Michael Douglas on Solitary Man, Gordon Gekko's Legacy, and the Battle of the Sexes
After a relatively quiet decade spent dabbling in TV, studio comedies and a few underperforming indies, Michael Douglas is taking no prisoners in 2010. Currently in Cannes promoting Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps -- in which he reprises his Oscar-winning role as treacherous capitalist baron Gordon Gekko -- Douglas spent the earlier part of this week in New York talking to Movieline about his other cutthroat comeback kid in Solitary Man.
Directed by longtime writing partners Brian Koppelman and David Levien (Ocean's 13, The Girlfriend Experience) from Koppelman's own script, the film features Douglas as Ben Kalmen, a disgraced NYC auto-sales magnate eager to restore his name with a new dealership. His girlfriend (Mary-Louise Parker) has a few contacts that might come in handy -- as long as the skirt-chasing Ben can play suitably domestic with her and her college-age daughter Allyson (Imogen Poots). And that's the least of his challenges, really, as he continually finds innovative ways to sabotage those relationships and others with his daughter (Jenna Fischer), ex-wife (Susan Sarandon), and even a college sophomore (Jesse Eisenberg) whom Ben takes under his mildly toxic wing.
It's a candid glimpse at a man who is not only past his prime, but essentially torn between reclaiming and outrunning it. Koppelman and Levien don't sugarcoat the downslide, either, which Douglas navigates with grizzled aplomb. The actor/producer and his directors sat down with me a few days ago to discuss Solitary Man and playing off Douglas's past and persona as one of Hollywood's iconic leading men.
How did this all this come together? You all kind of knew each other indirectly?
KOPPELMAN: We have Steven Soderbergh in common. When we said we had the script and wanted to make the movie, Steven had been really supportive of us in fostering our goals and career. We made a couple movies with him. We gave him the script, and he read it and said he'd give it to Michael; he thought it was the perfect role for Michael. So he called Michael and then we all got together out in L.A. Michael showed up wearing all black like Ben Kalmen, holding court at the Beverly Hills Hotel. We spent an hour together, we shook hands, and him being the gentleman he is, said "All right, let's do this thing." That's it. Twelve, 13 months later, we're standing on a set making a movie.
DOUGLAS: Did you write it fast?
KOPPELMAN: No. I wrote the first half of it very quickly, but I was stuck for a couple years. I just kind of thought about it in my subconscious work. And as soon as I figured out the bench [one of the film's key locations], I wrote the whole thing super-quickly. It was like two and a half years, and then three weeks.
DOUGLAS: Do you guys do that a lot? Do you pocket stuff?
LEVIEN: No, we don't. But I think that sounds right to me. Often when you get hired to do a script, they want the script in eight weeks, six weeks, 12 weeks -- some amount of time that doesn't leave room to figure it out if you're stuck. And figuring it out is the way that it works best.
DOUGLAS: Or to be able to admit that you're stuck.
LEVIEN: It's a luxury to do it that way.
KOPPELMAN: I was writing this only to work something out. It really came from a very personal place of trying to understand these guys. And then I got through the first half, and it was a movie! I knew there was a movie in it, and I knew this character felt very alive. I felt myself trying to craft it as opposed to just telling the story. But when I let it go and let it just show up again, it showed up. Then I just wrote as fast as I could get it out.
How was it working with two directors?
DOUGLAS: I did it once before on You, Me and Dupree. I'm trying to remember their names... They were nice guys.
KOPPELMAN: Oh, I met those guys. The... Russos?
DOUGLAS: The Russos. Very nice guys. But yeah, it was mostly effortless. [Pauses] I was a little wary. You're never quite sure how the team works. But I know these guys are brothers; they've been together since they were 14 years old. They understand each other really, really well. I'd seen Catherine [Zeta-Jones, his wife] work with the Coen brothers. So I actually think it makes a lot of sense. Directing is the loneliest job I could ever think of. It's really lonely, and there's a lot of pressure out there. So to be able to bounce things off someone... That's what I try to do as a producer: to work with the director, to get them to bounce those things. So to have two guys worked out great.
Ben is a curious character in the sense that he's trying for a comeback, but he's so self-destructive. How did you reconcile those traits?
DOUGLAS: He's a guy who got by on his instincts pretty good, you know. He thinks, "That's the way I've gotten through my entire life, my whole career -- you trust your instincts." Then all of the sudden one day, they don't work at all.
LEVIEN: Nobody tries to be self destructive. Or rather, somebody who does that is a different character. That happens on a subconscious level for this character; he's doing, like Michael said, the things that worked before and had gotten him places. But suddenly, whether it's personal discipline or personal power, he wasn't as effective as he was. He let his appetites get in the way. It's a host of things.
KOPPELMAN: A ballplayer who plays too long starts ripping muscles they never would have ripped before. This is a character who has won almost every interaction he's had until just a few years before. Then suddenly, he's up against mortality -- the one opponent you can't beat. There's a pressure, now, on the moment. There's a pressure to decision-making. He sees a young girl at the table -- could he take three steps back and rationalize that this might hurt the chances of her mother getting him a dealership? Yeah. But in the moment, he's a guy who's telling himself, "F*ck it all -- I'm going to determine it."
DOUGLAS: It's been six years since the separation, right? I mean, come on, man. The energy and the vitality feel like it was last week. The funny part about it is that you're thinking, "The old dog! He's been at it six years!" He started when he walked out of the doctor's office. He met the first girl six years ago!
KOPPELMAN: It's very rejuvenating! But here's the thinking about Michael. Most movie stars are always looking to protect themselves. They're always looking to be a hero, or to cover themselves or wink at the audience. And Michael just dove in. There's that scene where he's in bed with the mother of his grandson's friend. So he's picked up this pretty blond girl, and he has to alienate her and offend her. And Michael says, "Can't Ben just enjoy one minute of this?" But he just dove in and was willing to go to the place this character went even though it was difficult and uncomfortable. And there aren't many people who would do that. It was very rewarding.
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