Film Scouts Interviews

Michael Douglas Press Conference
at the 2004 Taormina BNL Filmfest

by Philipp Hoschka

Michael Douglas Cinema Lesson on ...

... the Current State of Cinema

What do you think of Italian cinema?

Michael Douglas: When I was at university in the early 60s, Italian cinema to us in university had such imagination, such escapism that it was such a joy, and that was before I was interested in acting. When we had all our success with "Cuckoo's Nest", we had the opportunity to meet Michelangelo and Fellini, and they were very generous. The joy of a good film lingers with me as a wonderful memory. I know that there are so many Italian filmmakers that are tired of hearing of Fellini and Michelangelo.

To tell you the truth, I could never think of a better time for making a movie in Italy or Europe than this. Our industry is very bizarre right now.

Most Italian directors would think you would never work on their films - they would not dare to contact your agent.

Michael Douglas: I always like to work in different environments, and like it particularly right now.

Maybe I should do a run-down of the state of Hollywood. What we have now are huge entertainment conglomerates. When I was growing up, a studio was pretty big. Now, a studio is only a tiny piece of these media empires. The most sucessful of all the studios has maybe seven percent of the gross revenues of these media companies.

A movie now is not good only if it is a success. It also has to have merchandising - it is a franchise. It has to have a video game, and has to have a sound track for the music division. Then, of course, it has to have a large international appeal. So it is either a sequel, or comes from a TV show. That is the easiest for a largest audience to accept. Then people say "We will spend millions in advertising on first weekend to make sure we will succeed". Also, half the revenues are now in DVDs.

My point is that there is a great disparity between the enormous pictures that a studio has put a lot of money in, and that are forced to be a success, and the independent movies. All studios now have independent divisions. These are for labor of love. There is no salary - if you say: "Allow me a percentage of profit from DVD" - no, they don't want to do that. There is a big disparity between movies in my country - there are the budgets starting at 70 or 80 million dollars, and those below 20 million - the whole middle area has been eliminated.

... Politics

You went to visit a navy base here - why?

Michael Douglas: The Navy soldiers I visited were not part of our Iraki troups - they're just good hard working soldiers. I went to say "Hi" to some Americans that have been over here for a while, to give them some support. I think it's important to seperate, regardless of the administration policy of my country or your country. We talked about Sharon Stone, and a lot of the Ladies were happy that I came. I gave a message of support to armed forces.

What do you think of "Fahrenheit 9/11"?

Michael Douglas: I have not seen "Fahrenheit 9/11". I have been in Europe since before Cannes. I have seen articles, though, of people that have seen the movie in the States, and they said that those who were not sure won't vote for Bush after seeing the movie. At a time where I'm very disappointed with American cinema, the idea that a movie could change an election rather than a bomb in Madrid to me is very, very promising.

I think this is an exciting time for European film making. It is time to try to take the lead again. I would encourage everybody's individuality. There are a number of Italian and French movies being researched for sequels in the US. Fight the fight ! I know it is hard is to find financing. I think the digital movement is fantastic, although many people don't want to hear this. A movie should not be restricted because of cost.

Do you think that one of your movies ever had a political impact?

Michael Douglas: Yes - "The China Syndrome", the movie I made right after "Cuckoo's Nest". I was this Academy-award winning producer but also trying to make a transition as an actor from TV to the big screen. The movie is with Jane Fonda, and about a meltdown in a nuclear power plant. The work I did with experts in that movie had the most lasting effect on me. It was at a time when we were regarded as irresponsible Hollywood exhibitionists. When the movie opened, it was received well, but dismissed as ridiculous. Three weeks after, we had Three Mile Island.

In the movie, when we explain what the China syndrome is, one character says "It will destroy an area of the size of Pennsylvania" - and three weeks later, Three Mile Island happens in Pennsylvania.

At the end of the movie, we show the beginning of meltdown. In the movie, the nuclear engineers have to perform 150 steps, and I took out the computer printout and compared it with what happened at Three Mile Island. It would scare you how similar they are.

That has begun my political work. I am a UN "Messenger of Peace", and focus on disarmament of nuclear weapeans and small arms. I was in New York in December 1980 when John Lennon was killed. I work on hand-gun controls when I don't find good movies to do. I work on documentaries - I did one on child soldiers. All this goes back to my work on "The China Syndrome".

... his Family

What did you learn from you father, if anything?

Michael Douglas: What I learned most was stamina, and tenacity. This is very interesting, because for any son or daughter of a successful father or mother, it takes them longer go find their own identity. In your early career, everybody compares you to your father. Early in my career, I played sensitive young man parts, because that was not what my father played. Interestingly enough, I realized later that my father did the same early in his career. Until he did a movie called "The Champion" that was successful, and for which he won an Oscar. That changed his career.

