The Total Film Interview - Michael Douglas

After a three-year laze, Michael Douglas returns in assassination thriller The Sentinel. Total Film talks Kirk, kids and Kiefer with the dimpled one…

Having now worked with him on a hat-trick of movies, Kathleen Turner has, of course, plenty of stories about Michael Douglas. Most, she admits, are way too obscene to print. But her favourite, she claims, sums him up better than any other. “We were in Mexico in 1984, shooting Romancing The Stone,” Turner remembers. “The rain was so torrential that the roads to the sets kept getting washed away. It was a nightmare, but Michael, who was also producing, arrived on set one day and said, ‘Oh, is the road gone? Then we’ll make one.’ The next day he arrived with a fleet of gravel trucks, which were then lined up at three every morning to build roads wherever they were needed. It was a vast operation, but he wasn’t going to let anything stand in his way. In the end, we called it Douglasland.”

It’s this tenacity that has served Douglas so well over 40 years and 50 movies. In the early ’70s, as the studio system gave way to independent production companies, he was one of the very first of the young bucks looking to develop his own projects. Putting his money where his mouth was, he then had the courage to quit TV’s The Streets Of San Francisco at its peak to focus on co-producing One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, a project even his father, Kirk, couldn’t get off the ground at the height of his influence.

His ambition and razor-sharp nose for business – the deciding factor, incidentally, in Oliver Stone casting him in his Oscar-winning performance as Gordon Gekko in Wall Street (1987) – has meant his consistent involvement in projects that simultaneously reflect the anxieties of their time and, frankly, rake in the cash. Think about it: Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), The China Syndrome (1979), Fatal Attraction (1987)… Social commentary doesn’t get more canny or commercial.

Most recently Douglas made headlines for altogether more low-rent reasons, allegedly saying (he denies it, vociferously) of Brad Pitt leaving Jennifer Aniston, “I don’t know about Brad Pitt, leaving that beautiful woman to go hold orphans for Angelina. I mean, how long is that going to last?” And add to that the rumours of plastic surgery and the endless tabloid twitterings about his marriage to Catherine Zeta-Jones and it’s easy to forget that professionally he’s been on sabbatical, spending the past three years looking after his two young children.

“It’s been beautiful,” Douglas says with a smile. “A wonderful experience. But acting’s sometimes like an itch I need to scratch, so it’s good to be back.” In this case with The Sentinel, a solid Secret Service thriller in which Douglas is accused of an assassination plot against the President and chased about a bit by Kiefer Sutherland and Eva Longoria’s straight-laced agents. If the film rarely rises far above the average, it is at least quintessential Douglas – a professional man up against it, battling troubles of both the criminal and romantic kind. And, best of all, there’s not a dodgy V-neck in sight.

Obviously Kiefer and Eva are two of the biggest TV stars of the moment. Did their working styles clash at all with yours?

It was actually pretty seamless. Kiefer and I go back to Flatliners, which I produced. And obviously we don’t talk about it a lot but we share the fact that we’ve both got famous fathers, we’re both second generation. He’s an animal, his discipline is so good and he knows there’s no time for divas. And Eva, well, what can you say? She was so amazing at all the physical stuff like running, punching and shooting that she kicked the shit out of us daily!

Of course, your background was in television, too...

Yeah, but it was so different back then. In my day, the idea of making the transition from TV to movies was more difficult – the idea was that if you were in television people’s reactions would be, “If I can get you for free, why would I pay to go see you in the theatre?” But TV trained me superbly. I like to work fast. I like to keep moving forward. And that’s all down to working in TV. The Streets Of San Francisco gave me the great opportunity to do 104 hours of television in four years. It taught me a lot about structure. It was mine and [co-star Karl] Malden’s responsibility to carry the plot; a guest star would carry the drama. So it became like lifting weights. You just became so strong. We were shooting six days a week, eight to 10 months a year. We were making a 52-minute movie every six days, for eight-and-a-half months. These days it’s a very different beast.

How in particular?

What we have now are these huge entertainment conglomerates. When I was growing up, a studio was pretty big. Now, a studio is only a tiny piece of these media empires. The most successful of all the studios has maybe seven percent of the gross revenues of these media companies. What this means is that a movie is not “good” only if it’s a success. It has to be a franchise, spawn merchandising, have a video game, have a soundtrack for the music division… and, of course, have international appeal. In other words, it has to be a sequel or come from a TV show. So now there’s this huge disparity between the enormous pictures that a studio has put a lot of money in, and that are therefore forced to be a success via millions in first-weekend advertising, and the independent movies.

But the majority of studios now have independent divisions.

