Here is my favorite Kevin Kline story. We’re riding the elevator down to the lobby of a swanky L.A. hotel at the end of a long day of interviews during the 1991 press gathering for Grand Canyon. And he’s politely listening to my whining about a decision I have to make soon – very soon, like within an hour or so.
As a film critic for The Houston Post, I really, really should go out that evening to see a nationally advertised advance screening of The Last Boy Scout, because I’ve already missed the press screening of that Bruce Willis flick back home in H-Town. But gee whiz, a rep-house theater within an easy drive from the hotel is showing newly restored prints of two Francois Truffaut movies – Mississippi Mermaid and The Bride Wore Black – on a double bill. I’m flying home tomorrow morning, so tonight will be my only chance to see them.
Even as Kline and I are settling down for a chat about his latest movie – the wise and witty Darling Companion, his latest collaboration with writer-director Lawrence Kasdan – we’re still talking about Truffaut. And with good reason.
But Bruce Willis is a big star, and Last Boy Scout may be a big film. But I’m a big Truffaut fan – hell, I’m still mourning his 1984 death – and these two particular films aren’t in wide rep-house circulation. But I do kinda-sorta have a duty to my readers. But I…
Gently but firmly, Kline interrupts my blather. He looks me squarely in the eye, smiles just a bit, and says: “You’ve already made your decision, haven’t you?” His tone signifies he is not making a query, but stating a fact. And, of course, he is absolutely correct.
Flash forward 21 years, and wouldn’t you know it: Even as Kline and I are settling down for a chat about his latest movie – the wise and witty Darling Companion, his latest collaboration with writer-director Lawrence Kasdan (The Big Chill, Grand Canyon) – we’re still talking about Truffaut. And with good reason.
“I’m a huge Truffaut fan,” he says while phoning from New York. “One of the thrills of my life was meeting him in Paris at the French premiere of Sophie’s Choice. When I told him what a great fan I was, he said, “I’m a great fan of yours.” Of course, I had seen more of his work than he of mine – that was, after all, my first film. But just to be in his presence…
“I just think he was an extraordinary filmmaker,” Kline continues. “To me, the best music cue in all films is in Day for Night. I remember Georges Delerue using that sort of baroque trumpet during all those montages – I still listen to it sometimes. It was just inspiring. Like when you saw the fake snow being placed on the street, or the camera being loaded with the film. The way that was all put together, it made filmmaking look so exciting. It was such a valentine to filmmaking.
“I had never done a film at the time I first saw it. And I’m not saying that’s what made me want to make films. But he sure made it look like fun. It was the love, the sheer joy of it.”
Darling Companion, which is playing at the River Oaks Theatre, is a slightly different sort of labor of love, an independently produced dramedy in which Kline and Kasdan reunite to blithely defy the demographic dictates that more or less define commercial moviemaking at this point in the 21st century.
Kline and Diane Keaton are first and second among equals in the impressive ensemble cast as Joseph and Beth Winters, well-to-do and long-married early-sixtysomethings facing the prospect of life together as empty nesters.
Mind you, not life alone together as empty nesters: During the opening scenes, Beth impulsively rescues a bedraggled dog from the side of the freeway, and brings him home as a pet – much to the discomfort of Joseph, a fastidiously buttoned-down surgeon who grudgingly accepts the newcomer (named Freeway, naturally, by Beth) without ever really warming to the animal.
Joseph’s failure to enthusiastically embrace the mutt becomes a major issue when, one year later, while the couple is enjoying quality time with friends and family at a Rocky Mountain resort following their daughter’s wedding, the dog wanders away from Joseph and scampers into the woods. And doesn’t come back.
His disappearance triggers the unleashing of pent-up emotions as Beth, who heretofore has bit her tongue and swallowed her resentment while her husband neglected his family to concentrate on his life-saving work, accuses Joseph of self-involved irresponsibility. Joseph counters by dismissing Beth’s distress as yet another example of her over-emoting. The longer Freeway is gone, the more intense the sniping and blame-gaming becomes.
