Boaz Yakin: 'At What Point Am I Just Being Self-Destructive with My Honesty?'
Can the studio system be toxic? It was for director Boaz Yakin, who made Remember the Titans and the Brittany Murphy/Dakota Fanning comedy Uptown Girls, yet found himself so compromised that he spiraled into a deep depression. When Yakin first burst upon the scene with 1994's Fresh, he was heralded as an original new voice, and it's that voice Yakin tried to tap into again for his new indie, Death in Love (starring Josh Lucas, Jacqueline Bisset, and Adam Brody). It's a tough work, grappling with explicit sexuality and religious guilt, and those were just a few of the things Yakin wanted to discuss in a wide-ranging, confessional interview with Movieline.
What was happening in your life when you wrote Death in Love?
I decided to write it because I hadn't worked in a very long time -- I think about five years as a director, or as a writer, really -- and I was kind of going through a five-year depression, a couple moments of which were probably pretty suicidal. Coming out of it, I was trying to get back into the film business, and I met with all these studios about big projects. It became so clear that what they were looking for creatively and what I was looking to provide were far enough apart that I was wasting their time. And they were wasting my time! And I really felt that unless I did something where I expressed ideas in a way that was meaningful to me, I was never gonna be able to go on. I wouldn't be able to move on as a person, creatively or any other way.
As a writer/director, does the director part of you ever get in the way of the writer? Do you ever worry about pulling your punches when you write, because directing those scenes will be awkward?
Not at all. In fact, I'm an incredibly shy director when it comes to sexuality. I can't even do kissing scenes, it feels too intrusive. But this whole project, for me, was about making myself feel uncomfortable. Literally, when I sat down to write every day, the first question I'd ask myself is "How can I make myself uncomfortable? What can I dig into that makes me feel this way?" Part of it was that I also knew I was going to go off and confront my inhibitions as a director. That was part of my agenda, to not put the brakes on in any way.
Did you feel like your inhibitions had gotten in the way before?
On a personal or professional level, very much so. I was lucky on this film, because once the actors were on board, they were really, really, totally going for it all the time. Theye were so open, always asking me what I needed them to do. There was never a moment where I had to push Josh, or Vanessa, who plays the Asian Woman, in those difficult scenes they had to do. In the past, I've made films that were a million times more gentle than this, and I've dealt with actors who've been anxious about doing certain things, and I believe I've also been quite unsuccessful in getting them to come out and do the things they need to do. It's quite challenging, and maybe some directors are more comfortable pushing people. I'm not, and making this film was a challenge to myself to become one of those people, you know?
The scenes between Josh and Adam Brody are interesting, with that in mind. They both work at this scam modeling agency, and Adam is the smooth agent trying to push a more recalcitrant, guilty-feeling Josh toward the mainstream. It's almost like the studio part of you fighting with the indie part of you.
The modeling agency is the only thing in the film I actually researched. I was looking for some kind of metaphor, I guess, for how I feel about being in the film business, and I didn't want to make a movie about a moviemaker. This film takes place in the nineties and these modeling agencies were really big in the nineties, and it felt really right to me, this idea of using your talent and intuition in a completely cynical and dishonest way. That's often how I feel when making a film: You're using all your talent and skill to advertise false ideas in a really cynical manner, you know?
Do you feel guilt over that? Are you using this film to castigate yourself, almost?
I feel like I'm really aware of it, but a man's gotta work. I can't finance my own movies every day. I financed this out of money I had saved from years and years of working in the film business, and in order to make money, you have to make the kind of films that make you feel that way. I really admire filmmakers where what they like to do is also what people like to see, and they don't feel like they're quote-unquote "selling out." Man, that must be a delightful life. I'm certainly not complaining -- I earn an interview from something interesting at least, and there's a lot of people who want to be in the film business and I'm lucky to even get in the door. But on a creative level, the work that I'm actually interested in doing is on a shelf for the most part, and the work that I get to do is stuff that I'm only vaguely connected to.
Why do you think it's worked out that way?
I just don't have a commercial bent of mind. Whatever it is that makes me "me," for better or worse, isn't something that's easy to digest or doesn't fit with the mood of the times. I'm certainly not elevating myself in any way, it's just that the stuff I like to do is challenging and difficult in ways that make it hard for me to raise money for my films in this country. There's a moment in this film where Adam Brody asks Josh Lucas, "Are you honest or self-destructive?" I often wonder that about myself, too. At what point am I really trying to be honest, and at what point am I just being self-destructive with my honesty? Am I being trapped by my own internal forces or by external forces...or are they the same thing?
I'm sure you were trying to make yourself uncomfortable when you wrote the sex scenes, but directing them must have been really uncomfortable.
Well, it's a lot easier to write "He smacks her around a little bit" than it is to suddenly be with two actors who are basically putting themselves in compromising, physically difficult situations. It's tough, and it's not much fun. But it's interesting work, you know?
Were you nervous about giving the script to your wife and parents?
Well. [Laughs] I have to hand it to my wife, Alma. This is the last script you'd want to show someone you were involved with, and it took her a little while to digest it -- then she gave me the best notes on it that anyone gave me. She ended up shooting all the second-unit, all the gross stuff that I can't stand shooting. She's a very talented director herself. My brother saw the film and loved it, and at first he was very freaked out about me making it. My mom hasn't seen it, nor does she ever want to, and I don't blame her.
I remember that when David O. Russell made Spanking the Monkey, he said that his family was worried about what everyone would think of them.
I'm very open, and I'll talk about anything. I have nothing to hide, and if it's something I feel or experience or do, I have no problem discussing it. I find it interesting that this film, or art in general, still has the power to upset and provoke given what actually happens in real life. [Laughs] It's encouraging to know that your work can affect someone's emotions, but when you think about all the shit that's going on every day on Planet Earth, the idea that someone could get offended or upset about a fictional representation that's going to be, by its very definition, a watered-down version of what goes on in life every day...it's pretty fascinating.
Maybe there's a direct correlation there: As things get rougher in the world, people expect their entertainment to be tamer.
The word you used is very specific: "entertainment." I don't see all films as necessarily having to be entertainment. That doesn't mean I don't think films should be engaging and interesting to watch, but [Death in Love] is not meant as entertainment. It's meant as something else.
Now that you've come out the other end of this experience, can you go back to the studio system you used to work for?
It's not like anyone's handing me a check and saying, "Hey, anything you wanna do for a million dollars!" Right now, I'm in a place where I have to find work.