Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Matthew Wilder and the Sparks Behind His INFERNO

In the midst of all the ouroborosian media coverage of actress Lindsay Lohan and her aggressively pursued (if abbreviatedly enforced) jail sentence this past July, there has been an increased amount of attention paid to the film project that, as of this writing, is still secured for her and eagerly awaiting her participation, and to its heretofore little-known writer/director. When Matthew Wilder first set out years ago to make INFERNO, about the short and sorrowful life of Linda Lovelace, he likely expected people to express curiosity about it. But because he is a "new" guy, with little history in the public record, in the position of making a modern matinee idol's First Movie After Jail, following what is certainly the lowest point of a life led almost entirely in public, Lindsay Lohan's mavens and maledictors alike are extremely curious now about Wilder.

Unfortunately, the few quotes and interviews that press and bloggers have solicited from him in the last couple months mostly address Lohan's troubles and temperament, and not his artistic ambitions. It would appear they only seem to be curious about what he has to say about her, and not much else.

The following interview is an attempt to answer the Who Is Matthew Wilder And How Did He Get Lindsay to Strip Jack Naked? questions that have popped up in the tabloid press. I doubt that this will change anyone's opinion, on Wilder or Lohan or their upcoming collaboration, that has been formed in this last month of media mishegoss, but at least it will fill in some large chasms of information.

FULL DISCLOSURE: For years, I had known Matthew Wilder without knowing him: we would often find each other frequenting the same Los Angeles theatres to see the same offbeat films, and would occasionally chat about them afterwards. So I was quite taken aback when his photo appeared among the first stories of Lohan's sentencing, and I learned who it was I'd been idly chatting with all that time. Consequently, the next time I saw him, I asked point blank if I could interview him for this blog, and he graciously agreed. Meanwhile, though I have never met Lindsay Lohan, we have mutual friends. So I do not have the most impartial position to write from: I would like to see Lohan rebound from her troubles and for Wilder to make a great film. But then, I have that wish for anyone who is fighting personal demons or is lucky to get a movie into production. As such, do not mistake me for a professional journalist: my questions won't be the most hard-hitting, but I promise you they are on matters that interest me, and consequently, I hope the answers interest you as well...

So, tell me first about your background, and how and when you first got interested in the performing arts?
I grew up in a trailer park In Des Plaines, Illinois. I went to Yale and was derailed from my primary interest, movies, by meeting the great opera and theatre director Peter Sellars. He evangelized. Electrifying. YouTube has some of his hushed, goosebump-inducing speeches. His evangel was: Make theatre, because you can make it with your friends, you can make it for no money, you can create truly great work for three dollars with some folding chairs and gaffer's tape. And I and a lot of my friends did.

Since your first credits were in live theatre, what were the plays that attracted you and moved you in your formative years?
You know that Jesuit formula that is quoted in Ken Russell's THE DEVILS--"Give me the first six years of a man's life and you can have the rest"? That was kind of true of me vis-a-vis Peter's school of aesthetic and moral fundamentalism. Maybe make it "give me the first two years of a college student's life and you can have the rest." I directed a lot of Gertrude Stein, Mayakovsky. The amazing director Robert Woodruff, who did all the Sam Shepard premieres and is now a great sort of deconstructionist director, introduced me to Chuck Mee. I did a lot of premieres of Chuck's work. At his best, Chuck is a great, symphonic sort of sample artist, bringing together the Greeks and the National Enquirer and Bret Easton Ellis into this surging, massive kind of uber-text.

By directing plays in different cities, did you ever detect different vibes or other unusual details from one city to the next? Was one market more inclined to take to your visions than another?
Yeah. There are so many cities in America that are thought of as square that are actually really crazy and cool. San Diego, for example, is thought of as a place for retirees, Republicans, and Marines. It in fact is crazy gonzo in a very Hunter S. Thompson/Thomas Pynchon/Philip K. Dick sort of way. There are crooked Carl Hiaasen characters in Hawaiian shirts all over the place ordering shrimp cocktails and getting into messes. It's one of those "so straight it's crooked" kinda places. Same for Dallas, Texas. Home of Bush, law and order, lots of terrific batshit crazy people wandering around. Richard Linklater's Austin feels very tepid by contrast to me.