"I like to say that Diane took an instant dislike to me – so that it was like we’d been together for 30 years. [Laughs] But really, I just loved her. I was quite smitten by her."
All of which may make Darling Companion sound darker and heavier than it is. In reality, the movie is sharply observed but gently funny, with a splendid supporting cast – including Oscar-winner Diane Wiest as Joseph’s more free-spirited sister, Richard Jenkins as her affable lover and Sam Shepard as the easygoing local sheriff – and a compellingly credible relationship between two vividly drawn characters at its center.
And that’s why Kline and I finally got around to talking about it.
CultureMap: In some ways, even though each of the three movies deals with a different set of characters, Darling Companion seems like the third part of a triptych with The Big Chill and Grand Canyon, two earlier dramedies you made with Lawrence Kasdan. Would you agree?
Kevin Kline: Actually, that came up during the filming. And it made sense. You know, speaking of Truffaut: I sometimes feel like I’m Kasdan’s Jean-Pierre Léaud. He’s never said that, but I know enough journalists have commented that it seems to be an alter ego sort of thing going on here. And, like I say, it makes sense. Because those characters in The Big Chill – you look at them, they’re in their early to mid-30s. And then [in Grand Canyon] they’re in the 40s – and basically the same socioeconomic group. These people are successful, comfortable – affluent, even – and are still trying to figure out how to lead an honorable life, and what that means.
And then [in Darling Companion], you look at them 15 years on, and they’re turning 60, or have turned 60. And again, these are comfortable, well-off people. But they still have their issues. They have their problems. Their dramas.
CM: It’s funny: Your character here, Dr. Joseph Winters, probably would not have seemed very sympathetic to me maybe 15 or 20 years ago. But I suppose the older you get, the easier it is to understand – and maybe empathize with — someone like him.
KK: It’s true: He is not the most sympathetic character. He screws up. But all of the characters – certainly, all of the ones that I’ve played in these three movies – they have their flaws. Maybe this one is the most unsympathetic. But not unempathetic. You can empathize with his situation.
Really, he’s doing work that’s important. He’s out there saving people from pain. And you don’t have to be a doctor to understand the movie. You don’t have to be a dog-lover to understand the movie. It’s a movie about people that we can recognize, and see ourselves in.
CM: Of course, some people – some, ahem, mature people – will find it easier than others to identify with these characters.
KK: Well, you know, most movies today are about first love. They’re all 20-year-old kids. You don’t get many movies that explore what the fallout is of a 30-year relationship, and what that’s about. And what goes into maintaining a long-term marriage or relationship of any kind.
CM: Going back to Truffaut for a second: He once wrote, “Each year we have to cross out names from our address book, and a moment comes when we realize we know more dead people than living.” Darling Companion never gets that somber, but it certainly acknowledges that these are people who are becoming painfully aware of their own mortality. Your character at one point is a bit shaken – and pretty pissed off – when he hears that one of his patients wants a younger doctor, because he’s heard surgeons reach their peak at 45.
KK: Yeah, and there’s that line, “Have you seen the ages of people in obituaries lately?” Or it’s like you said with that Truffaut quote: You do reach a point when you realize you do know as many if not more people who have died. So, yeah, you cannot be oblivious to your mortality. If you’re 59, I’m sure that you’re thinking of it a lot more than when you were 25. I know I am.
"You might have the same passions, the same wants, as when you were in your 20s. But now that you’re older, in our particular society, you’re not venerated. You’re sort of disregarded."
And not just mortality: There’s often that feeling of being marginalized because of the ageism of our culture. You’re marginalized, discarded. You might have the same passions, the same wants, as when you were in your 20s. But now that you’re older, in our particular society, you’re not venerated. You’re sort of disregarded.
I know [Lawrence Kasdan] has talked about this as a director. They’ll say to him, “Oh, well, we want to get a younger guy.” And as an actor, I can really relate: “Oh, well, you’re too old to play the leading character.” In most movies, it’s, “Oh, we’d like you to play the father.” Or the professor. Or the eccentric next door, or something. It is part of the culture. And I think he addresses that in this film. And I think everyone can relate to it.