Yes, they do. But these are for the ‘labour of love’ stuff only. There’s no salary. You know, half the revenues these days are in DVD but if you say to them, “Allow me a percentage profit from the DVD,” they don’t want that at all. And the problem with this isn’t my personal one but a cultural one – there are now the budgets starting at $70 or $80 million or those below $20 million. The whole middle area has been eliminated. We’ve always been an industry torn between art and commerce but it’s got so much worse. Now commerce is really winning out and the studios are going for the lowest common denominator.

And how have you changed over the years?

When I started out, I hated acting. I had a bucket off camera because I got so sick with nerves. When I used to look at the camera, it used to look to me like an X-ray machine because somebody told me that the camera can tell when you’re lying. And then one day I realised that was bullshit, that acting was about looking people in the eye and lying your brains out. After that I was fine and I just made sure to pick good roles, roles that suited my tastes and my needs.

What have been your proudest moments?

The China Syndrome has had a lasting effect on me. As you know, it’s about a meltdown at a nuclear power plant. This was at a time when we were regarded as irresponsible Hollywood exhibitionists, so when the movie opened it was well-received but dismissed as ridiculous. Three weeks later, we had Three Mile Island [in which a nuclear reactor suffered a partial core meltdown]. In the movie, when we explain what the China Syndrome actually is, one character says, “It will destroy an area the size of Pennsylvania.” And three weeks later, Three Mile Island happens... in Pennsylvania! At the end of the movie, we show the beginning of the meltdown. In the movie the nuclear engineers have to perform 150 steps, and I took the computer printout and compared it with what happened at Three Mile Island. It would scare you how similar they were.

Sometimes the line between movies and real-life is blurred...

Absolutely, and that works both ways. You know, I was in Berlin when the Wall came down and the event really marked me. As a result, thousands of defence contractors lost their jobs. So when I read the script for Falling Down, about someone who had done such a good job of making rockets for defending his country that he was no longer needed, it really struck a chord. Likewise, I was in New York on 9/11. My father and I had been planning for ages to make a movie together but that day affected me profoundly, speeded things up for me, so that’s why we made It Runs In The Family.

What’s been your biggest disappointment?

Wonder Boys was a huge disappointment personally. I loved the movie, it had a fantastic screenplay and a great cast and we didn’t even get critically acknowledged as far as awards go. I thought it was a fucking disgrace. I’ll be honest – it really hurt my confidence. It was a punch in the gut. In fact, it was my father who helped me through it. His favourite movie is Lonely Are The Brave. Nobody saw that when it came out, nobody’s seen it since. My father’s disappointment in that movie helped me get over mine with Wonder Boys.

Which of your Oscars means more to you – the Best Picture for Cuckoo’s Nest or the Best Actor for Wall Street?

They’re both hugely important to me, of course, but I guess the fact that the one for Cuckoo’s Nest came so early on in my career meant I didn’t feel I’d earned it as much as the one for Wall Street. Actually though, I probably had a better night the time I won the Golden Globe for Wall Street. I remember, I was staying in the Hotel Bel-Air and as I was leaving with my mother to go to the ceremony we passed George Harrison. I acknowledged him and went on my way to the show. I won and went through the whole press thing afterwards and came out the end of it and there was nobody there. Everybody had gone home and I was sitting there and had no one to celebrate with. I went to Trader Vic’s for a drink. Then I went back to the hotel, kind of excited but feeling a little sorry for myself. Anyway, I’m in my room around 12.30am and the phone rings and it’s George Harrison saying, “Hello, Michael. I just got back to the hotel and my mate and I thought we’d come by and say hi.” I was like, “Wow, George Harrison’s coming round!” And a couple of minutes later, there’s a knock on my door and in he walks. Following him is the biggest dog I’ve ever seen in my life. And following the dog was Bob Dylan. Man, that was one of the most amazing nights of my life.

Did winning the awards change your approach to your work?

No, and I’ll tell you why. When I was producing Cuckoo’s Nest, way back in 1975, I met with three or four directors who held their cards very close to their chest. Milos Forman came and sat down, opened the script on the first page and told us page by page what his vision was for the movie. You could just close your eyes and picture that movie in your head. And that has basically become the philosophy of my entire career when working with directors. I politely confront the director and force him to explain scene by scene the movie we’re about to make. It’s an exercise that is very helpful for the director. Many times, especially in the European formula, the director is at the top – nobody questions him. But as we know from government, especially my government, you always have to question people.

What have you learned most from your father?

Stamina and tenacity. My father has always been very supportive of me, but when I was younger he was doing three or four movies a year so wasn’t always there. That gave me a strength and courage, too. But he’s changed so much. He had a helicopter crash at 70 and I think it was almost a catharsis for him that two people died in that crash. You know, “Why am I alive?” So he really rediscovered his spiritual life after that. As for the stroke, it was almost like electro-shock – he’s always been funny but his humour and openness have so dramatically increased. He’s hilarious to be around.

