You won't see a better-acted film this year than Manhattan Pictures' The Secret Lives of Dentists. Director Alan Rudolph has taken Craig Lucas' adaptation of Jane Smiley's novella and cast it to perfection. The story centers on dentist David Hurst (Campbell Scott), who is questioning the "perfect" suburban life he has with his capricious-seeming wife Dana (Hope Davis), also a dentist, and their three adorable but demanding little girls. The repressed anger and frustration he feels are manifested surreally in the form of an alter ego who, in real life, happens to be one of his more difficult patients (Denis Leary, at his surly best). The film is rife with sharply observed moments of sexual jealousy, petty office intrigue and domestic entanglement, which give the film an emotional richness rare in American cinema fare today.
Film Journal International caught up with the energetic, easygoing Scott, who also produced the picture, in New York, while he was in the midst of editing his next film, Off the Map. We also had a fascinating, lengthy phone conversation with Rudolph, who has given true movie lovers so much pleasure for the last 30 years with films like Remember My Name, Choose Me, Afterglow and Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle.
Film Journal International: What drew you to this project?
Campbell Scott: Very honestly, I have been moving away from acting and would rather direct and produce. It's just more rewarding, but for some reason I always wanted to play this part. Five years ago, I hooked up with Holedigger Films, which is George Van Buskirk and Dave Newman, two guys here in New York, who wrote me a letter saying, "We want to make movies and like what you do." They have been like a fantasy come true, because we've made three films in under two years, all very challenging. Roger Dodger was the first, and then this one, and Off the Map is the third. They just keep doing them, and they're not only not scared by the material I come up with, they love it. I can't figure it out, but I'm going with it. Dentists was a script I had put away because it just didn't happen and then when this thing started, they wanted to know what I wanted to do. And this was one thing I always wanted to act in and six months later here we are.
I don't know what made me want to do this. I always thought it was hysterically funny. Yeah, there's pain and it's a difficult story, but I thought it was funny. Isn't it terrible? I don't pick people who are like me, ever, but maybe I identified a little with the incredibly repressed anger of the character. Honestly, that was me 15 years ago. I was much closer to that, really repressed, kept everything in. So I identified with both the humor and the non-communication.
FJI: And why Rudolph to direct?
CS: He's an old friend and colleague from Mrs. Parker, one of the best acting experiences I ever had. If you talk to anyone, you'll know that he's beloved by actors. He's really funny and kind of not at all intellectual: a real feeler, which is great, and we need more of those.
Craig Lucas didn't want to direct it and I just wanted to act, and then I thought about Alan, whom no one would think of for this slightly surreal but basically domestic drama. It's very intense and Alan's films have a surreality to them, but his characters are always in another world, which makes him special. Craig took this heartbreaking, sad novella and opened it up and made it funnier and more accessible. He's a very economical writer, a playwright, very exacting in his dialogue. I knew with this kind of script, you didn't need a technician. You needed something emotional and Alan does that camera movement, those long takes with those amazing little girls and Denis. I thought, "Wouldn't it be cool to mix this up and see what happens. It could be a big mess, but I loved it."
No one ever says anything to anybody truthfully. It's fascinating and that's why I love Hope Davis in this. She's one of those few actresses, you just know what's going on even if she doesn't say a word. She's just enigmatically provocative, but not boring or distancing. When I directed her in Final, she played a doctor in a mental institution who never says a word. I was in the editing room with Andy Keir, who's done all my films, and every time we were in trouble, we'd just say, "Cut to Hope," because she was just fascinating, whatever was happening.
FJI: You took quite a risk with that lengthy middle section, which has the entire Hurst family coming down with the flu and endless vomiting.
CS: Which no one wants to see, even we all agreed that we hate it when people vomit or piss on film. Yet we got to try it, and something with kids make us tend to feel for a child who's vomiting, whereas with an adult, it's like, "Take that outside."
FJI: The person I was with was really turned off by it.
CS: Really? I like that, the fact that people are arguing about it, too. What's interesting is that, after these screenings, so many people ask, "How did you get into my house?" People, especially over the age of 35, are really responding to the domestic drama. The under-35 crowd likes the more surrealistic "Alan" qualities and Denis Leary. We're thrilled about both of these audiences, as well as our favorite, the audience who just goes with it. Most movies, five minutes into it, we know what's going on, and I think audiences are kind of sick of knowing who the villain is right away.
Alan Rudolph: If these actors could be any better, it would be a shock to me. Actors are the key, always for me, they're essential to get to the promised land where the results are such that it's almost indefinable and enters into that rare atmosphere. And Campbell, I would put into the front ranks of anybody I've ever worked with. But maybe the real joy was discovering how great Hope, Denis, Robin Tunney [as a wry dental assistant] and these three kids were. Theirs I would consider in my experience one of the finest acting accomplishments ever, because it's invisible acting. That was the goal and they sure succeeded.
Campbell sent this script to me. Usually, I originate my own. Very few people ever send me anything. I might know why, but I'm not gonna tell you. Campbell sent it to me in late fall of 2001, that fateful year, and said, "Do you want to do it? Why don't you read it and call me?" I said, "I don't have to read it, if you wanna do it, I wanna do it. He said, "Well, you gotta read it," so then I read it, and really wanted to do it.