CM: I don’t mean this as a diss of Sony Pictures Classics – which is a pretty damn savvy distributor for any filmmaker to be working with – but there was a time when Darling Companion would have been distributed by an outfit like 20th Century Fox, and would have opened at theaters and drive-ins everywhere. Just like Big Chill and Grand Canyon back in the day.
KK: This is definitely an independent film. And it’s Larry’s first. That was interesting. And he was very upfront about it. He said, “I’ve never made a movie with this little time, and this small a budget.” He was thrilled that all of us turned up. Because as he’s said, these were actors he’s always wanted to work with – with the exception of me, of course. [Laughs] But to be working with Diane Keaton, and Diane Wiest, and Richard Jenkins, and Sam Shepard -- he was in heaven.
But he said, “I’m going to have to work much faster. We’re going to do five scenes, and change locations three or four times, a day. Rather than doing one scene a day, like we do in a $60 million film.” Which is what he was more used to. And which this easily could have been.
But he took to it immediately. He loved it. You get a kind of momentum. And there’s no time for overindulgence. And the actors all worked in that way. This was a first for him. But it was fun. Sure, it would have been great to have another couple of weeks. And to have done a few more takes. But that’s the nature of the beast now.
CM: This is the first time you’ve worked opposite Diane Keaton, right?
KK: It is, correct.
CM: OK, because this is a small-budget indie, I’m assuming you didn’t get much rehearsal time…
KK: Two days.
CM: So how were you able to develop a relationship this convincing in such a short time? Because trust me: I totally bought the two of you as a long-married couple – two people who may truly and deeply love each other, but know just where to cut each other when the arguments begin.
KK: Ah, that’s great. Well, I’ve seen chemistry that’s been developed from years of working together. Like, I was in a rep company for four years with actors with whom I’d been in school for two years before that. So that has an upside – and a downside. But we were a real ensemble.
On the other hand, I’ve seen it also happen instantly. You know how you meet someone and you just click? You just connect? I like to say that Diane took an instant dislike to me – so that it was like we’d been together for 30 years. [Laughs] But really, I just loved her. I was quite smitten by her. Not with her, but by her. She smoked me quite regularly. It was not combative – it was a very teasing, joking thing. It was a thing where, on the set between takes, we were very loving – with a bit of sparring.
And some actors do this, some actors don’t. But there are times when you bring – right at the first meeting, sometimes -- this unconscious attitude toward the other person. I mean, it can be conscious in the actor, but unconscious in the character you’re playing. Or vice versa. Or both. It can be a paradox. But there is a kind of attitude you develop toward them.
I mean, I’ve known some actors who, if they have to develop some sort of antipathy toward another person, they’ll deliberately stay away from that person during the filming. They will not act friendly toward that person. I mean, OK, you’ll behave in a professional manner. But you’re not going to have a drink with that person. You’re not going to go have dinner with them.
I’m not that way. I can turn it on, or turn it off. But with Diane, I think there was this thing where we got along immediately, we made each other laugh. And there was this kind of teasing, joking, that just happens to be in our natures. And that helped us get to know each other.
CM: See, that’s why they give you guys the big bucks and the Oscars. You two can pull off stuff like that.
KK: [Laughs] It’s funny: Filmmaking can be a very intimate thing. And you can be in situations where suddenly it’s, “Hi. I’m playing your lover. Nice to meet you. The bed’s over here.”
I can remember, that’s how it was in Dave. Laura Linney – I think it might have been her first picture – she had to come in and get naked. She was the secretary of the President that he was having this affair with. And, again, it was like, “Hi, nice to meet you.” We wound up joking about it.
That’s kind of a gross example. But the emotional intimacy that is sometimes required when you’ve just met the person, or only met them the day before – that’s weird. And that’s part of the job. You have to be emotionally naked with someone you’ve just met. I don’t know what brings that out. Maybe it’s exhibitionism, or some strange aberration. Or just a genuine ability to connect with people.
I don’t what it is. But Diane and I had it.