One of Total Film’s favourite directors is David Fincher. How was shooting The Game for you?

It was good, an intense 103-day shoot. But the day I remember most was when I was just sitting there looking at Sean Penn, who was playing my brother. I was looking at him, at that cleft in his chin, just like mine, and I’m thinking, “Boy, Dad really did get around, didn’t he?”

Also high on our list is Steven Soderbergh. Why did it take you so long to sign on to Traffic?

The script was obviously three separate stories and I thought that the weakest part of the movie was my character. It was just so passive, so as much as I wanted to work with Steven I said no. He went to Harrison Ford and they actually worked on the part, which is what I probably would have done if I’d known Steven was open to it. I don’t know why but Harrison then dropped out, so I came back. After that, Catherine and I had to tell Steven our Big Secret and hope he’d let her play the role six months pregnant. He did and we went for it.

With regard to Catherine, your father reportedly gets on famously with her...

He thinks she’s great. But he ribs her a lot, too. When Catherine was winning all these awards for Chicago we got sent loads of wonderful flowers at the hotel. We were leaving for a holiday so we sent them over to Dad and Anne’s house. A week or so later, we were down in Bermuda and we got a short fax from Dad. It said, “Dear Catherine, please win another award. The flowers are dying.” Also I think it amuses him that we did everything in reverse – we did the honeymoon first, then had the baby and then got married. It appeals to his sense of humour.

Speaking of fathers, you play Kate Hudson’s dad in You, Me And Dupree. Was she a handful?

Not at all. I’ve known Katie her whole life – she’s such a great kid. I’ve been friends with Goldie Hawn for years so I even held her when she was a tiny kid. I always tease her. I remember a few years ago when I was divorced from my first wife, I was at a club in New York. I was sitting there and this stunning girl in a red dress came walking towards me and I went, “Whoa, look at this girl!” [Laughs] I thought I was one lucky guy and went, “Hi, how are you doing?” And she went, “Michael, it’s Katie!” I was like, “Katie! Sorry, sorry, I didn’t recognise you...” But seriously, she’s got a lovely attitude about acting and is a great kid. Working with her was a pleasure – I’d do it again in a flash.

You’ve had a few run-ins with the tabloids over the years, haven’t you? Mainly when they claimed you liked chasing the ladies a little too much...

Let’s not beat around the bush... They called me a sex addict.

And you weren’t?

Of course not. You know, in my father’s time the reporters and the columnists in Hollywood dealt with Hollywood news and generally left everyone’s private lives alone unless it was some amazing scandal that happened. But times have changed and sex sells. Sex sells magazines, sells television. Around 1990, I voluntarily went to rehab because I was drinking too much and some smartass editor of one of the British tabloids said, “Oh, another boring story about an actor going to rehab. Let’s give him sex addiction.” And then it became “Self-confessed sex addict!” And I don’t remember ever mentioning it!

Presumably Basic Instinct and Fatal Attraction didn’t help...

Well, no. The reaction to Basic Instinct especially was extreme – people accusing us of misogyny and all sorts. It was difficult. When we were casting I wanted Catherine to be played by someone of equal stature as me, to share the risks. I didn’t want to go up there on my own on that one. A director can fail on that kind of picture and walk away relatively unscathed, but as an actor you can look like a total asshole. But none of the ladies we talked to would go for it. I guess they got scared off. You know Paul Verhoeven: “Yah, yah, there is nudity, nudity, show your breasts…” So in the end, Sharon came on. Paul thought Sharon was great. If he could have done he’d have given himself a part in the movie. My part.

Given your experience, any tips on shooting sex scenes?

Communicate. Talking is the key. Just stay clear of politics.

What did you make of Basic Instinct 2?

I haven’t seen it, though I hear it got bad reviews. It’s interesting because Kim [Basinger, who also stars in The Sentinel] was the first person we approached for the role of Catherine Tramell, but she’d just done Nine 1/2 Weeks so wasn’t ready for it. I was never going to do the sequel – I’ve dropped my pants for the last time. I’ve only done one sequel, The Jewel Of The Nile, but I didn’t really enjoy it.

So all this talk of Indiana Jones 4 hasn’t got you thinking about returning to the role of Jack Colton – one last Romancing The Stone, for old time’s sake?

Well, it could happen. But it would depend what the action sequences were going to be! There’s nothing more embarrassing than somebody trying to do something that’s not really possible. In fact, I’ve actually been developing a script that has the spirit of Romancing The Stone in it but, you know, I’ve got a bad knee from a ski accident 20 years ago, and I sure don’t like running, so maybe it’s best we find a good professorial role for me instead.

Most Popular