James Toback Gets Me, He Truly Gets Me? In 'The Private Life of a Modern Woman'

UPDATE: In light of the recent article published in the LA Times, I’d like to remind readers that this blog is based on my personal encounter with James Toback and his film — which explained so much about my own experience growing up as a woman in NYC and I still urge other women to watch — during a period of nearly a week at the Venice Film Festival. I feel sadness and true sorrow for the women who had a different experience with the filmmaker, and I point out that these are my views, not the views of HuffPost.

I’ve also changed the title to suit female readers and Twitterers who objected to being included in my musings by my use of the word “us”. This is a personal viewpoint. I repeat, personal and different. I believe we’re still allowed that, to be different in our thoughts, even in 21st Century Trump America?

The original piece, titled “James Toback Gets Us, He Truly Gets Us in ‘The Private Life of a Modern Woman’” continues here:


In the surreal world I inhabit, where people like Jake Gyllenhaal, Salma Hayek, Dustin Hoffman and soon even Jim Carrey are seated just inches away from me and I get to ask them all kinds of questions, interviewing filmmaker James Toback takes the top prize.

First of all, Toback is this larger than life mythic figure of considerable height, sporting a dark fedora, sunglasses and wearing head to ankle black. I didn’t say head to toe because on the day of our interview he was wearing brand new, crimson red Ralph Lauren sneakers. “There was a song in the ’50s a big hit that Bobby Freeman sang called ‘Betty Lou got a new pair of shoes’ and whenever I get new shoes I can’t get that song out of my head,” admits Toback, continuing, “the whole day I’m hearing that song and I can’t stop it. I put them on this morning and did three hours of that song in my head.” I hope it’s gone by tonight, I chime in. No, he shakes his head, “it’s going to take at least a day or two.”

But apart from his fashion sense and the unshakable feeling I have that I’m meeting with our modern day Orson Welles, we sit down for our interview about his latest film ‘The Private Life of a Modern Woman’ in that most un-private of places at the Venice Film Festival — the press working area inside the Casinò. Not in a corner, mind you, not even at a table, but smack in the middle of the room, miked up and with a full functioning movie crew shooting us. Why? Well, you’ll have to read through the interview to find out.

For me Toback’s ‘The Private Life of a Modern Woman’ — which he shot in just nine days and is only 70 minutes long — is the perfect film. Because it not only combines the talent of actress Sienna Miller with the filmmaker’s wonderful visual sense, but it also offers a view into what it’s like to be a woman in today’s America, and even more specifically in NYC. Those smug stares and taunting looks men bestow upon us on a daily basis to undo us from within, and the subtle violence we face in everyday life, coming at us from all directions, no male reviewer has caught it in their writing. But we women, we know. We feel it and now James Toback filmed it, for all to see. If cinema is a way to decode the world around us, perhaps this is a step towards the genuine emancipation of the modern woman — because trust me, we still got a long long way to go to be truly free, to be exactly who we want to be. Even in our good ol’ U.S. of A.

Your film is mind-blowing. For different reasons, it’s a great film visually, Sienna Miller is amazing in it, but the thing that I love is the portrait you paint of being a woman in America. So how did you relate to being a woman so well?

James Toback: I have been getting increasingly bored with not just my own maleness but maleness in general. I was always obsessed with myself and writing versions of me in these different characters, everywhere from Harvey Keitel in ‘Fingers’ to Warren Beatty in ‘Bugsy’ — where I was imagining myself as Bugsy Siegel. I was always interested in women because I like girls but not in as interested a way. It took me until I wrote ‘Exposed’ to realize that there was a whole different way of thinking about women in film. And Nastassja Kinski for whom I wrote that helped me to take it to a certain point. And then there were interesting female characters in different movies of mine but it wasn’t until I wrote ‘When Will I Be Loved’ for Neve Campbell that I thought “this is so much more interesting to me now than writing a guy at the center of a movie.” I can’t even begin to get back to thinking as excitedly about a movie where there’s a man at the center instead of a woman.

Sienna, I had been totally obsessed with since I saw ’Interview’ and ‘Factory Girl’. I knew Edie Sedgwick very well and I thought “how did this woman get into Edie Sedgwick this way?” I mean without knowing her. How did she imagine her because there were nuances of precision in the psyche that were just amazing. And then the movie with Steve Buscemi ‘Interview’ where she was phenomenal. Over the years I kept an eye on her and she was always great, but always in small parts where she had very little to do and they all relied on her appearance and I thought, “she’s so much more interesting than the roles she’s playing!” At some point I’ll write something for her.

Three years ago I wrote an article for the Hollywood issue of Vanity Fair, about different relations with different actors that I’ve had, and I thought “I hope Sienna Miller reads this article because I want her to know what’s going on in my mind about film and I hope she’s seen my movies or this introduces them to her.” Then I went to the Vanity Fair dinner before the Oscars party and there were assigned seats, place cards. I sit down and the card next to mine is Sienna Miller’s.

You switched those around didn’t you?!

Toback: I did not, it was spooky. I told her all this and we had lunch the next day. She was going off the following day to meet Eastwood for ‘American Sniper’.

So I wrote this film, I showed it to her and she had a lot of suggestions, criticisms and ideas, all of them were interesting and potentially useful. I didn’t use all of them but unlike many other actors, including some really smart ones, there wasn’t a single idea she had that was, in my mind, dismissible. Often you’re polite and say “I’ll think about that,” but are really saying “how the fuck did you even think of that moronic fucking idea!” Nothing she ever said was off, it was either potentially smart and useable or was going to be what I used. And she led me into some very interesting changes, over a period of time I would say it was happening through shooting.

I never had an actor bring more to a role than she did. She was my co-creator. I mean, lets be clear, there were no alternatives. If she hadn’t done the movie it’s not like I would have cast Emma Stone or someone else… There would have been no movie.

Was the film completely scripted or were there improvised moments in there?

Toback: There was a tightly scripted version of the movie which was shot beat for beat, word for word, syllable for syllable, except for two scenes which had nothing written. One was the scene between her and me and the other was the scene between billionaire Carl Icahn and Sienna. In the first of those two cases it was my taking the approach I took with Mike Tyson whom I knew inside out and I sat with him for a week and grilled him mercilessly. We had seventy hours of footage and cut a ninety minute movie from it. In this case it was a three or four hours of grilling and I cut a fifteen minute scene from it. The difference is I was on camera for this one, Tyson I was never on camera.

All the language was improvised but I knew I had to ask questions that would give enough of a sense of who this woman was so that the rest of the movie would make sense on some deep-rooted level. So you would say I see now why she’s doing this throughout the rest of the movie because all of what I need to know about her I get in that scene.

So wait, while I interview you there is this whole film production thing going on around us — two cameras, we’re miked and a seven-person crew. What is going on?

Toback: Did you see ‘Seduced and Abandoned’?

Yeah! But that was about Cannes, the movie business and such and this is Venice and there is not so much of that going on here. This festival is more about screening beautiful films, not the wheeling and dealings of the industry…

Toback: No, and in fact this movie titled ‘Venice Lives!’ is going to be to ‘Seduced and Abandoned’ what Venice is to Cannes. Cannes is essentially a strip of hotels on the Croisette on the Mediterranean with a film festival. Venice is one of the great city states in history, one of the great art capitals in history, so this movie is going to have as a kick off point coming to Venice for the Venice Film Festival, but it’s dealing with La Biennale. Yesterday I talked to the head of the Biennale, [Paolo Baratta] who runs both sections, Yee Sookyung, a South Korean artist who has the biggest installation here, I talked to her, I also talked to Abel Ferrara, we shot a concert at the Vivaldi museum… It’s going to be a film about Venice and the issues it raises and essentially the theme being “beauty and its evanescence”. That we create things to hold that off or we think we are holding it off, to leave something behind. But it ultimately gets us, the way Venice is ultimately going to drown and the planet is also going to destroy itself. ‘Venice Lives!’ with an exclamation mark is the other side of ‘Death in Venice’ and what I’m going to do with my son, who looks exactly like Tadzio, is I’m going to shoot him on the beach, split screen, in front of what used to be the Grand Hotel de Bain, which is now a condo that didn’t become a condo because they couldn’t sell it. So split screen of my son and Tadzio and split screen close-ups on the beach, and then a father/son scene, so I’ll be in the Aschenbach role, to my son’s Tadzio.

I know how I’m going to end it, actually with the last lines of ‘Sweet Bird of Youth’. I’m going to quote from Tennessee Williams’ memoirs in which he talks about the Excelsior Hotel as the beautiful hotel on the Lido where he was staying for the festival and then go into Chance Wayne’s last lines where they are taking him off to be castrated and he says, “I don’t want your pity, just your understanding. No not even that, just the recognition that part of you is in me and me in you and time, the enemy of us all.” Boom, and it goes black.

So you reinvent cinema every time, you throw out all the rules and re-conceive it. This ‘Modern Woman’ concept, a seventy minute film the length of a documentary yet a narrative plot, and now ‘Venice Lives!’…

Toback: I cannot get excited anymore about just making another regular narrative movie. I don’t have any faith in it. I mean, I don’t want to compare myself to him, or actually I do wanna compare myself to him because I love him so much, but Orson Welles says a great line in this book, ‘My Lunches with Orson’ by Henry Jaglom. One of the most fascinating comments Welles makes in the book is that the greatest disappointment of his life was the reception of ‘F for Fake’. That is one of my favorite movies of all times. Because he said that after ‘Citizen Kane’ there was really nowhere else for him to go. Once you’ve made a narrative film, there is nowhere else to go except another version of that, another story that you are telling… The idea of making a completely different kind of movie is exciting.

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