Did your interest in film influence your interest in theater, or were those disciplines separate? What are the films that have inspired your work, be it in your play stagings or your scripts?
I don't separate them out as much as other people do. I have been watching a lot of thirties pictures lately, and there is this beautiful thing where, just as sound came in, dialogue became this snazzy special effect that made people ooh and aah the way 3-D does now. So you have people like George Cukor and Otto Preminger coming out of the theatre because they could deal with...words! Not just staging Indians falling off a horse. I think a lot of what is most cinematic is most stagy, from a Fred Astaire picture to Tarantino's table full of Nazis playing cards.
Our picture, INFERNO: A LINDA LOVELACE STORY, is a shock-and-awe movie. It is a no-holds-barred blitz on the audience. I'd be lying if I said that Martin Scorsese didn't feature pretty prominently in the conception of that. But it also is an homage to earlier hysterical melodrama artists, especially Robert Aldrich, especially Sam Fuller.

At what point did you begin to write film scripts?
When I was in grad school for directing theatre. My first agent was Tom Strickler. I was in a meeting when two development guys told me that my agent fled ICM with a bunch of filing cabinets. Thus was born Endeavor, and then "ENTOURAGE," and yadda yadda. I wrote for other people for a long time and still do. I wrote for myself too, and it has been a long and winding road to get to make my own stuff.

Was your theatre background helpful in getting noticed by the filmmaking community?
Disastrous. Making the crappiest music video in the world is more important, because all anyone cares is that you have a basic technical proficiency and you can be the captain of a crew. You could be Ingmar Fucking Bergman directing HAMLET and it means zip, zero.

You are attached to many projects that have not been widely seen or even been produced. Is it frustrating to have your work attached to a respected and/or bankable name like Clive Barker or Renny Harlin and still not get the project completed?
I don't know that that's the adjective. At a certain point you pass through frustration. This is the thing they should tell people in the packet they hand out when you move to Los Angeles. They should prepare people for the Thanksgivings and Christmases you go home to the folks and have to say, "Nope. Nothin'. Nothin' doing, nothin' moving forward." If you can get through those dinners, you will make it to the finish line.

How did your debut film, YOUR NAME HERE, come together?
I spent a long time working on a movie [DIZZY UP THE GIRL] about Edie Sedgwick. Kate Bosworth was going to play our Edie. Then, suddenly, George Hickenlooper's movie [FACTORY GIRL] stole our parking space, and I was...frankly, bereft, heartbroken. I went to my manager and said, "Set something up for me to make or I will absolutely lose my marbles, I don't care if we have to shoot it for ten days in the Philippines, just do it." And so shortly thereafter, we were doing a low-low-budget version of YOUR NAME HERE. It was originally called PANASONIC, by the way, which means "all sounds happening at once." But we encountered resistance from a little company called...oh, never mind.

Did you ever encounter any resistance from Phillip K. Dick's family, even though your film is a complete fiction only loosely inspired by aspects of his life?
There is a company that is in the process of purchasing YOUR NAME HERE for a theatrical release in 2011, and they are in the process of negotiating with the Dick estate, so I ought not to comment on it while their negotiations are happening.

Was it difficult as a first-time director without studio backing to attract such a respected talent like Bill Pullman to your project?
Not at all. Pullman was a champ. The casting director got it to him, he read it in a day, called me the next day, we met and had scrambled eggs and in 45 minutes he said, "It's on." And he never looked back, even when things got hairy, and they got reeeeally hairy. He is a prince.

You debuted the film at CineVegas in 2008, around the same time Dennis Hopper did substantial publicity for the festival. Do you have any memories of Hopper from the event?
I went to a party at his house and there was amazing art just falling on the floor. Just--everywhere, little Warhols, little Basquiats masking-taped to refrigerators. You were afraid to move in that joint because you might destroy some priceless Warhol just by moving your elbow. I talked to him briefly at the festival and he seemed like this genial, laid-back version of Dennis Hopper. He was always carrying a tiny dish of Ben & Jerry's wherever he went.