Being on a set, and watching the process, you see how much stamina you need to get a project be made. As an actor, you also need the ability to listen. Really good actors are great listeners.

Is your wife ever jealous when you work with attractive lead actresses?

Michael Douglas:You should be asking me ... Catherine is shooting with Bratt Pitt, and they are kissing their way through Roma - they have been kissing for two weeks now. Fortunately, Bratt's wife Jennifer is very close.

Early in your career you think you have to make love with your leading ladies to make it real, and then you learn about acting. When you make love in your life - you have never acted? Then why do you find it so surprising in movies?

Can you tell us something about "It runs in the Family"?

That's a movie with my father. My father and I had planned for a long tome to make a movie together. I was in New York on 911, and was affected profoundly by this event. My father and I said: Let's do this movie together. We were surprised that there was a good part that my son could play. The poor director - he was ok to have two Douglases, now we asked him to work with the third generation. He agreed, but said: "Only if he works with an acting coach", and I agreed. And then, there was the part of my mother - I said to the director "Fred, my mother is an actress, and he said: "Oh noo ...", but she is in the movie as well.

My father and my mother had been divorced for 55 years, but they get along very well - it was a joy. My father and I were very, very nervous about my son. Whe we watched him working on the first scene, we said, "he's good". In the next scene, we said "he's very good". Then, we looked at each other, and said "Let's get working, he's going to steal the movie".

It was good to spend time with my father - he is 87, but continues to grow as a person - even at retirement age, you can continue to grow as a person.

... Working with other Actors

What happens when you get an actor on the set which you distrust or dislike? Is it possible to work with someone like that?

Michael Douglas: Yes, you have to. In most of my roles, I carry the films, like in "Falling Down". In most movies I have done I am in every scene. Whether I am producing or just the actor, I am acting but I also have the eyes and ears of a producer to know what my responsibility is to make that particular scene work. Do I need to create more friction? Do I need to speed up? In a lot of cases where we have a problems with an actor I get together with that actor, and we will discuss how to best to solve the problem. This is a unique aspect that comes from also being a producer. I know that if if everybody is good, the movie is going to be good. Many actors only worry about their part. I like to be involved in good movies. Sometimes I have a good part, sometimes the other person has a better part. My responsibility is to make the best movie.

When you work with other actors, is there something that you would never do? Is there a codex? Things not to say?

Michael Douglas: Let me say: I'm proud of the fact that just about every actress that I have worked with has done her best work with me. Kathleen Turner, Glenn Close, Sharon Stone, Annette Bening - all of them had their best pictures when they were working with me. Part of the reason is that they know what I'm looking for out for them.

As far as sex scenes are concerned - there are rehearsals. I tell them where I am going to put my hands - I say "I will ll put my hand on your breast now". Sometimes people get into problems, when the don't talk about it. It's like dancing, or fight scenes. When you do fight scene, it is choreographed. It's the same thing with love scenes. The hard thing is the light - you shadow easily. You're always fighting for light.

We try to stay away from politics as well.

Do you prefer to rehearse with your actors a lot?

Michael Douglas: Yes, since I like to work fast. I like to move. People are best on the second and third take. Remember that I come out of TV originally - so I like to go forward.

There are people that have attitudes like "Don't do you best performance in the wide shot - this way, you force director to spend more time with you in close-up". If you work with someone like that, and that happens for the first time, you go quietly to the director, and ask that from now on, you got covered first, because the other person is an idiot - that's a stupid trick.

... how he got into Acting

Why did you become an actor ?

Michael Douglas: In 1964, I was attending the university of Santa Barbara. I had no interest in acting. I was a hippie, enjoying myself. In the third year of university you have to declare a major, and I said ok, I'll be in the theater department. It turned out they had an excellent theater department with a particularly good acting teacher. When we were working on a scene, you were required to write down who you are, what you were doing, and where you were going. Normally, in acting classes, you do a scene, and you have a critique. But when it's written down, you're under more pressure - the teacher says: "You wrote that down, but did not do that, right?" This stayed with me in my professional career.

The first important thing I did early on was the TV series "Streets of San Francisco". That was the fortunate opportunity to do 104 hours of television in four years with a number of directors who were going to become more famous and many actors who became stars. Also, it meant doing 104 scripts. I learned a lot about structure. My responsibilkin togher with Malden was to carry the plot. A guest star would carry the drama. That became like lifting weights. You became so strong. We were shooting six days a week, eight to ten months a year. You're making a 52-minute movie in six days for 8.5 months. That experience was very valuable.

