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4 Rooms, 5 Jokers

L.M. Kit Carson checks into Four Rooms

For maybe ten years, this combo-director movie scheme's been bouncing around the Indies in New York. Amose Poe and Jim Jarmsuch talked to me about it in the early '80s and Scorsese, Woody Allen and Francis Coppola got together in 1989 to tell their New York Stories. Before that, the French New Wave, New German Cinema and Italian Neo-Realists did it (Paris Par Vu, Germany in Autumn, RoGoPag).

Fact is, this scheme's supposed to outsmart the one constant problem of Indies -- nobody wants to give you money. Maybe there's a sort of critical-mass director deal: director + director + director making one movie = $. Perhaps. But not easily.

December 1994

I'm standing in an industrial park in Culver City in a C & R Clothiers warehouse watching a bunch of jokers making a movie, Four Rooms. Four writer-directors shooting back-to-back; four directors of photography and crews; stars and indie stars: Tim Roth, Madonna, Bruce Willis, Jennifer Beals, Marisa Tomei, etc. Controlled chaos and tumult on the run. Not exactly Hollywood glamour moviemaking. Not exactly Indie Heaven -- hey cool, just shoot anything you want.

This is still Earth, remember? But somehow this feels like a crossroads change.

L.M. Kit Carson: First thing you said when I phoned was, "Why didn't you tell me it was going to be this tough?" What's so tough? It started maybe semi-tough--

Alexandre Rockwell: How'd this start? [Laughs.] Fall of '92, after In the Soup, Reservoir Dogs and Gas Food Lodging hit Sundance, Micky Cottrell and Doug Lindemann hosted a dinner party. And I talked out this idea: make an omnibus movie about a bellhop and multiple characters in different rooms at the Chateau Marmont on New Year's Eve.

Carson: Different directors for each room?

Rockwell: We talked about Paul Bartel doing one, maybe Alan Rudolph. After that, I went to Quentin. Quentin got up on it; Lawrence [Bender] go into it. And [they] went to Miramax. An then (I'm probably to blame as much as anyone), it got a little out of control. Miramax wanted to do it, but one of their conditions was that the group of directors represent a New Movement. The casting of the directors' group was key -- it was Miramax's hook. So we had to go back and tell Bartel and Rudolph that it wasn't going to be them. It was very tough; they were bummed out. Some guys got paid off. But now Lawrence was producing, Quentin and I were executive producing, and we got Allison Anders and Robert Rodriguez in.

Carson: You work out your stories as a group?

Rockwell: Quentin and I had talked [about] each other's stories. They were similar in edge -- kinda comedy but not straight out yuks. But it wasn't any organic, collective, group mind. Quentin told Allison and Robert to write whatever they wanted -- comedy, tragedy, action. No rules, except the bellhop, the hotel room, New Year's Eve. Everybody went off and wrote cold.

Carson: This one-room story had to be odd for you. Your earlier movies -- here'd be the movie: you watch these guys walking around in the desert. Road movies.

Rockwell: Well, right. [Laughs.] I used to make the story an external journey through someplace, the desert. My characters go out to a liquor store -- but there's not enough liquor in the store -- so they drive to Nevada, they meet a hooker, the hooker gets them to go to Chicago to see her mother. That's how my mind likes to work.

Carson: But this movie, you're trapped in a room. No place to go.

Rockwell: Yeah, but my mind is shifting a little bit. Maybe I learned something. And now the journey -- the desert -- it's internal. It's more about character.

Carson: Okay, so you wrote four self-contained worlds and the bellhop --

Rockwell: -- More like four separate weird minds that Tim Roth gets caught in. So we meet up again (actually at the Chateau Marmont), read our stories, they seemed to fit. And it was kinda fucking exciting. Like the old studio days where Sam Fuller bumps into John Huston down at the canteen and goes, "Jesus, John, I gotta problem with a fight scene. What's a broken-down boxer do when he's on the mat but he's gotta win?" And Huston goes: "He spits a mouthful of blood in the spittoon and then puts a razor blade in his glove." The group did fit together as friends.

Carson: But in preproduction things got tougher?