YOUR NAME HERE as yet has not been picked up by a distributor, nor is it easily available for viewing. Do you think perhaps when INFERNO is made and released, there will be more demand for YOUR NAME HERE?
I hope there will be mad demand for it. It's a very different picture, almost an opposite kind of picture--very cool and cerebral and detached. INFERNO is visceral and intense and all over you all the time.

You already had INFERNO in the planning stages as YOUR NAME HERE was in festival play. What interested you in telling the Linda Lovelace story?
When I was a kid, my mom had Linda's book ORDEAL stuffed away in the towel know, so the kiddies couldn't read it. I read it at about the age of 13. It blew my mind. My God, adults were as fucked up as I only dreamt they could be! There is a very powerful thing in this book, which is written in a brilliant, hammering tabloid style by the journalist Mike McCready. You can read between the lines: Linda paints her husband, Chuck, as this terrible, sadistic ogre, but you see her attraction to him. And that is the subject of the movie. There is a very clear, primal, horror-movie-ish story to INFERNO about a woman trapped by and escaping a monster. But the really interesting part for me is the subtext: what is Linda's attraction to this darkness? Chuck is not some bad boy on a motorcycle who's going to slap her on the fanny. He is death itself.

Did reading ORDEAL as a teenager affect your opinion of pornography in general, or did you just take it as one person's experience?
I don't think ORDEAL really is about pornography. INFERNO isn't either. It's really about marriage and sexual attraction. The porn thing is at best a bait-and-switch. It's just not the subject.

You talk about reading between the lines of what Linda wrote in ORDEAL. Did you then as a teenager, or do you now as an adult, sense things from that book that would contradict the narrative that the religious right and anti-porn feminists were constructing around her? Do you get the sensation that in some instances, she told these groups what they wanted to hear so that they would accept her, in the same manner that she acquiesced to Traynor's abuse?
Certainly Linda manifests most of the personlity traits of a cult member and is very easily pushed and pulled from one ideology to another. But if I can be forgiven for being a little pretentious, there is really one idea behind this movie.
When I was a kid, I was taught that everything bad in the world came from "social construction"--that racism and sexism and homophobia were all "socially constructed" things. I think that meant very little more, when you boiled it away, than that they were not natural and biological. And certainly it is the rhetoric of somebody like Pat Robertson to say that such-and-such, a woman's place being in the home or homosexuality being evil, is "natural," it's just Nature, it's the way God made the World.
And yet, underneath that lie...there is a different truth. Which is...maybe the way that Linda and Chuck are with each other represents a certain kind of impulse that lies deep beneath us that we don't want to think about. It blows apart all the complacencies of the right AND the left. And certainly it is not what, say, a movie with Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler tells us that "a man and a woman" is not that fantasy that we all consume about what mating is. But maybe those atavistic urges are really us. That's what we really are underneath it all--or at least, that's part of who we are.
Oliver Stone has a great line...he describes the civilized brain ruling the animal brain as being like a walnut sitting on top of a watermelon. And I think that is our fallacy. We think that little tiny walnut runs the watermelon. Maybe not.

There's a quote by Stanley Kubrick that's always affected me: "The most terrifying aspect to the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent." As such, is perhaps the bigger tragedy of Linda Lovelace's life not the fact that she endured dehumanizing treatment at the hands of Chuck Traynor, but that nobody seemed to care, be they her fellow performers who never intervened to stop him from abusing her, or the people who used her book to push their own political agenda yet left her to fend for herself when she couldn't keep a job or pay the rent?
That is very true, and very present in the movie. I thought a lot about a different quote of Kubrick's when writing INFERNO--"I think of us not as fallen angels but as risen apes."

Have you met with any surviving members of Linda's family in your preparation?
Working on that. I was just offered a meeting by a member of Linda's family.