When I left the series, I went on to do "One flew over the Cuckoo's Nest". Everybody said I was crazy that I left "Streets of San Francisco" in my fifth year. I will be eternally grateful to Malden for allowing me out of the contract, and to the producers as well.

When producing "Cuckoo's Nest", I met with three or four directors who always held their cards very close to their chest. Milos Foreman came and sat down and opened script on first page and told us page by page what his vision was of the movie. You could close your eyes and picture the movie in your head.

That basically has become the philosophy of my entire career when working with directors. I politely confront the director and force him to explain scene by scene his vision of the movie we're about to make. It is an exercise that is very helpful for the director. Many times, especially in in the Euoprean formula, the director is at the top - nobody questions him. As we know from gouvernment, and especially from my gouvernment, you have to question people. If you ask have the director explain his approoach upfront, the following will only be about exectution, and a much more enjoyable process.

How did you gain self-confidence?

Michael Douglas: I love this question. Early in my career, with "Cuckoo's Nest", followed by "China Syndrome" and "Romancing the Stone", I learned to trust my instincts. I got the confidence because of box office success and critical appeal. Confidence is the most difficult aspect to achieve. All our life, how we work depends on how confident we are. Those early successes allowed me to take many more chances. Many of the movies I made nobody wanted to make. It was all about rejection. Combined with the fact that I am second generation, there was a natural resentment, people feel you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth. I took great pleasure after my earlier rejections to have these successes.

How was your first time as an actor? Was it scary? Or did you think this is what you wanted to do for the rest of you life?

Michael Douglas: I had terrible stage fright - I used to have a waste basket right off the stage, because I got sick. I don't know why I went through the pain - I had a big challenge to overcome. When I started on TV, I hated it.

When I looked at the camera, it looked like X-ray machine in the doctor's office, since somebody early in my career told me that camera can tell when you're lying. So I was terrified for the longest time. And then one day I realized this was bull. Once I had that freedom, once I realized that acting is about lying - about looking someone straight in the eye and lying your brain out - I was ok . But during the early part of my career I had terrible stage fright.

You did not have a passion for acting?

Michael Douglas: I did not begin with a passion for acting. I was at the third year in a university having a good time as a hippy, and had to pick an acting class. My mother is an actress, a wonderful actress. I grew up with the my mother in New York, she was in the theater there. But I had no passion, none. I didn't know what I wanted to do. It slowly evolved, as my confidence evolved. My earliest motivation was not to make a fool out of myself.

Do you remember difficult moments when you worked as an actor?

Michael Douglas: One of my earliest movies was a movie called "Coma", directed by Michael Crichton, a well known writer and director. In that movie, I was playing a doctor. I had a two-page monologue I had to do. I had developed some sloppy habits from TV. The speech had a couple of medical terms that I did not manage to get right. So I did the shot 68 times - you have to realize that Crichton was a doctor. I was on my knees! I couldn't even remember my name after the 25th time. It was the low point of my career, but boy, was it a lesson in remembering words.

The other story was early in my career. In a TV episode of a show called "The F.B.I.", I played a bank robber. I pulled up in my car, got out, went into the bank, and said "This is a stick up" - and all extras looked really shocked. I got the money, and finished the scene, feeling very proud of the fact that I was so convincing. But after the scene, the director said: "Let's go again". When I asked why, he said: "Look at your pants !" - and my fly was completely open. The extra's shocked look was because they didn't know whether I was bank robber or a pervert !.

... Rehearsing

Jane Campion told us yesterday here that she gets the actors together, reads through script,and has them walking around the room to play out the scene. Is that common?

Michael Douglas: That totally depends on the director. Let's use Steve Soderberg, who I worked with when he directed "Traffic". He is also doing "Ocean's Twelve" with my wife right now. Steve loves actors, but he never rehearses. A maximum of two takes is not unusal with Steven. Of course, he will do rehearsals for the camera move on the scene.

You notice that most Soderberg movies use same actors over and over again, since they know the rhythm. Part of the reason is that these actors work together a lot. Rehearsal is for actors to get to know each other, to understand each others rhythms..

Another example is director Rob Reiner, whom I worked with on "The American President". We spent weeks rehearsing. We had a lot of tracking shots, and needed to time them out. So rehearsing really depends upon the director.

This point of working together is important. Kathlen Turner and I, we did three movies together. When we got to "War of the Roses", it was fantastic, because you know each others rhythm. You don't have to worry about stepping on each others lines. If you just met someone as an actor, you think it is rude if you start talking when the other is talking.

... his Career

There are not so many Hollywood actors that share a career in thrillers and comedy.

