Actor Martin Landau

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Academy Award-winning thespian, star and producer of the indie film Lovely Still, explains why he took on an older love story in an industry driven by youth.


Tavis: Pleased to have Martin Landau back on this program. The Oscar-winning actor serves as star and producer opposite Ellen Burstyn in the new film, “Lovely, Still.” The movie opens in New York on September 10th with more cities on the way after that. Here now a scene from “Lovely, Still.”
Tavis: (Laughs) Martin Landau, good to see you again.
Martin Landau: It’s great to see you, Tavis.
Tavis: It’s been four years since I last saw you.
Landau: I know.
Tavis: You’ve been holding out on me. Where you been?
Landau: Well, you look wonderful, and I’ve gotten older. (Laughs)
Tavis: Please, you ain’t doing bad yourself. Speaking of getting older, you are starring in this, as I see it, and producing this. What’s wrong with you?
Landau: Well, I also helped with some of the writing, too, because the interesting thing about this movie is it was directed by a 22-year-old kid who wrote it for me, and my agent sent it to me and I liked it a lot, but it was bumpy because it’s got this surprise ending, which I don’t want to talk about. In fact, if you see it a second time you see a different film, interestingly.
So I said, “I like it, but I’d like to get together with the writer-director. How old is he,” figuring who’s going to write an older couple love story? Someone 50, 60 years old. “He’s 22.” So about half an hour later my eyes uncrossed and I basically said, “I want to get together with him.” “Well, he lives in Omaha.” I said, “Well, that’s fine for him.”
Anyway, he flew in and we had a five-hour lunch and we talked about how to refine the script, because it had bumps in it – what the first act needed, the second act. So I worked with him for two months on the telephone, five and six pages at a clip, and then when it was about 90 percent there I said, “Send it to Ellen Burstyn, who’s perfect for this other role.”
Several days later she called me and she said, “Marty?” I said, “Yeah, Ellen?” She said, “What are we going to do in Omaha, Nebraska for seven weeks?”
Tavis: (Laughs) So you’re starring in this, you’re helping to write the thing, you’re producing the thing, and most interestingly for me, to your point now, written by a 22-year-old. I read somewhere where you said that if you put a younger couple in the leads here as opposed to an older couple, the dialogue would still work. That’s fascinating to me.
Landau: Well, if you put 16-year-olds into these two roles, you wouldn’t have to change a whole lot for most of the movie, literally. The dialogue – it’s a funny movie, it’s a tragic movie, it’s a sweet movie. It’s like an old fashioned great old movie and I love it, which is why – I don’t go around drum-beating a lot of films most of the time, but this is one I really think is important for a lot of people to see, because it has a bunch of interesting messages and yet it’s very enjoyable to watch.
Tavis: Without giving away that surprise ending – I saw this, so I know the surprise ending – and let me just say this without giving it away, it’s an emotional surprise ending, like tears, maybe, even.
Landau: Hugely emotional.
Tavis: (Laughs) So I’m not going to give that away, but tell the audience what you can tell them about what the storyline is beyond the face that obviously it’s about – it’s a love story.
Tavis: Well, it’s an older guy who has had very little experience and he finds this woman and falls in love with her, and he’s like a child. Their date, which kicks off their relationship, is one that he is totally ill-equipped to deal with, which I guess a 16-year-old might have the same problem. Which is why I say – and I really mean it.
If you see it a second time, you see a completely different film, so Ellen and I are basically working on two levels without giving away something. You’ll see clues and things that you did not see the first time, literally. It’s a whole other movie, and that’s what’s interesting and sophisticated about it.
So I don’t want to tell people too much about it. I really want them to see it, because some people are saying it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. I don’t know about that, but it’s nice to hear that.
Tavis: It’s getting some good buzz, which is why we wanted to have you on the program to talk about it, because I think the buzz is going to pick up as people get a chance to see it, because it is, to use your word, it is interesting, it is sophisticated, it’s fascinating, and in the end, again, it’s very surprising.