What do you think will make your film stand out from the other dramatic portrayals of adult film in its prime (BOOGIE NIGHTS, WONDERLAND)?
BOOGIE NIGHTS is one of my all-time favorite movies and I think I know every shot, every line in it. But it was very clear that we were NOT making that movie, and indeed I strove pretty hard to make this different from BOOGIE and also from STAR 80, a very great, underrated movie that INFERNO resembles in certain story ways. This is a much starker, rawer movie--I like to say it's like a grindhouse version of Bergman's SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE. Mike DeLuca, who produced BOOGIE, had a great line: He said BOOGIE is like THE GODFATHER, and INFERNO is like the GOODFELLAS of the porn business. I don't know if that's true, but I know DeLuca sure knows how to make you feel good.

How did Lindsay Lohan come to be involved with the project?
Lindsay is a dream Linda. Hello, her initials are even LL! The producer, Chris Hanley, kind of paddled away for a little while when he was doing THE KILLER INSIDE ME with Winterbottom and then he came back and said, "Let's get INFERNO on." I said, "Okay, let's get a Linda. I want to get Lindsay Lohan." He said, "Oh, I know Lindsay, she's my buddy!" I rolled my eyes over this for a while and said, "Great, well, set up a meeting with your very good buddy." And lo and behold, a week later, I got an e-mail saying: Please meet.

What were your initial meetings with her like?
Lovely. My sense was of someone very shy. Very, very soulful. Someone who has a lot of feelings that just spill out very easily. What I remember most from that first meeting was that I ended it by doing this kind of jive handshake and she said, "You're so ghetto, I love you." Very sweet.

Since so many people form an image of Lohan from her tabloid appearances, what sorts of things would you want people to know about her from your working relationship so far?
I think she is a giant. And I think time and movies will bear that out. As someone who has marinated in seventies movies all his life, I think I can say Lindsay has a quality that you see in the great actresses of that period--Sissy Spacek, Shelley Duvall, Tuesday Weld. Some of the grit of Linda Haynes or Linda Manz. A feeling of life that has been lived, and a really expressive instrument. Just bookmark these words, time and movies will show, in ten years, someone who is really at the top of her game. She will be around when a lot of the little cupcakes who are flavors-of-the-month right now are gone.

You were ready to start shooting when her jail sentence and mandatory rehab stay was imposed, and you are holding production to wait for her. For this, you have alternately been lauded as being loyal to a troubled artist, and derided as a craven opportunist using her notoriety to draw attention to yourself. Did you ever expect such a spectrum of reactions like these?
"Derided as a craven opportunist"! Well, believe me, speaking in the press against Lindsay's most hysterical detractors doesn't exactly win you friends or influence people. So as for gives you the opportunity to be pelted with tomatoes. It's not a vote-getting stance.

Now that you have done both, what in the grand picture is more difficult - directing a play, or directing a film?
Directing a play is intellectually harder, directing a film is tactically harder. As I think any filmmaker would tell you, though, the hardest part of filmmaking is getting that guy not just to take out the checkbook, not just to pay for dinner and drinks, but to actually write the check. That is harder than your hardest day on the set.

As a director, would it be more dispiriting to mount a play where one night you get an actor's greatest work yet there is no record of it, or to mount a film where you don't get the actor's best work but that performance is going to be in the permanent record for years to come?
I find the ephemeral nature of theatre pretty rough. Especially when a lot of the best theatre would work equally well on video and film. The "live performance" aspect of that is overrated even in really strong work, except maybe for something like Reza Abdoh, where you felt the actors' sweating literally whipping the faces of the audience.

Finally, since so many continue to run with this either by sincere mistake or snarky joke, what is your favorite incident involving the constant confusion between yourself and '80's singer-turned-record producer Matthew Wilder?
I don't know. You are the first person ever to point this out.

Once again, my thanks to Matthew Wilder for speaking at length to me in the midst of trying times, and my prayers to Lindsay Lohan and her loved ones, that the events of this year so far prove to be last of the worst for everyone.


  1. Interesting. I might actually see Inferno now.

  2. Matthew,
    This is a wonderful interview.
    This film with this actor will be the chance you have deserved for a long time. Break a leg.
    Ken Branson