Rockwell: Right. In my room, Seymour Cassel was supposed to do the guy's role. But because of some TV show, he couldn't do it. Five days before production -- Seymour drops out! So Harvey [Weinstein, head of Miramax] starts sending out messages: "Alec Baldwin! Now we go get Alec Baldwin." And I'm in a panic -- five days, I don't have time to read Alec Baldwin! And if it doesn't work? I'd just blow too high stakes a game.

Carson: But finally it's up to you. Nobody else is going to make the phone call.

Rockwell: First, I'm not dissing Alec Baldwin. But I thought he'd bring the wrong quality to the role -- too much the good-looking stud. But he's Alec Baldwin. What the fuck am I going to do?

Carson: Call Harvey?

Rockwell: Yeah. I'm going, "I don't want to talk to Harvey. Where's Quentin?" But I make the call -- and Harvey goes straight for my gut: "Rockwell, what do you want to do, be an art film director for the rest of your life?" That's how he talks. And I go: "Gee Harvey, now that you put it that way, not really -- but Harvey, stop busting my balls." And he goes: "Okay. No Alec Baldwin, but I tell you what -- you gotta use Dustin Hoffman as the old bellhop and we'll put him in makeup." And I'm seeing Little Big Man, you know, I'm going, "Dustin Hoffman? Not this movie." I'm not saying I don't want to work with known actors but I do want to work with the right actor. So I go: "We deliver you Marisa Tomei, Madonna, Bruce Willis, and Antonio Banderas for three-and-a-half-million dollars, Harvey. Cut us a little slack here."

Carson: You knew you wanted David Proval?

Rockwell: Sort of. By accident. I'd had a reading after the operation on my knee. And a casting agent brought David Proval in. He read and I was laughing my head off. Maybe I was stoned on post-op drugs. Or maybe I wasn't -- maybe this guy was amazing. He was like an insecure Al Pacino: "Hoonney [whines] would you get me my gun?" And at the end of the reading, David split. The role had been cast with Seymour. So now I had him come back in one more time to meet Jennifer [Beals] and Tim [Roth]. And they both turned to me after he left: "That's the fucking guy! That's the guy!" So, with only five days left before shooting -- David was my only shot. Some days, fate can do a good thing.

Carson: Off set, when I watched David Proval turn into this guy -- there was a humility about him. It was a surprise, because the character as written could've been just a scary bastard.

Rockwell: But that's not interesting. David Proval plays it terribly afraid, totally insecure, a real sweetheart, but a desperate sweetheart, and that's what I wanted. He's got a gun and his young wife tied up to a chair -- but there's something rotten in Denmark. This guy's actually a bleeding heart, lonely man. Look, directing -- all I know is, I got to make the moment feel right for me. Because if it doesn't feel right for me, it won't feel right for anybody. And you've got to give that moment to you. Not by telling them how to do it but by getting the right actor. They know how to do it better than you.

Carson: Now you're cutting the four different short movies together?

Rockwell: And cutting them down.

Carson: But how does group-edit work?

Rockwell: After we watched the rough cut, it was hard. We went out to a Dennys. Ordered chicken taco burrito burgers. And we just sat there. We didn't even look at each other in the eye. My mind's racing. Talk. Somebody? Who's going to talk first? Because we all have final cut. But what can I say about, like, Robert's room? His style's so different from mine. What am I going to say, "Need more action, Robert?" But nobody's talking, so I finally I go: "Uh... I think my room sucks."

Carson: You started the project -- you bite the bullet.

Rockwell: Yeah, I'm learning. Before I'd have said: "Me? Cut one frame? Fuck you! My contract says final cut. Bye bye." Yeah, if it was just my film, forget it. But it's not just my film. Three other directors also made the film. And maybe I'm the guy throwing the wheels out of whack. So I'm going back to my room to consider removing some sections. Even though I'm in love with those things. Asking questions I've never asked myself before -- Am I cutting the heart out of my piece? What is kissing ass? Brown-nosing? Selling out? And you know what? We're working that deal out.

Carson:Part way into preproduction on Four Rooms, Quentin came back flattened from non-stop promo on Pulp Fiction and wanted to pull out. And you and Alex pulled him back in.