Having said all that, you’re a bold man – you’re a bold man to take on a project that is unapologetically an older love story in a business that seems to be driven by youth.
Landau: Oh, absolutely. It took us a little while to get a distributor who understood the movie and was behind the movie. Yes, if we were 15 and 16 or 20-year-olds, we would have had an easier time getting this picture distributed. We went to the Toronto Film Festival; we went to the Milan Film Festival, where it was received wonderfully.
The Chicago Film Festival, the Milwaukee Film festival – standing ovations. Yet no one understood the movie, and this distribution company we have now loves the movie.
Tavis: Let me probe for just a second, because the audience may be confused, because I am. When you say it’s a love story, we established that. When you say that the love story is so universal that 16-year-olds can understand it, 80-year-olds can understand it –
Landau: And 16-year-olds, when they see it, love it.
Tavis: Exactly. So help me understand how it can be that understandable, that relatable, and you can’t get a distributor, to use your phrase, who understands the movie, or could not initially, at least.
Landau: Well, because they’re more interested in fireballs and car chases and characters climbing up and own the sides of buildings.
Tavis: Kind of “Mission: Impossible” stuff.
Landau: Well, not even “Mission: Impossible.” (Laughter) Action-adventure stuff that opens to $150 million grosses at the box office. This kind of a picture doesn’t do that, and again, let’s say a picture that costs $5 million or $6 million, they still have to put in $10 million to $15 million in prints and advertising, so it winds up costing $20 million.
They have to work hard on that film, as they would any film, and even if it made $30 million or $40 million on its opening weekend, that wouldn’t impress the stockholders. So it’s harder and harder to get a character-driven film of any kind made by the major studios.
Tavis: So what’s the justification, then, for you at this age working this hard to get a passion project produced?
Landau: I still care about human behavior and the art that it takes to write a good piece and to get a cast together who cares enough to put 150 percent of their talent into a project. With “Avatar,” you’re beginning to see the need for less and less actors, and less of an appreciation for live acting.
We’re getting to a point where animated films of various kinds are satisfying people, but what you’re missing are the little nuances and colors that come with a well-written script and a talented cast. So the audience is being dumbed down by seeing stuff that doesn’t move them in the same way that I was moved when I started to work in the theater in New York as a young actor, which is what I wanted to do.
The fact that I wound up doing television and film was just a thing that happened, but I was trained for the theater and what goes on in the theater has nothing to do with special effects. The theater still survives on the basis of the fact that it makes people laugh and it makes people cry in ways that some of these pictures don’t do.
Tavis: Did you ever think when you started in that first film with Hitchcock, did you ever think it would come to this 50-plus years later?
Landau: Well, no one can anticipate, but the electronic world that has grown around us has – I was there at the beginnings of television, when we didn’t even have tape. We had kinescopes, distorted – I grew up with radio, which was a miracle when I was a kid. So the leaps and bounds that we’ve made over the years are enormous. “Buck Rogers” was some kind of fantasy. “Buck Rogers” is no longer a fantasy; we’re practically ahead of him, or “Flash Gordon.”
Those serials on Saturdays that I saw as a kid have been surpassed in terms of our actual lives. We can go to the moon, rockets can do all kind of – they can blow whole cities up. Mankind, his brain has embraced so many amazing things, and yet we’re still beating each other over the heads with clubs, excepting the bullets now, one bullet can wipe out an entire city.
Tavis: Despite all that, you are still in love with this business called show business.
Landau: Well, it’s also a way of communicating feelings and stuff that makes the human being an original creature, and I still care about people. You go to church to hear a sermon, but you go to a theater or a cinema to laugh and to cry and to think, hopefully – walk out with a little idea that you might not have had when you entered.
Tavis: And therein lies the best reason to go see “Lovely, Still,” starring one Martin Landau.
Landau: Well, thank you, Tavis.
Tavis: Good to have you back on this program. Thank you for your time.
Landau: My pleasure.
Tavis: The pleasure is all mine, trust me.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm