, won honors from SAG for Traffic, critics’ prizes for Wonder Boys, has wowed and wooed and continues to pick up accolades for new work (most notably for portraying Liberace in HBO’s “Behind the Candelabra”) long after qualifying for lifetime achievement awards.
The Film Society at Lincoln Center, the American Film Institute, the Producers Guild, the American Cinematheque, the Golden Globes, France’s Cesar Awards, and film festivals from Palm Springs to San Sebastian and Zurich, have all honored the actor/producer, who genuinely appears to be enjoying his current roles in the spotlight.
The Reach, based on the novel “Deathwatch” by Robb White and adapted by The Grudge writer Stephen Susco, had its world premiere at TIFF in September. Billed as “A high rolling corporate shark and his impoverished young guide playing the most dangerous game during a hunting trip in the Mojave Desert,” the film stars and was produced by Douglas, co-stars British actor Jeremy Irvine, and is the second feature outing from French director Jean-Baptiste Léonetti. We chatted with the trio at the Hotel Intercontinental in downtown Toronto.
As a producer on this project, choosing a director, what are you looking for and has that changed over the years?
Douglas: Obviously, it depends on each project. I would say enthusiasm for the project, and then you break it down from there. In JB’s case, having seen [Léonetti’s debut feature] Carré Blanc  which was at TIFF three years ago and is a thriller piece and then, in conversations, you get reaffirmed and feel more secure of his love of American movies and his knowledge of John Ford’s Westerns, things kind of come together (or he just knows the right things to say). In any event, if, over a period, you feel that passion and, knowing we’re making an independent, low-budget film, he understands all that part of it, you get married… and have kids.
Jean Baptiste, obviously Michael needed no introduction. How did you go about pitching yourself to him for the project. If I’m a young director and I’ve got an opportunity to work with Michael Douglas, what do I tell him? How do I prepare for that meeting?
Léonetti: I just tried to be honest and explain why I was really interested by the story. It wasn’t for me a political movie. It is a brutal metaphor about class and money but, first thing first, it’s a brutal thriller, a strong dark western set at the middle of nowhere with two great characters. That’s all. After that, you can add some of the political situation.
And Jeremy, it’s probably exciting that the film’s focus is really just about these two guys. To have this two-hander play out on this vast expanse, how was that for you?
Irvine: JB was very keen for me to look at some old Clint Eastwood movies, The Eiger Sanction (1975), things like that. For me it was about finding this real kind of inner strength, this silence, this very lonely, quite melancholy-yet-strong character.
The idea that you’ve got just two characters on the screen for most of the movie is great. All of that excitement that would normally come from big budget special effects has to come from just these two characters. That’s what an actor is ever really looking for, I think.
Yeah. It must be cool to have that mix of experieces. Coming from your induction by fire with Steven Spielberg and War Horse and all the events that go into that huge production, then Great Expectations as a period piece, as against the cleanliness of the set on The Reach?
I remember my first sex scene, Mike gave me some advice on that. - Irvine
Irvine: Absolutely, it felt very pure in that sense and what a privilege to be working with someone like Michael in that situation.
Douglas: Did you go to RADA?
Irvine: I was at another school. LAMDA, for a year. And then they wouldn’t have me back, so I went, “F*ck ‘em,” and then I left and then I started getting jobs.
Douglas: Ah, there you go. Sometimes those are the kinds of things that motivate you.
Irvine: Yeah, yeah. It was. (laughs)
Michael, the decision to shoot in New Mexico, was that your choice as producer—
Douglas: It was. Initially, the financial package that New Mexico offers makes it extremely attractive. But, of course, they had the locale, the locations and everything else that we needed. Because of all their tax incentives, there’s a number of Hollywood craftsmen in all areas who’ve moved out and live in Santa Fe and Albuquerque. What was the series about the crystal meth dealers? “Breaking Bad”? That was in Albuquerque, you know, but then for us it was the locations, and it was really spectacular.
The people were very nice… some of them required us to no longer be a wholly locally-based crew where crew members were living in their own homes but changed it to a film on location. So, then we had to pay for housing and per diem…
As an actor, being on location versus being at home, do you have a preference? Does a location-based shoot help you forget about the day-to-day and get you further into the movie or do you find that coming home to your own bed at night is a good thing?
