DAVID DUCHOVNY on 'HOUSE OF D' Contributed by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor for Radio Free Entertainment
April 6, 2005
House of D, the feature film debut of David Duchovny as a writer and director, tells the story of Tom Warshaw (Duchovny), a man who finds himself estranged from his wife and son. Determined to bridge the gap with his family, he tells them the story of his childhood in the hopes that they will understand the man that he is. The film flashes back to Tom's days as a boy (Anton Yelchin) growing up in Greenwich Village in the '70s, where his relationships with his mother (Tea Leoni), his mentally challenged best friend Pappass (Robin Williams), and an incarcerated woman (Erykah Badu) in the Women's House of Detention helped shape his character.
In this interview, David Duchovny talks about the making of House of D.
MEDIA: So what have you been up to these past two years?
DAVID: Well, a lot of it has been House of D. I've written a couple other scripts. I acted in this movie, Trust the Man, that Bart Freundlich directed last fall in New York with Julianne Moore, Billy Crudup, and Maggie Gyllenhaal, which I think is a really funny urban comedy.
Have you been intentionally trying to keep out of the public eye?
No, I'm just doing the stuff that's interesting to me. I have that luxury. And also I have a family that would like to have me around sometimes. Not as much as I would like them to want me around, but...So it's just a less structured life than working long hours with a TV show, but it's kind of fallen to me to make my own way now. And I enjoy that, even though it may not be quite as public as the other way.
What was it like serving as both writer and director on House of D?
When I wrote the script, I thought, "Oh, Pappass is such a great role, I wouldn't mind playing Pappass." And then I thought I can't do that and direct at the same time. And the role of the adult boy, I kind of intuitively understood, just having written it, and I thought that the amount of days, which is maybe 8 or 9 days of shooting out of the 34, was do-able for me. And actually, as an actor, I found it really interesting. My mind was so off of the performance that I think it gave me a certain kind of freedom and lack of self-consciousness, because I was thinking about a lot of other things. It only really got in the way when I'd be in a two-shot with Robin or another actor, and if they started to do really well, or if I thought the scene was going well, I'd kind of get excited. [laughs] And I go, "I can't start smiling, I've got to stay in the scene." But I enjoy acting so much and I just enjoyed being inside the movie as well as outside the movie. If it was the "lead" lead for my first film, I don't think I would have done it.
What were some of the challenges involved with recreating the Greenwich Village of the '70s and the titular Women's House of Detention?
On my budget, it's really all about the cars and the clothes. So I just get the cars off the street and put my handful of period cars, and hopefully you guys'll get fooled by these gestures, because I don't really have the money to do all the wizardry that other people might have. But the biggest logistical problem for me was the fact the House of D is no longer there. So how do I shoot a prison in the middle of a city in a city that doesn't have a prison in the middle of it? And also stitch that location into the actual location that I do have, which is the House of D garden, which is in the middle of the Village? So I was all over the city looking at buildings that could be prisons. And we went everywhere trying to find some facade that might look like a prison. My first choice was always the Lexington Armory on 25th there, which is what we shot. And it looks pretty good. I mean, obviously, it's not a prison, but I think you can buy that it's a prison. So that was the toughest thing.
How close is the finished film to your original vision of the story?
Well, it's miles away from the original vision because the original vision is some weird daydream that's running through your head. It's not a movie. What is the same is the feeling, and I think I executed the feeling that I wanted. I wanted to make a movie that was both very specific and universal. I wanted to make a movie that appeared to be personal and small, but actually had a foundation underneath it of mythic power and fable. And I wanted to make a realistic movie that was also a fairy tale--a movie that would make you laugh and cry, just like in the terms of the classic, silly blurb on a movie: "You'll laugh, you'll cry." I wanted that.
How autobiographical is this story? Are there scenes absolutely taken from your own childhood?
There's a lot that is absolutely from my childhood. Not so much scenes, but environments that I knew. I knew what a stickball game should look like, I knew what riding that bike around feels like, I knew what it's like to live in an apartment where you only have one bathroom, so while you're taking a shower, your mother comes in to pee. You know, I love that reaction in the audience because it's always split. It's like half gasps because they've been watching Oprah ("[gasps] It's so wrong!") and half laughs because they know you live in a small apartment. You gotta pee, you gotta pee. It's not child abuse. It's living in Manhattan. So that kind of stuff feels real to me. What actually happened? It's funny to say and insignificant in a way, but the thing with calling a girl flat and then the girls coming and saying, "small balls"...that actually happened to me. [laughs] And I thought I had to leave school. The whole thing of it, to me, was indicative of the raised stakes of being 12 years old. Like, "Oh my God, my life is over, these girls don't like me." And I just always remembered that. And if you don't laugh at small balls, if you can repeat it ten times, eventually you will laugh.
What you talkin' 'bout, Willis?
[laughs] Keep saying "small balls" over and over. Eventually you'll get a laugh out of it.
[Oddly enough, he's right about that.]
What qualities were you looking for when you cast Anton Yelchin to play the younger version of your character?
I didn't care how the kid was going to look. I knew I could dye his hair. I knew he had to be Caucasian. Basically, that was it in order to be me. It didn't matter. So I wasn't looking for eye color or anything. Didn't matter to me. I mean, I've seen movies where the kid has different eye color from the grown up. You kind of notice it, and then you go, "Oh well. It's a movie." So it didn't matter. I just wanted the best actor. It's a hard role. You know, this kid really has to be available emotionally. He's got to be funny with Robin Williams. He's got to have integrity. He's got to seem like an artist. He's got to be sensitive. He's got to be strong. And it's hard to find a 14 year old that can do that. It's hard to find an 18...it's hard to find a 40 year old who can do that. So I was just lucky that late in the process, Anton, a name that I had heard from people that know kid actors, came in. After that, from the moment he opened his mouth, never a question for me.
