Taylor Hackford on Love Ranch -- and Directing Wife Helen Mirren's Sex Scene

hackford_mirren_sergio_300.jpgIt only took 25 years after their first, small collaboration, but director Taylor Hackford finally found the right film to make with his wife Helen Mirren. And to think: Love Ranch, which opens next week, almost didn't open at all. The fictionalized story of the first legal brothel in the U.S. -- and the crimes of passion (and otherwise) that helped sink it in 1977 -- was in distribution limbo for most of 2009, ultimately breaking out earlier this year. Along with it come Mirren as a no-nonsense Nevada madam and Joe Pesci (in his first starring role in more than a decade) as her bare-knuckled pimpresario husband.

Joining them is Spanish actor Sergio Peris-Mencheta in a striking English-language debut as the boxer who comes between them, while Gina Gershon, Taryn Manning, Scout Taylor-Compton and Bai LIng chip in as part of the chorus of Love Ranch whores making history in the Nevada desert. Movieline caught up with Hackford in New York, where the Oscar-winner talked about coaxing Pesci out of retirement, the lucky stroke of finding Peris-Mencheta, and the challenges of directing the "best actress in the world" -- particularly when you're married to her.

So this one's been a while in coming, no?

It has been. It should have finished a year ago.

Finished a year ago, or released a year ago?

Released a year ago. It was kind of a circuitous route. The fact that it is finished and I'm pleased with it... It's great to get it out.

How is that as filmmaker? This long...

This long gestation? It was weird! I've never had that experience before. We shot the film on schedule, we shot the film on budget. I cut it together, and the company made it for had money problems. And it literally sat unfinished for a year. On the process, for a lot of it, we expected it to get started again. Finally you come to the realization, "Oh my God." There were other offers to go out and make other films. This is the problem: You've seduced a group of collaborators -- both actors and crew -- to go along with you. You're the driving force to make this film. You just can't abandon it. If you do, it'll never get finished. Luckily we were able to get the finishing money, and I had a lot of people help me. We didn't have all the money we needed. From back when I started, I have a lot of collaborators in post; they all got together, and I didn't have to make any horrible compromises. I'm very pleased with how it turned out. You have to just look at it as a kind of adventure.

But it's different. Ray took me 13 years to get the script done and make the film. And two years to make it, so 15 years in all. This came quickly, we made the movie and then had this wait. So there's no cookie-cutter process for these things.

That's Hollywood. How did this story come to you?

I have a friend named Mark Jacobson who writes for New York Magazine. We're old boxing fans. Mark and a fellow named Lou DiBella -- Lou's a boxing promoter -- called me up and said, "You know this story?" I said, "Of course I know this story." Anyone who grew up at a certain time knows the story of the Mustang Ranch -- the first legal brothel in the United States. They mentioned it to me, and I thought, "This could be interesting."

Because I was looking for something to do with my wife. We hadn't worked together for 25 years, and that's not for lack of trying. But when you make something, you have a passion for making it. You think, "Maybe I can find something for Helen to do." Well, that's not the right approach. It's going to be a subsidiary role. In Ray, what am I going to have for her to do? In Dolores Claiborne, it's Kathy Bates's movie. In Devil's Advocate, there was no real role for her to play that was of any substance. And frankly, she didn't want to do cameo appearances in my movie. That wasn't of interest to her. So when I heard about this, I thought, "Wait a minute, this is interesting. There's a triangular love story. There's a woman in the middle. She's playing a woman of rather substantial character." In a brothel, it's always the madam that runs everything, and she's a character you rarely see or understand.

What did Helen say?

When I presented it to her, she didn't dismiss it it out of hand. And as I got to work with Mark on the script, and as I gave it to her, she got more and more warm. Now, this wasn't just a Helen Mirren vehicle. I went to Joe Pesci first; he's the only one I ever really considered. He hadn't acted for 10 years -- self-imposed. He's a very unique iconoclast. I really had to seduce him into it.

When you're making period films -- this, Ray, Everybody's All American -- what is the impulse to fight and/or embrace nostalgia?

I want to do realistic nostalgia. I mean, the '70s are so aberrant. Big hair, big sideburns, big shoes, big clothes. Materials you look at today and kind of go, "Whoa." It's garish style personified -- the disco era, right? You can't just make the whole movie about that. [Costume designer] Melissa Bruning was fantastic. She found all that. We didn't have the money to [make costumes]. That was all vintage. She bought, she found, and she did build a few. But those cars and all of those things that really add the feeling of the period are not to wallow in. I want you to feel like you're in 1976, and people in 1976 believed they were contemporary! You're not looking back through a veil of age. These people re alive, they believe they're living in the moment. That's what I wanted to portray -- to keep it real. The style's inevitable. It helps the picture look real.

I actually shot the film in a '70s style. It's not like we're trying to do something today that looks like it's cinema verite. I wanted to keep it vibrant, alive and energetic -- but also do something of its time.

Back to Pesci: When I was watching him, I wondered if maybe he wasn't part of keeping the reality of that era. He's vintage; it's as if he still had something to say about it. Is that even close to accurate?

Well, I didn't think of that per se, but the truth of the matter is that Joe is a mature artist. He knows that era; it was an era he was vibrantly alive in. But his choices are really interesting. The antecedent -- Joe Conforte, who started the Mustang Ranch -- was from the Northeast. I think he was from Boston; I think he might have been a taxi driver. He had this impossible dream -- the Great American Dream like every other Great American Dream: "How do I strike it rich?" i mean, come on! This is impossible. This is 200 years of puritan ethic and mores. And he had had the charm, the drive, the ethic, the ingenuity to convince these people to legalize prostitution.

It's a life force that is Joe Pesci. And that's energy. You feel like he's a man. Whatever his size, he's going to make up for it. And I thought that was very important. He was the only actor I wanted, and I went to seduce him into doing it. And I'm pleased -- he's a consummate professional. He might have been hesitant to come out of retirement, but once he was out, he was a force to be reckoned with. And I do believe he knew what he was playing. Here's a guy -- we're playing him from Jersey, where Joe's from -- who absolutely embraces that Western ethos. He's a brothel owner in northern Nevada. There's a style. He doesn't dress like he's from New Jersey, though there is that garish style. But he's a cowboy! He loved that stuff. He kept his New Jersey accent but put on the accoutrements of the West. This is pretty much what Joe Conforte did. He made it his own, but he also understood what the '70s were all about. It wasn't someone mimicking it.

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