Michael Douglas: When you have early success, your responsibility is to grow as an actor. Many people, particularly in Hollywood, say that you have to have an image, a persona that people can identify with. The nicest compliments I get is when people say: "When I see your name, I don't know what it is going to be, but I know it's going to be good". Even after "Cuckoo's Nest", people said: "Why do you want to act? You're an Academy winning producer". In the ten years from '76 to '86 I made some movies, but it was difficult.

Once I had done the thrillers, I had always been attracted to trying to do comedy. I think "Falling Down" is very funny. "War of the Roses" I would call a nervous comedy - you laugh, but there is an element of truth in them. That is the comedy area that I'm comfortable with.

"Wonder Boys" had a wonderful script, I think. Can you say more about this movie, which seems a bit undervalued?

Michael Douglas: "Wonder Boys" was a huge disappointment personally. I loved the movie, it had a fantastic screen play, and a great cast. It was a movie that was a punch in the gut. It hurt my confidence in terms of understanding what was going on. We didn't even get critically acknowledged as far as awards go.

Yet, I had to remember that my fathers favored movie is "Lonely are the Brave". Nobody saw the movie when it came out, nobody saw the movie since. You always think that in 20 years, this will be a classic, but nothing happens. My father's disappointment in that movie helped me getting over my disappointment with "Wonder Boys".

How do you pick your roles?

Michael Douglas: In my entire filmography, I have never done a science fiction picture and never done a western except for one exception. My movies are contemporary, but I didn't plan it that way.

There are two kinds of acting, either you spend all your time putting make-up on, as in "comedia del arte" - or you spend all your time wiping your face off, taking it down to the bone. I think the first lesson for me was "Fatal Attraction" when I was working on my character, and had this moment where I realized that I could actually be a lawyer in New York, and could be married, and could have an affair - then it became all about looking in the mirror, and trusting yourself to react. I think it's a process getting older, you get simpler, and trust yourself.

Is it harder to be an actor or a producer?

Michael Douglas: Directing is actually the loneliest and most difficult job there is, because ultimately you are responsible. An actor comes and makes a movie for three months, and then goes on and makes another movie. A director is with that movie for one-and-a-half years. You need a lot of stamina for this. It is the loneliest job.

Producing depends on material. The secret of a producer is finding material, a script that will attract bees to the honey. If you find the material that attracts talent, the money will follow.

Acting is a gypsy life. You have no control of your destiny. It is about rejection. My son is 25, and he is a much better actor than I was at his age. He had a lot of life experience. But it is difficult for him. It is about rejection. You have to realize that rejection is not personal, it is only in relation to a particular role.

... the Movie "Falling Down"

How did you get to work with Joel Schumacher on "Falling Down"?

Michael Douglas: I was in Berlin when the wall came down. This event really marked me. As a result, thousands of defense contractors lost their job - and that was a much bigger industry than Hollywood. I was fascinated by the script - the main character had done such a good job building rockets for defending his country that he was no longer needed.

What happened to the character after the movie has ended?

Michael Douglas: I don't know, he died, he went off the pier at the end, and so did my role in the movie. My job is not to interpret, my job is to do the best job I can on a movie, in a finite period of time.

The difference between film and theater is that there is an insecure part in making a movie. If the day is over, the movie is over - that's it, you won't have chance to do a scene again. In a play, you have another day, and you can play differently. That's why many actors say theater is more fulfilling. But you learn at a certain time in your film career to forget about it. Early in my career, I thought about this all the time, and it wasn't fun. In general, the early part of my acting career wasn't fun. I only really enjoyed the last 12 or 13 years. One way I achieve that is that once the part is finished, it's over. I don't see the movies. Unless I was producing the movie, I don't go to dailies anymore, because I was always so critical. I would see the movie maybe once when the director's cut was done to give whatever suggestions I would have. Then I will see the premiere, and then maybe I'll see it twenty years later.

Was "Falling Down" a kind of turning point, was it when you started enjoying your career?

Michael Douglas: The real turning point was in 1986 when I made "Fatal Attraction" and "Wall Street". They came out back-to-back two months apart. "Fatal Attraction" was a commercial success , and "Wall Street" was critical success, and I won the Oscar. This gave me a lot of freedom.

Do you think you're similar to character you play in "Falling Down"?

Michael Douglas: There is always a part of you in every role you play - so sure, there's a similarity. I have been known for "inner" rage" parts - maybe that's because I feel that as well sometimes.

Back to the 2004 Taormina BNL Filmfest Interviews

Back to Interviews

Look for Search Tips

Copyright 1994-2008 Film Scouts LLC
Created, produced, and published by Film Scouts LLC
Film Scouts® is a registered trademark of Film Scouts LLC
All rights reserved.

Suggestions? Comments? Fill out our Feedback Form.