Willem Dafoe Talks Fireflies in the Garden and Platoon at 25
"Usually when I hear the words 'family drama,' I run," said Willem Dafoe, who nevertheless found something to savor in writer-director Dennis Lee's Fireflies in the Garden. Little did Dafoe or his castmates Julia Roberts, Ryan Reynolds, Emily Watson, Hayden Panettiere and least of all Lee himself know that their particular family drama wouldn't make it to American theaters only today -- nearly four years after its Berlin Film Festival premiere in 2008.
Fireflies features Dafoe as Charles, a domineering father facing reconciliation with his estranged son (Reynolds) after a sudden tragedy claims the life of his very, very patient and sensitive wife (Roberts). It's not a villain role per se, but the tests through which Charles puts his family -- and the long-term consequences -- make an interesting addition to Dafoe's history of complex antagonists.
He recently spoke to Movieline about the role, as well as about another, more beneficent character he made famous a quarter-century ago in Oliver Stone's milestone Vietnam War film Platoon.
Congratulations on this one finally making it to screens. It's been a... while.
Have you seen the latest cut?
I haven't. I don't know what the cut is, actually.
What's your recollection of it from when you did see it -- and I guess what's happened since?
I saw it in Berlin, and I... I don't remember too much. [Laughs] Because, you see, I can direct myself more to the filming than I can to watching the movie.
Has this happened to you before, where you've had a film held up this long between completion and making it to theaters?
Probably not. Maybe the very first film I did, which was Kathryn Bigelow's first film [The Loveless]. I think we shot that in maybe '80, and it didn't come out until maybe like '82 or '83.
You're a veteran, though -- you've seen a lot, and you've rolled with a lot of punches. Is it frustrating at this stage to know that you have work out there that nobody could see?
Yes, but I knew this would eventually find its way. I can think of one film in particular that's been held up, and that's really unfortunate, because it's a film I like.
Go Go Tales.
Oh, of course.
I remember seeing that at the New York Film Festival like four years ago. I thought that got like a week-long New York run at Anthology not long ago.
No, it didn't get released. They maybe did a special screening, but that wasn't a release.
I want to ask you about Abel's new one in a bit, but going back: What do you remember from shooting Fireflies in the Garden?
When I read the script, I thought, "Wow, nobody makes movies like this anymore." It seems like a weird throwback. But I don't mean that in a negative way; I was interested in the value of what that kind of story is now, and the fact that there was a contemporary story, and the themes were quite familiar, but it also had this nostalgic, in-the-past vibe to it. Plus the house that we shot it in was in this town -- Bastrop, Texas -- that really defies... You can't place it. And also, I remember Julia Roberts was involved, and she was attracting a really good cast. I hadn't played a character like this before, and usually when I hear the words "family drama," I run. But this seemed like a good exception.
You've played some pretty bad guys over the course of your career. Charlie isn't necessarily a "villain," but he does some truly awful things.
Where would he rank on that spectrum of bastards?
Well, I'm going to tell you a kind of company line: I don't judge these characters. I'm always surprised when people think they're horrible.
Bobby Peru [from Wild at Heart] isn't a bad guy?
Well, Charles is a tragic character, and he does get his comeuppance. Of course he's very tough, and he does some seemingly very sadistic things. But it's clear that he comes from a culture of tough love and a "This is gonna hurt me more than it's gonna hurt you" kind of parenting. And also, while he himself is pretty damaged, I think the story is very much about the sins of the father, you know? And they get passed on to the son, and they just have a different manifestation. But then later, clearly they have a chance to correct these things. I mean, how many people do you know who are damaged by their parents?
A couple! Changing gears, though, this fall marks the 25th anniversary of Platoon...
Which was a pretty major milestone for you...
What's your relationship with that film 25 years later?
It was very important for me. Not only was it the first time I was nominated for an Academy Award, it was a film that was a small film that found popular and critical [acclaim]. It was received very positively. And there was the fact that it almost crossed over into hard news in the respect that, while publicizing it, we dealt with a lot of veterans groups, and it really had a big effect in how they were dealing with their communities and just being a veteran. So it really changed how people looked at things -- it helped people re-see the Vietnam War.
Your character's death scene is an iconic shot of contemporary cinema, coming up in a lot of clip packages we see of war films, Vietnam films, films from the '80s, Oliver Stone's career, your career... What do you think of that shot whenever it comes up?
[Pauses] It's me, but it's not me. Usually when I see a film or I see a still or something, I have a very strong association to the making of the film, and I do remember the making of that shot. It was something that was very pure in the respect that it was performing at the most elemental. It was just a very clear action played the proper way. The right physical language was found. The right music was found. All this stuff came together to make this thing that I was a part of but also became something way beyond me. [Pause] And that's what you like to have happen. [Laughs]
I think we'd all agree it succeeded. Back to Abel, and also speaking of things that are beyond us, he told a story at the premiere of his new film [4:44 Last Day on Earth] -- which features footage of the famous Ice Bowl between the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys -- that you were at that game. Is that true?
That's amazing. I hear he might lose the footage because of licensing issues, but how did that ever come about for the movie?
We were working mostly from a scenario, and we would usually make these themes -- invent the themes. We knew these place we had to go, but they were roughed out. And occasionally we would invent a scene that wasn't even in the scenario. And we would talk about the things we would do given that it's their last day. And I don't know how it came up -- I really don't recall -- but I offered up that information, and... Yeah. You know, I don't have a good story for you. When you work well when you're collaborating, you forget who brings what to the table when. You're just kind of problem-solving and making things. Let's put it this way: Like a lot of stuff in Abel's films, it's not scripted in a conventional way. And obviously that was something I brought to him -- that basic story -- and we found an action for it, and it was useful, probably to accomplish a tone more than anything else in one part of the story where we thought we needed it.
Did you realize when you were attending that game the history you were witnessing?
What do you realize when you're 11 years old as far as history? Nothing! [Laughs]
Especially at 20 below zero, or whatever the hell it was out there.
Yeah! No, it felt pretty historic, but I was so overwhelmed just by being there that you're thinking just about tomorrow morning. You have no perspective because you haven't lived long enough, I suppose.
[Top photo: Getty Images]