Director; actress Taylor Hackford, Helen Mirren

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Oscar-winning Hollywood power couple shares what is was like filming their new project and weigh in on the debate over legalizing prostitution.

Academy Award-winning director Taylor Hackford has an impressive list of credits and began his show biz career at the L.A. PBS affiliate, KCET, where he created several documentaries and was an investigative reporter. Dame Helen Mirren has proven her talent and versatility on the stage, screen and television. Since becoming an international TV star in the British series Prime Suspect, she's won almost every acting award, including the coveted Oscar and multiple Emmys. The long-together couple met when he directed her in the '85 feature White Nights and team up again for the new film, Love Ranch.


Tavis: Pleased to welcome Taylor Hackford and Helen Mirren to this program. The Oscar-winning husband and wife team have teamed up on a new project called Love Ranch. The film opens in select theaters on June 30. Here now a scene from Love Ranch.
Tavis: (Laughter) Grace, nice to have you here.
Helen Mirren: Oh, great to be here (laughter). Looking slightly more glamorous, I hope. See what my husband does to me?
Tavis: Yeah. Since she’s with you, I’m gonna follow you right in. How did your husband, after all the attempts – I’m told and have read – all the attempts he made to get you in one of his films, how did he get you this time?
Mirren: Well, he got it by finding a great subject.
Tavis: Yeah.
Mirren: And the great thing about this film was it had something that interested him and it had something that interested me. He liked the boxing; I liked the sex (laughter).
No, that was a joke. I keep getting into trouble these days. I have shut my mouth.
But no, it did have – you know, my husband – I’m sure he will speak for himself in a minute, obviously – but I knew that he’d always in his heart wanted to do a boxing film. He’s a big boxing fan and knows a great deal about boxing. But, you know, he found a subject that had a lot to interest him in and a wonderful role for me.
Tavis: Since you mentioned the sex and you’re making a joke, but what is no joke is that these photos of you in this bathtub are all over the internet.
Mirren: Oh, my God. What’s the matter with people?
Tavis: And people apparently are searching for them. People want to see you naked. They want to see Helen Mirren in this bathtub.
Mirren: Yeah. They don’t get to see much, I’m afraid. They’ll be desperately disappointed when they find it.
Tavis: What do you make of the interest in these photos?
Mirren: Weird. I think it’s weird. I mean, honestly, what is the matter with people? It’s ridiculous. It’s because I’m old, you know. It’s only because I’m old. There’s a weird prurient fascination.
Tavis: So, Taylor, you’re the husband here. What do you make of the interest in these photos of your wife all over the internet?
Taylor Hackford: Well, my wife is a sexy girl, you know. She was when I met her and she still remains that. You know, I didn’t even know – she said, “I did this photo session.” Well, I had no idea. So I was as surprised as anyone else when I saw it.
But the fact is that, you know, she is a person with a very strong personality and has always been somebody that has never been ashamed of her sexuality and that’s great.
Mirren: And I have to say also, talking about photography, which we have to do a lot, you know, as actors, I love photography and I love the art of photography. The photographer for those photographers was actually a very high-level art photographer.
So when I’m working with someone like that, I give them artistic freedom because I want that for myself when it’s my turn to do my work and I never try and control it or say I’ll only do this or I want it like that. I say what do you want to do? Just tell me what you want to do and I’ll do it, as long as they’re a bona fide art photographer.
Juergen Teller, who was the photographer in this case, absolutely is that. He’s one of the top photographers of the world actually.
Tavis: Maybe we’ll get back to the sex later in the conversation. Who knows? For now, though, Taylor, you want to give me the story line here?
Hackford: Well, this is a story – you know, I used to be a journalist right here at KCET. In the 1970s, there was -you know, when you have a big story that affects a culture, you have to be aware of it.
Well, the Mustang Ranch was the first legalized brothel in America. We come from a puritan tradition. You know, we’re always interested in sex, but we’re very up tight about sex. So the Mustang Ranch was in northern Nevada and it broke 200 years of puritan mores in this country by having sex legalized for sale.
Joe and Sally Conforte, who started this whole thing, were fairly notorious or famous in any way you look at it. Then around the mid-1970s, there was a great fighter, a boxer, named Oscar Bonavena and these three forces came together in the mid-1970s because Joe Conforte was a boxing fan.
Bonavena had fought Ali, who was the greatest fighter in the world, as we well know. Ali liked him and he took Ali to the limit. You know, Ali stopped him in the 14th round. You know, Bonavena knocked Joe Frazier down twice in the second round. He almost knocked him out.
He had no style – Ali was full of style – but he had a punch. He had a left hook that could knock your head off. When these people came together, sparks flew, an explosion, and it’s kind of an operatic story.
A journalist friend of mine, Mark Jacobson, who writes for New York Magazine, called me. Thirty years later, he’d found this story. He said, “You know it?” I said, “Yeah, I remember researching it at the time.” Mostly, I was looking for a role for my wife.
It’s a fascinating triangle. You know, you’ve got this madam in the middle, the guy who is the promoter who’s played by Joe Pesci. He had to be talented; he had to be charming to be able to convince voters to vote in prostitution. He was talented. Then you have this fighter who was younger, virile and almost kind of on the way down.
What happened was that Joe Conforte couldn’t be the manager because he had a criminal record, so he made his wife the manager. He threw these two people together and they became romantically involved. Now we didn’t do a docudrama. We took dramatic license. So although it’s inspired by real events, we took our own license with it.
Tavis: To your point now – there’s actually a couple of things I want to follow up on, but first, to your point now about dramatic license, it’s been fascinating for me – and you two are the members of the guild, not me – it’s been fascinating for me over the last few years watching the Academy Awards which you’re obviously both very familiar with, having won in the past.
It’s amazing how a movie can get buzz and, as the buzz continues to grow and build, there’s always the risk that somebody is gonna throw a chink in the armor and raise the notion that it’s really not a true story. They took too much dramatic – you know where I’m going with this. When you’re in the process of working out the script, does that ever – you ever think about that?
Hackford: I do and, in fact, we do follow pretty closely to the facts. But there were nuances of the characters that I thought could be more dramatically exposed in this. You know, in reality, I don’t think anybody’s gonna come out of woodwork on this.
I mean, unfortunately, Sally is gone and Bonavena, as we know, is gone. Joe Conforte lives, as we say at the end of the thing, he lives in Brazil. He’s a tax exile.
You know, it’s fascinating that here is somebody who truly had the talent to convince the voters in Nevada to make his business and he had a legal monopoly. All he had to do was pay his taxes and he could have had a license to print money. You think he did? No. He’d operated under the radar for so long that he just resented paying taxes and finally the IRS got him and he had to jump the country.
Anyway, these three aberrant people – the premise of this piece is this. I make films about working class people. All my films have always been about that. The brothel is a workplace. It’s aberrant, but a workplace nonetheless.
I was more interested as opposed to glamorizing and saying, oh, this is a great erotic place, it’s a place of business. The commodity is sex. The girls choose to be there and they make a lot of money. But to look at that world and to see behind the facade I thought was really interesting.
Then the premise is, can you actually fall in love? Can you actually find true love in a place that cynically sells sex? This triangle, all three of these characters, seem cynical. They’re professionals; they’ve been through it all. To see the three of them all get caught up in this passion and ultimately have it explode, you know, I thought was interesting.
Tavis: Speaking of interesting, there are a number of things about this interesting to me, Helen Mirren. One is that, in this town that we all live in, the script is usually the other way around. It’s not an older woman and a younger guy. It’s usually the other way around. What do you make of that?
Mirren: That’s true. Nobody passes comment when it’s that way around. Everybody’s so used to it. It’s so accepted. I mean, the great thing is that these relationships actually have happened all through history. Younger men and older women actually have always existed through history.
Sometimes they’re in love, sometimes it’s political, sometimes it’s economical as it is the other way around, you know, older men with younger women. But it has always existed and I think the important thing in this story is that it did exist. Sally Conforte and Oscar did have a relationship and she was a lot older than him.
Tavis: Who fell for whom?
Mirren: Oh, this great picture. What a great picture that is there. Isn’t that fantastic? I love it. You see it all there.
Hackford: But Sally didn’t quite have the looks that Helen did (laughter).
Tavis: No, she didn’t (laughter). Who falls for whom in the movie?
Mirren: I think the way Taylor wanted the story to play out was that it starts from a place of cynicism and people actually playing each other and certainly he’s kind of trying to play her. He’s trying to find a way into this world that he suddenly sees as, you know, economically successful and he quite likes and is there a way in it for him.
He’s playing her, but it changes, that relationship changes and, through their mutual difficulties that we show in the movie, they find kind of love together and I think it’s a real love.
Hackford: It’s an interesting – you know, you’ve got to see this brothel and you see it operating. We open on New Years Eve and you see all of the hoopla and the process that you expect.
Mirren: The front of house business.
Hackford: Yeah, the front of house process in the brothel. So you proceed into this and you see these two very professional tough individuals, Sally and Joe – well, it’s actually Grace and Charlie Bontempo, you know, Joe Pesci and Helen Mirren. You see that they’ve worked as business partners. If there was any spark in their relationship, it’s long gone.
Using the premise of seeing somebody who thinks that their inner life, their sexual spark, their kind of emotional life is at an end and they’re just going through life, to see that person come alive – my wife is very brave. At the beginning of this film, you see her kind of tired. I mean, she’s gotten a very negative prognosis from her doctor about her life and her health.
She’s terminal and in that process of just going through the drudgery to then see this guy come into her life and see everything change. Now part of the process can be hair and makeup, costume, but the real essence when you have a thoroughbred artist like this who can let that light come from inside, you see Helen come alive.
By the end of the film, she’s a very different than she started at the beginning. To be able to tell this story and to be able to touch an audience because you start and you think it’s just gonna be a grab-ass movie and it’s not. The premise was, can you really get into this emotion, watching these very cynical tough people open up inside emotionally?
Tavis: I was so happy being a Joe Pesci fan. It seems like Joe just like took a deliberate sabbatical.
Hackford: Ten years.
Tavis: Ten years.
Hackford: Self-imposed.
Tavis: Exactly. How did you get him to come back?
Hackford: You know, I think that Joe is brilliant and he is a consummate actor.
Tavis: And a great singer. He’s an amazing artist.
Hackford: Amazing, amazing singer.
Tavis: I heard him sing one day and I was blown away.
Mirren: Great jazz singer, yeah.
Hackford: You know who turned me on? Jamie Foxx and I went up to Quincy. Quincy’s an old friend.
Tavis: Quincy turned me on to him. He did (laughter).
Hackford: We went up to Quincy’s house and he said, “Let me play you somebody.” Jamie and I sat there listening and we thought, “Was that Bobby McFerrin?” I mean, a really good jazz singer. Quincy said, “This is the best singer I’ve heard in ten years.”
Tavis: Apparently for two years, Quincy had everybody at his house playing the same CD (laughter) because that’s how I heard about it.
Hackford: Absolutely. But Joe doesn’t like to go out and perform. I think he finds it painful. I brought him this role and I said, “Listen, you’re the only person I’ve thought of. I need you to play this role. It’s not the mad dog killer that you play in Goodfellas or Casino.
This is a guy who is a small man with a big dream. He has his own American dream. I mean, he was a low income – he was a cab driver, but he had this dream to legalize prostitution and have this whole thing and he had a belief in the idea of a brothel being a service to society.
He said, you know, you let these crazy people out that are pent up with sex, give them an outlet. He charged a certain reasonable price at that time. It’s really gone way crazy since then. But he had a dream, he actualized the dream, he had his wife who actually ran the place for him.
I said to Joe, “This is an opportunity for you to come back in something that you can really do something new in.” Because at the end of this film – again, Charlie in the film, you know, he samples the merchandise, he’s caught up with the young girls, he’s forgotten about his wife.
At the end of this film, you see Joe Pesci reach levels of an emotion that I don’t think you’ve ever seen before. I was really thrilled to work with him and I’m thrilled that he agreed.
Tavis: How much hell you gonna catch from perhaps women’s groups, perhaps the Christian right, for romanticizing, idealizing, prostitution in America?
Hackford: You know, I think that women are the audience for this film. This is a woman’s picture.
Mirren: I have to say, I don’t think prostitution is remotely romanticized in this film. What was the film with Julia Roberts?
Hackford: Pretty Woman.
Mirren: Pretty Woman. That romanticized prostitution. This absolutely does not romanticize prostitution. It really shows it absolutely how it is and I think, if anything –
Hackford: – which is a business.
Mirren: You know, it’s a tough business. There are people in it who love it, people in it for various dysfunctional reasons, but, you know, it’s a business and there it is. It’s certainly a business that’s never going to go away.
As much as you bring in litigation or whatever you want to try to do to get rid of prostitution, it will never ever, ever go away. So that’s something that we all as grownups have to face and look at straight in the eye, you know.