Douglas: It really depends. If you can come home at night, if you’ve got a wife and kids, it’s nice, but that only happened for the first time for me in this little picture with Rob Reiner and Diane Keaton [And So It Goes]. But a movie like this, you know, I don’t think any of our family really
wanted much to do with us. I don’t think JB’s wife wanted to see him for most of the shoot... It was a tough shoot. We had to do it a certain period of time. The locations were extremely difficult, so, you kind of form an esprit de corps. The hours are such that you’re basically crawling home, you wash yourself, eat something and then go to bed and get ready to get up.
Jeremy, despite the toughness of a schedule like this, do you ever take a moment, find the time to talk about things that aren’t in the script? Like, do you get a chance to sit down with Michael and just talk to him about career stuff?
Irvine: It’s very important, I think, to have those little sit down times. You’d just go insane otherwise, and you go insane anyway when you’re working those hours. I was very lucky to have someone who I could come to for advice. It’s not so much a hunting for anything in particular, it’s just wonderful to watch a master craftsman at work in whatever field, being around it and trying to learn whatever you can. I remember my first sex scene, Mike gave me some advice on that. And who better to go to? But no, Michael made me feel very comfortable. And when you’re feeling comfortable, you do your best work.
Douglas: Jeremy’s being very kind. He inherently just has an incredible work ethic and so, in a picture like this, with any picture, it really starts with your talent, with your co-stars and, if they’re fucking off then it trickles down, you know? People say, “Well, they don’t give a shit then I don’t give a shit.” If, on the other hand, they see a possessed, consumed director and actor who walk that extra mile, then you set the standard.
If you learn anything about being a leading man or being the actor who is there every single day is that it’s your responsibility to set a standard. If you set it then no one else better fuck around, you know, or they look like assholes. That really makes such a difference. When you get those pictures when you have those people fooling around up the top, then it gives license to other people to behave inappropriately.
When you were up-and-coming as an actor, did you seek that guidance out from people? Who were a couple of the key people you were able to learn from?
Douglas: Karl Malden. Clearly, Karl Malden. I did the television series [“The Streets of San Francisco”], I did 104 hours, 104 episodes with Karl Malden who was then one of the greatest supporting actors. Even Marlon Brando
reached out for Karl Malden all the time. Karl Malden was from
Gary, Indiana, a steel mill town. He had a nose that you had to see in person and he had a work ethic bar none.
Four years with him, eight and a half months a year - 26, one-hour episodes straight through - dealing with a new script every seven days and working on rewrites and this and that. So, my work ethic, my work muscles just kept good, you get good. He was a tremendous influence and also, as a co-star, everybody wanted him, he made everybody look good. He always knew what each movie was about, and what his responsibility was, to make it good. That’s always stuck with me.
He was the first one who was the lead of the series telling me, when I was like two steps back, “Come on, come up. You take the lead once in a while.” That sense of sharing, and that work ethic, I think, was a tremendous influence on me.
You both seem to be having a lot of fun with your acting choices right now. Jeremy, you’re getting to work with Scott Hicks and Roland Emmerich, and Michael, from Liberace to this and then Marvel’s Ant Man, it’s a completely mixed bag. How are you able to navigate these waters.
Irvine: I’ve always felt very strongly about being in control. I’ve never had anyone pressure me into doing something I haven’t wanted to do. But I have learned recently, I think, about playing the game a little bit more. I think when I first came in, I was very rebellious against the idea of
“Doing one for them and one for you.” I think I’m now a little bit wiser for that. I can’t just do one big movie and then do nine indie films for myself, you know, but I’d say I feel in some control personally but maybe not quite at grips with the industry yet.
Douglas: I’m just lucky someone’s offering me a job, man. I mean, I’m 70 in a couple of weeks and never anticipated that there’s a demand for older actors like myself. So maybe the baby boomers are heading back to the movie
theaters in droves because the kids have taken over every computer in the home (laughs). You know, I’m happy to work, happy to have the mix. I’m enjoying getting back into producing and acting in both television and features.