Allison Anders: I don't know how Alex put it to Quentin, but I cried -- and that was genuine. I'd just lost a movie last year -- Paul Is Dead -- thanks to Mr. Big Adventure on Sunset Boulevard suddenly walking out on it. And Alex had made a movie -- Somebody to Love -- but couldn't get it distributed. So we both had a lot riding on Four Rooms.

Carson: A lot? Like maybe your life?

Anders: I didn't know what we would do. I'm sure I didn't know what I would do. But, I mean, Quentin was overwhelmed, beat. He was even thinking, we'll just give the money back to Miramax. And I understood dropping out -- I dropped out of high school. [Laughs.] But this was a killer to us. And Quentin hadn't quite thought this out. But once we told him about it... he did think it out. [Laughs.] And the deal stayed.

Carson: Back in December, this struggle to make this movie looked "amateurish" in the best meaning of the word. Looked like work for love. Just a bunch of people striving hard to get something odd put together.

Anders: That was the weird thing, wasn't it? There was almost no bullshit. There was that funky directors' room -- Alex was always riding his exercycle to keep his knee limber; Quentin sprawled on the sofa. It kind of did feel like film school. And I thought the other day -- because we're all so busy now -- I miss the group. And I kind of wish we could all hang out. Try to stay connected to each other; like before when we were shooting.

Carson: When this project started, did you already have a story?

Anders: No, not exactly. I had a couple ideas -- maybe do a dramatic piece, like an agonizing break-up. A woman and a married man finally saying goodbye to their affair in a lonely room. Then I figured I'd do something with all women. So I thought, a bunch of women together? What are they? A band? No. That's Beyond the Valley of the Dolls -- you can't top that! Okay, they're a coven of witches. Why're they in that room? Well, they're trying to resurrect a goddess...

Carson: Your thoughts actually run and jump like that?

Anders: Yeah. I get it from my mother. [Laughs.] Okay: They need something out of the bellhop. What? They send down for all kinds of weird shit? Uh, not exactly. Something particular -- they need something out of him. Out of him? Okay: what would these witches need only from a man? Sperm.

Carson: Bingo.

Anders: Naturally. [Laughs.] Now, of course, as I start putting together a story, I realize this little story's got a kind of deeper level, all about feminine power. And archetypes of feminine power.

Carson: Like the archetypes Madonna uses?

Anders: Right. When maybe we could cast Madonna -- I thought a lot about how's she's played this stuff out. But you know, surprisingly, I think Madonna's mostly explored archetypes of women that men invented -- the virgin, the whore, the child, the dominatrix... I think that's why women have a very complicated relationship with her. And even her personal kind of power is a patriarchal kind. She's a strong business woman -- meaning she can match any guy. She kicks in that male world very hard.

Carson: Masculine/feminine power. For a comedy, it's interesting that power's at the core of all four rooms.

Anders: Yeah. The further I developed and shot the story -- I kept thinking, "What's so funny about this?" Because I was sure this was just silly -- it's just a silly sorta '60s Jayne Mansfield-type comedy. This is not about personal -- there's nothing personal in this for me at all. Right? So, I finish shooting -- then come back one day to shoot this last bit where Jennifer Beals passes the spirit of the Virgin Goddess walking down the hallway, and Jennifer goes to me: "So, what is this saying, Allison? This Goddess, she was sexual -- but she was a virgin -- and she was turned to stone on her wedding night before she could giver her virginity to anybody? And she's been turned to stone for 40 years? What's this mean to you?"

Carson: A legitmate question.

Anders: Yeah. I just thought, okay, good question. But back in the editing room, I started watching the pieces of this bit I'm cutting, and I kind of go: "Oh..." And I realized that I just turned 40 years old -- and I knew that I had this huge crisis in my past of being raped when I was a virgin -- that I thought I'd dealt with, but I'd never really dealt with the specific fact that what it meant to me was I never got to choose who I gave myself to the first time. And that was a bigger fucking deal that I hadn't dealt with!

Carson: You started as a shooter, making movies in Catholic high school?

Robert Rodriguez: St. Anthony's junior seminary in San Antonio.

Carson: Seminary? Wanted to be a priest?

Rodriguez: Well, officially you're supposed to at least be thinking about being a priest. But I was just hiding out, trying to figure what I was going to do with my life. I just felt like a complete idiot, like I was going to be a bum.

