Photo by Michael PowersIn addition to that voice, which so evokes that of his late father John as to be startling, Danny Huston projects the rugged individualism that has defined the Huston clan across three generations. Paradoxical as that may sound—a family of individualists?—one need only recall his grandfather Walter Huston, striding through Dodsworth (1936), or his sister Anjelica, scheming and maneuvering through Prizzi's Honor (1985), to comprehend the idea. Danny Huston, in line with these forebears, gives off the easy confidence that comes of a strong inner compass.
He has also followed in the family tradition of pursuing a varied creative career. Born in Rome in 1962, raised there by his mother, Zoe Sallis, and in Ireland by his father (with many stops in the U.S. and Mexico), Danny began as a painter but gravitated early to film directing, and has made four features—Mr. North (1988), Becoming Colette (1991), The Maddening (1995) and Amparo (2001). He is modestly proud of these; as he relates below, it was the choice to take up acting, and watch other directors at work, that led to a deepening of his ambitions as a filmmaker.
He certainly turns in a magnetic, career-making performance in ivans xtc. Being in his late 30s, he brings what Emerson called "a long foreground" to the role—a rare aura of having lived in his own skin a bit longer than people we usually see onscreen, at least in Hollywood. Walter Huston, who also came to stardom at near 40, had exactly this quality.
OC Weekly:Was there any one thing that attracted you toivans xtc.?Danny Huston: I suppose it was the depth of insight inherent in the Tolstoy story. Looking at the text closely, I had to look into myself—because the story is about one's own mortality. I had to examine memories of people I knew who had died. I read a couple of books on cancer, on dying—about the various stages, bargaining and denial. I cross-referenced those elements into the story and referred back to the screenplay to see exactly where all of those things lay. Then, literally taking a colored pencil, I—dare I say it?—worked on the character arc. When you say you referred to memories of loved ones who've died, that must have included John Huston, your father.
For as long as I can remember, my father was dying. A journalist once asked him, "Toward what do you attribute your longevity?" And he said, "Surgery." [Laughs] Visiting him in a hospital wasn't that uncommon. Such experiences with Dad helped me in a very specific way. They gave my character a certain courage. My primary concern in portraying a character who's dying was to avoid projecting any sense of self-pity or sentimentality. Looking at the character of Ivan, there's a certain bravado—which helps create a certain pathos, one hopes. I had great faith that [director] Bernard Rose would treat the character with the same care. One of our shorthand things with Anna Karenina was to keep focused on the question "Is there a God?" And keep it a question. With ivans xtc., we took the opposite tack. We decided there is a God. [Laughs]
So for me, the moment of Ivan's ecstasy is when he dies. Tolstoy ends the story with a full stop: "And then he died."
And you stop right there, too, at the exact threshold.
Right. No final credits or anything. Which I think makes it a very faithful adaptation—though it forces you to have a very long credit sequence at the beginning.
People might type this movie as a Hollywood satire—but really, it bypasses Hollywood at warp speed.
[Laughs] Hopefully it's a clever way to achieve two things. One, obviously, is that Bernard and I were able to make the picture in Los Angeles, that we didn't end up making a period picture in Russia. The other is that it has somewhat more commercial appeal, in terms of its insight into that world of la dolce vita the tabloids can only glimpse, and guess at. My father used to tell me that life, for too many people in Hollywood, is their work.
How did he keep himself out of that shredder? Did he offer you any advice?
He approached movies in a very free, unhurried way. He had a very high regard for literature and fine art. And for "cinema" in its potential. But his regard for movies, as such, was not all that high. He was a master at translating great works, adapting them to film. He saw that movies are, in a sense, the bastard children of those other works. Every film I like of his brings me back to something else, but not to film. I never once overheard a conversation in which he used film as a reference. "It's Chinatown meets E.T." [Laughs] But I do it all the time.
As for advice, I remember when I was little, playing around with a Super-8 camera. I was moving it all over the place, just letting it run—and he stopped me: "No, no. What are you doing?" He pointed at what I'd been filming. "When you look from there to there, what do you do?" he asked me. I told him I didn't know. And he said, "You blink your eyes.That's a cut! So get rid of all that other nonsense. You look at the lady coming up the street, then you cut to the fellow over there who's going to meet her."
And that has held so true. Once you understand a story, once you know what you're trying to convey, there really is only one place to put the camera. There is only one way to do it. There is no great freedom of interpretation.
Still, the digital-video technology must increase your sense of what's possible.
It's just liberating, when we can actually go out and tellour stories. Instead of Bernard and I moping around, blaming the studio, blaming our agents, blaming everybody—blame, blame, blame—not getting anything done because we're so tired, so busy trying to get other things off the ground that we don't experience any other works, we don't adapt anything else, we're just stuck in our hole. It was actually quite startling to hear Lisa [Enos, the producer/co-screenwriter], who's not in the film business, turn around and say, "Guys, instead of moaning, why don't you just—shoot a film?"
"Well," we grumbled, "because we can't."
"Why can't you?"
"We need to buy film."
"Why not shoot it with a digital camera?"
[Dithering noises] "Nn-nh . . . Digital doesn't look good."
"Why do you care what it looks like, if you've got something to tell?"
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Then we tried this new system out, and it's beautiful! With Bernard, adapting Tolstoy, I think we decided after we made the picture that it's neo-realism, or some semblance of it. I always felt that LA, in making it, became our Rome, and that Bernard is auteur enough, maestro enough, that we were within reach of the more neo-realist aspects of Fellini's work, with yours truly hoping to fill the shoes of Marcello Mastroianni. It's an environment that we understand, an environment that we know. It just seemed very convenient to set this tale in our back yard.
You direct. You write for the screen. Now you act. Are there other art forms you're ambitious of?
I paint. I love having that privacy, that sense of silent moments just to myself. Otherwise I'm just forever doomed to be in the film industry. There are times when I get frustrated and wish I could do something else, even just—cut hair. But I can't. I'm addicted. It's in every pore.
And that's why directing—and trying to get a film going in the conventional way, with a studio—can be so hard. Your entire universe is consumed by one project, and you begin to have a blinkered existence. You kind of forget how to live. It all becomes about film. I remember my father giving a lecture at some film school. One of the students asked him, "Wouldn't it be correct, Mr. Huston, to say that in the first act, you establish your characters; in the second act, you tell your story; and in the third act, you reveal what it is you were trying to say throughout the film?" And my father looked at him, and said, "You know what you should do? Get yourself down to Mexico and fuck some whores." [Laughs] You could've heard a pin drop in the auditorium. But what my father was saying was essentially correct, which is live, for Christ's sake. Then you'll be able to tell a story!