FJI: Davis nails her part from her first moments, at the breakfast table, trying to get her kids to listen to opera as they prepare for school and she for the dentist's office.
AR: That was the first scene of shooting, so it was interesting and the fact that there's so much nuance. It was a privilege for me to work with actors like her, who I also like as humans, and Denis is another discovery. Talk about riveting, and he never sacrificed the underpinnings of that character, even though he was an imagined figure throughout some of the film. He never made some broad gesture, and by the end, when he's sitting on that bus bench, he breaks your heart in a funny kind of way.
Robin and I worked together on Investigating Sex. That's still a big hole in my heart because I think it's a really good piece of work and the fact that it's still [unreleased and] tangled up is beyond frustrating. But that film will have a life as soon as we can figure out how to maneuver it and I'm very proud of it. Robin is a very quick actress in terms of being right there. She can make even dental talk sound interesting, and with those kids, we went after children, not actors. They're just big kids or little adults, I don't know, but they have as much contribution to any scene as the adults do.
FJI: You really grew up in the industry. Your career is so interesting.
AR: [laughing] My careen, as Tom Robbins calls it, and he's the second smartest guy I've ever known. My father [Oscar Rudolph] was a great guy and his whole life paralleled the movie industry. He started as a child actor in the silents and was DeMille's assistant director. He wound up directing 500 to 1,000 TV shows that were just starting out in that Golden Age, everything from "Playhouse 90" to "Batman." Being a working craftsman, he was a part of Hollywood, experiencing something of the glamour. But that was never really a part of our lives, we were just a good family.
I was never really interested in it in the '50s and early '60s, but my brother got me a super-8 camera, one of first ever made, and I started making these little movies for myself. I'd push the tape recorder button and push the projector and try to keep them in synch. I guess they were music-videos before such a thing existed. I never went to film school, but I used to make these little films for people in film school. I was Cyrano de Filmiac, and little did I know that that would be my training ground.
FJI: Your movies have a distinct "European" feeling, with their investment in emotion and the rich texture of acting akin to Truffaut and Renoir, films like Choose Me and Remember My Name.
AR: You've seen Remember My Name? That may be the best film I ever made. It's not available anywhere and it barely got released. A wonderful guy named Mike Kaplan released it and he would call me up and say, "OK, this year we're gonna open in Philadelphia, and next year we get to San Francisco. That was an important experience in my then new film life, and of course it got completely ignored and nobody really saw it. Its funny, when you look back and think, "Who knows? If anybody had seen that movie and said some things about it, it might have changed me." But I don't know if anything ever changes you—bodily fluids seek their own level. You get there one way or another, for better or worse
FJI: Aside from everything else, the haunting Alberta Hunter music, there was that incredible cast: Geraldine Chaplin at her most brilliant, Anthony Perkins and his wife Berry Berenson, who was aboard American Airlines Flight 11 when it crashed into the World Trade Center on 9/11. She really should be remembered.
AR: Nor should Tony be forgotten. You really want to talk about all this? I can't tell you what a thrill it is to talk about this, and I don't mean this in any ego way, but to talk to somebody who's actually seen that picture. I got really beat up in The New York Times.
It was just a great experience. We were casting for the lead role with Robert Altman and they thought we should have gotten some chiseled leading man because he was a construction worker. I said, "No. This guy was an architect in New York, and came out West to start a new life, so he's starting at this level which wasn't his profession. Bob, of course, understood and Joyce, my wife, had seen Equus on Broadway and suggested Tony. I thought, "My goodness, that's exactly right." He agreed, and I said, "The way I work is we cast this together for your wife. Is there anybody you really want to work with, and he said, "How about my real wife? She hasn't done that much, but I think she would be good, and has everything you've written for this character. She's a real person and kind of optimistic, and has a way of being supportive and just honest about things." I met her and thought she was terrific. To bring it back to Campbell and Hope, who acted it so well, but they were two people who were married and, of course, brought all of that in, and filled in all those little areas and made it more dimensional.
Berry was just terrific and I said to Tony, "The way we work is everybody's invited to dailies and I'd love you to come." He said, "I don't go to dailies. Hitchcock wanted me to go, but I can't. I can't see myself." So one day when he wasn't working, I said, "So you won't be self-conscious, just come and see Berry and what the film looks like." He was so thrilled with the experience that he came every night.
I thought Berry was a really good person and they were very much in love, those two. Their lives were legendary in their own right, but I can honestly say they were a genuine family. I don't know Berry's sister Marisa well, but I was at a restaurant with people who knew her, and our eyes connected and we said what didn't have to be said. Again, this is the true mystery of film and why it is the logical human invention. It's timeless and a way for everyone to experience potentially their deepest emotions while watching human experience. I am completely humbled by film. You mentioned Truffaut and whatnot. I didn't go to film school but that was mine, and it was the best when film was really literature and did change your life, and not just in a cheap way, but profoundly. Truffaut, Fellini, Kurosawa and Bergman, especially. You learned something about life that you didn't know before you went in.
Now film seems to be our collective cultural investment: People just go in to see their little piece of the action and, "Yeah, I wanna dress and wear my hair like that." A lot of young people don't know that film can get to you in a way no other creation can. At one time, American film was the sharp elbow in the ribs of society, and now it has become society. Some very good films get made but don't get seen, unfortunately.