Carson: Mid-life crisis at age 13?

Rodriguez: The coaches put me in charge of videotaping the football games. Couldn't even do that right -- soon as someone threw the ball, I'd follow the ball, get a tight zoom-in on the ball in the air, get a hero's shot of the guy catching the ball. Then I'd edit it always to make it look like our team won! The coaches went nuts. They couldn't see any of the plays! I got fired right away.

Carson: Do you like to work on everything simultaneously? You did Four Rooms while editing Desperado while writing a book?

Rodriguez: I fought with the studio so I could edit my own movie. The studio said they never let a director edit. Well, figure it out, that's how I like to do stuff. I finally won that battle. A week later I say, "While I'm editing, I'm going to shoot and edit Four Rooms on the weekends and during Christmas vacation and when I'm not editing Desperado. Columbia said, "Just hurry up."

Carson: More movies faster.

Rodriguez: Cast and shot Four Rooms, edited over Christmas -- six days all out, editing even when I was sick. Tilted back in my chair with the editing keyboard on my chest, half-asleep, half-dead. After straight 13-14 hours, your body justs shuts down physically -- all that's running is your creative mind and the use of your fingers. And you can keep going zoned like that for quite a long time -- getting a lot of interesting stuff to come out. So I only had five weeks left to edit Desperado. Ended up mixing both at the same time on the Fox lot. Four Rooms in the North Room; Desperado in the South Room -- they're adjacent.

Carson: It's the Rodriguez method?

Rodriguez: Definitely. I like it. 'Cause it's all different kinds of seeing linked together -- writing, shooting, editing -- from beginning to end. I'm writing shot-for-shot and angles. Then shooting the puzzle pieces. Then editing quick. 'Cause I'm always wanting to see it! Once I start all I want is to see the movie!

Carson: Doesn't it intimidate you at all to pick up the camera yourself and shoot?

Rodriguez: In what way? In that I am not experienced? For the kinds of movies I'm making? You watch any other performance Antonio Banderas gives in any other movie -- he doesn't look anything like he does in my movie. Because I'm in the camera. I'm right there with him. It gets very intense. If I pull back to more just observing him rather than being in the middle with him, I think he'd start looking like a potted plant. And I think this guy is too good, too enigmatic, too strong, and just too down-to-earth to be shot that way.

Carson: So in a way, you're acting with the actor; it's all strong eye contact.

Rodriguez: Very instinctual. Very moment-to-moment -- constantly adjusting until it feels right.

Carson: Harvey Keitel and you, Antonio Banderas and you: give me a comparison dynamic between them. Each requires a particular kind of liberty.

Rodriguez: Antonio gets into a scene immediately: "Antonio, you're going to walk in here, go over here, jump up here." Then he always asks: "I'd like to try this -- is this okay?" I'm always, "yes, yes, yes do it!" He'll do it and look right away for the okay. Harvey is very internal. You gotta let him feel it out and say, "Wait a second. I hear what you're saying but I think I can do it a different way. Let's take it from the beginning and read the scene aloud, and I might..." And I'll get back and shoot and watch and adjust. Every actor has his own way of getting the work out. And you have to explore.

Carson: Four Rooms. First time you're working with other directors?

Rodriguez: It was a great experiment because you got to see how subjective directing is. For example, Alex's scene in the bathroom, I might have shot something else entirely. Quentin would do it another way, Allison another way.

Carson: The movie rule: "action is character." You've taken it to the extreme. Feel maybe now you'd like to go explore subjects a little more internally. Maybe do A Long Day's Journey into Night?

Rodriguez: No. [Laughs.] I don't think so. Right now in my life I love energy. I don't feel like I need to do something "important" just to get respect.

Tim Roth: I got into acting as a joke. Auditioned for a play at school, a musical of Dracula. But I got the part, so then I had to do it. Sing and dance in front of all my mates and all the bullies in the school. Terrified -- I walked out and pissed myself, literally pissed myself onstage. But halfway through I realized -- what a rush. Then I couldn't stop. Chasing that first buzz.

Carson: The night of Allison Anders' birthday party on the Four Rooms set -- when I was watching you perform with the stripper.

Roth: When I got into Madonna's dress?

Carson: You got into Madonna's dress?