And what led you to casting Robin Williams in the role of Pappass?
I knew I had to get a bankable star to kind of drive the independent financing. That's how these movies are made a lot. You know, they call them independent, but they're actually pretty dependent. And I had a kid lead, which is bad, because there's no kid stars. They don't exist. Macaulay Culkin maybe for a little while, but that was it. You don't have kids that drive financing. So I had supporting roles that I had to hinge my financing on, which is tricky and difficult, scary, and could have easily doomed this picture to never being made. But I was lucky to get Robin early on. He was the first person I asked, and he was loyal. And that was really the linchpin of getting the movie made. And I wanted Robin because I always conceived of Pappass' character as a man among boys, which is really what he is. And Robin has a real kind of physicality. He's very powerful. He hurt me a couple times just shaking my hand. And I'm not tiny, you know. But Robin's like...[thumps his shoulder] He touches you like that. And I wanted that strength, because I wanted him to be somewhat scary if he snapped with these kids. And then Robin has access, we all know, to a real childlike quality. He's really in touch with that part of himself. That was obviously so important to the role.
Why did he use prosthetics to alter his appearance?
He came up with that stuff. I didn't want him to change physically because I said, "You don't have a syndrome that I know. You're not handicapped in 'this way.' This is a mythical guy. He is slow, but we're not going to diagnose him and go to a book and say, 'This is who we're going to be.'" And therefore, I didn't want him to look any different. But Robin, as an actor, uses his imagination and uses all the tools that you have access to. He said, "I want to do something with my teeth and my ears." And I said okay. And then the bill came, and I was outraged because I couldn't afford it. It was like forty grand for the aging. It was a lot. And it was like a day of shooting that I would give up. And I would have made the bad decision of not using it. But Robin really wanted to do it, and it was a much better idea than if he hadn't. It was money well spent.
Your wife, Tea Leoni, also has a role in this film. What was it like directing her on set?
[jokes] I order her around the house, so it's pretty much the same. No, it's the reverse of our relationship at home, probably. She only had six days of shooting on the movie, and it was the first six days, so it was very comforting for me to have her on set, because I could go to her and I'd say, "Is this sh*t or is this working?" It was the first time I was seeing people speak the words. It was nerve-wracking for me as well. I had had the mother and the son in my head, and now they were speaking. Did the scenes have any flow? Were they funny? Were they sad? Were they real? All these questions that jump up at you when you first start to shoot a film. It was nice to have her there. I understand that she was frightened and didn't want to screw up my movie, but that never even entered my mind because I think she's so good. I was just comforted by her presence. And then it was over in a week. I think it would be different if we were producing together, and doing like a three month job together, every day working on set. That might be different. But this was a wonderful start. I would like to work with her again if she would have me.
Do you ever refer to the Duchovny household as the House of D?
[laughs] No. I often wish that there was another word for detention that they used, because I would have loved to call it House of I or House of J or House of Any Other Letter but D. But it was the Women's House of Detention and there's nothing I can do about that, and they call it the House of D.
What kept this project from being a bigger type of "studio film"?
It appears to be a small movie. It may be a small movie. I think that there are small ideas and there are big moviegoing experiences. We don't have any explosions, but we have emotion and we have humor. And I think that makes it a big movie. However, the reason it's not a studio film, mostly, is because it's a movie for adults starring a boy. Nobody wants to get involved with that.
Were the songs in the film personal favorites of yours?
Well, it was the intersection of my personal favorites with songs I could afford. Some of my personal favorites I couldn't afford. Some I actually really liked that I hadn't remembered. "Melissa" was written into the script. The character's name was always Melissa, so that song was always instrumental in the writing, in the execution of the script.
Did you deal with the Allman Brothers directly to license that song?
No, I didn't talk to the Allman Brothers. I don't do any of that. I had a music supervisor. I had my list of songs and she brought me other songs. She dealt with the rights. I wrote a couple letters to people that we were having trouble getting songs from. Didn't work, but I wrote the letters. And I won't tell you who they are, because I actually would joke and said, "You can do what you want. I think you would like the film, but know that if you don't give me your song, I will bad mouth you wherever I go."
Do you have a specific, personal anecdote from your own childhood that inspired the story of House of D?
The only story that really jumps out at me is...When I was 17, I had an accident at school, and I was in the hospital from it. And I had a Latin teacher. I was a pretty mediocre Latin student. But I worked hard at all the other classes and I did really well. Except Latin was my biggest struggle, probably because you kind of had to have a feel for the language. It wasn't just hard work, which is how I got by with the other classes. But he was the only guy that came to visit me, and I thought he didn't like me. And he sat on my bed and he said, "Don't hurry back. No rush." Because I was on the basketball team, baseball team, all the athletics. And all that was in my mind was getting back. That's all I was thinking about. And I remember being confused by what he was saying, and just kind of nodding and thinking he doesn't like me, whatever. And many years later, I realized that he knew that I was kind of working too hard and overachieving--that I was doing for the man and I wasn't doing for myself. And maybe I was like 27, 28 when I realized that. And I wanted to thank him, and he had died of AIDS a few years earlier. So it was actually one of the inspirations for this story--the phenomenon of getting advice when you're too young, and when you finally do get it, how do you thank the people? How do you express your gratitude? What is the right thing to do?