Roth: At the wrap party -- I put Madonna's rubber dress on and sang "Like a Virgin." Got carried in by the crew.

Carson: Not the wrap party -- Allison's birthday party. At the start of the shoot.

Roth: When I got up on stage with the stripper?

Carson: -- and you did a sort of hyped-up combo Pee Wee Herman/Jerry Lewis/Stan Laurel -- and I thought, this is the bellhop. It's the way you were playing the bellhop in the movie.

Roth: Actually, yeah, kind of cartoon-like.

Carson: Where'd that character come from?

Roth: It's very bizarre. I didn't know what I was going to do. And I was worried -- because I'd never done anything like this before, y'know, cartoon acting? Intending to make an audience laugh? But early on the first day of shooting I did a reaction shot for Allison -- it's when I see Madonna for the first time. And I remember watching Jaws -- when Richard Dreyfuss is swimming slowly under a wrecked boat and suddenly a half-eaten head pops out! I remember how that shot made me jump when I was a kid! So I just re-did that jump! And that extreme reaction shot began the character.

Carson: Okay, but normally -- how do you prepare to get to the role? Do you do a character history?

Roth: It changes from film to film. I don't know. I don't have a method. I go over the script -- things come up to my head. You really don't need to know everything about a character to play a character. Most of it's subliminal anyway -- you're packing stuff away -- all beneath the surface. You know, actors talking about how to do acting -- it's real dull. I liked it better when nobody talked about acting. Kept it mysterious.

Carson: What's it like to work with four different directors on the same character?

Roth: Exhausting. Because they've all got their own sense of humor, different shooting styles. Allison used big blocks of light, like an old movie -- and she'd improvise in a second. Alex has lots of piddly little lights all over the place -- and he is very carefully involved in creating the gags and how the scene's set up...

Carson: Did it break up your acting?

Roth: I only worried on the hand-off days -- going from director-to-director. But my job was try to hold onto the integrity of my character, however insane he was -- and he was completely insane.

Carson: Then Robert shooting like a rocket -- 50 to 70 set ups in one day.

Roth: With Robert I can't remember much because he works so fast. Shoots this bit, this bit, this bit, this bit -- and when they're setting some lighting over there, he's over here shooting someone else -- just because he knows how to. But he was quite easy. All I'd say was, "Okay Robert, where do you want me now."

Carson: Was Quentin different this time?

Roth: Yeah, because he was also acting. When he's just directing a film he's very focused -- fun to work with. But acting/writing/directing -- he gets very, very, very nervous. Plus Quentin's already excited. So it was tricky for him to switch all those different jobs inside.

Carson: Watching the Four Rooms shoot, it struck me that this whole bunch -- directors, producers, actors -- were at a crossroads. After this they were going to have to tangle much more with the machinery of Hollywood.

Roth: Well, they're not exactly the outcasts anymore.

Carson: What if somebody starts throwing millions and millions at you?

Roth: I'd love it.

Carson: Don't think all that money'll leech at your soul?

Roth: It's fucking welcome to try.

Carson:Want to talk about Four Rooms?

Quentin Tarantino:[Laughs and laughs.]

Carson: Say "No." Just say "No" so I can quote you.

Tarantino: No. [Laughs.] You gotta get famous. [He is scrambling through boxes of merchandise sent to his office.] Look, they just give you all these things. Free shoes. [He holds up a pair of oversized fire-engine red tennis shoes.]

Odd fact is: I had co-producer slot on a small studio movie (a whole other story) shooting at the same time back in December. And I'd drive, 12 minutes from this small set, to the big studio lot for meetings.

And driving through the studio gates -- was like driving into a Magritte painting. The place was motionless. Stop-frame. Semi-surreal. Echoing footsteps. Maybe some lone figure standing insecurely in a long slanting shadow. Like: nothing going on here. Except the feeling -- of gigantic corporate secrets hatching someplace deep inside this joint.

[Fact is, corporate-land was making big changes. Disney/ABC. Westinghouse/CBS. Time Warner/Turner. And they tell us: this is the Future.]

But I'd go back and forth from the ever-more-monolithic studio to this rackety rolling-and-tumbling Four Rooms. And I'd wonder: Yes, this is the crossroads -- which way to the Future?

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