We try to show – I mean, obviously, it’s from the 1970s, so it’s vintage. It’s a period piece, but it certainly doesn’t, I would say, remotely glamorize prostitution. It shows it absolutely how it is.
Hackford: You know, I think the Christian right, of course, they’re going to – we have it in the film. We have people there that did protest this “amoral” situation. But, you know, looking at that process, as Helen’s saying, brothels are so much more civilized, you know, than the nature of a pimp in the street that is by the nature abusive to women, steals from them, does all of those things.
In a brothel, it’s a society of women. A madam is the only – you never can have a brothel run by a man. I mean, Joe Conforte was the kind of overall promoter, but the society woman, she’s the tough mother. That’s what Helen was playing. Tough mother, mother confessor at times.
When she needs to apply discipline, she applies it very, very strongly. She keeps those girls in line and says this is a business; this is how it’s run. But when I look at society as a whole, one, health officials there all the time making sure that everything is clean. Two, these girls are not exploited and they are making money.
I think in reality it’s something that I support in our society and think we come from a long puritan ethic of being very uptight about sex. It’s there; why not regulate it? It would be better for all people, especially for women.
Tavis: Might this movie kick up that conversation all over again? Not that it’s ever been dead, but might it spark that conversation in America?
Hackford: I don’t know. Listen, the thing that was interesting about Joe and Sally Conforte, they had a monopoly. They were the only brothel that was legalized.
Tavis: They had the first one, yeah (laughter).
Hackford: Then subsequently it’s quite a business now in Nevada. One interesting thing, I went up and I did a lot of research to start. I met a madam named Susan Austin. She has two brothels. She has the Wild Horse and then she bought the old Mustang.
She was a girl that used to work for Joe Conforte at the original Mustang Ranch. She was fantastic and she gave me a great deal of insight into what this role is, what the process is. She truly cares about the people that she works with. She’s a professional.
So I said to Helen, “We got to go up there. I’ll need you to meet her.” Helen says, “I’m not going into a brothel.” I said, “We’re gonna spend the whole night there.” She said, “I’m not going there.”
Mirren: (Laughter) “No, I can’t. I can’t see that, Taylor, I can’t handle it.”
Hackford: But we got there and she met Susan and immediately Susan went, “You’re coming with me.”
Mirren: Yes, she was fantastic.
Hackford: I was talking with her husband and we were out chatting. Hours went by, hours went by. We got there about eight. About quarter of five in the morning, I said, “Hel, we got to get out of here” and she was like –
Mirren: – “No. Do we have to go?” (Laughter)
Tavis: What a difference eight hours makes (laughter).
Mirren: But I just to say, this is not a political film. It’s not a film advertising, you know, the advantages of legalized brothels. Far from it. It’s an emotional story. It’s a love story and it’s a story about characters and it’s based on a true story.
You know, what people make of that particular argument is their own business. We are not trying to influence that argument or add to it or subtract to it on any level.
Tavis: In this country, though, as you know, Hollywood is so powerful. I only ask the question because Hollywood is so powerful that, even when you are not intending to do that, a real conversation kicks in because of certain movies.
Mirren: You know, it’s a legitimate conversation to have incidentally. I think that it will be one that will constantly recur because the most important thing, as far as I can see, is to make sure that the people who work in the sex industry, if that’s what you can call it, are safe. An awful lot of them are not safe.
You know, the most disgusting, appalling horror of our world that we live in, to me, is sex trafficking and the enslavement of men and women, boys and girls, in the sex industry. That is the most horrific, horrific thing that’s happening and it’s happening in all of our towns here in Los Angeles, in New York, in London, in Paris, all over the world, and I think that’s really what has to be addressed.
You know, if I was to get on any kind of a bandwagon, that would be the one that I would get on personally.
Tavis: Since Joe’s still living, be it in Brazil to your earlier point, was he helpful in the project at all?
Hackford: We have his rights. You know, he didn’t really – there was a lot in the public record and we’re doing the early era. So he’s down there. I don’t know if he’ll ever see the film. I’m sure he will when it gets on video cassette. He can’t come back, although he’s tried.
Mirren: Video cassette? That’s from the past, darling (laughter).
Hackford: Pardon me. DVD (laughter).
Tavis: I wasn’t going to say that. I was trying to be kind (laughter).
Hackford: DVD.
Tavis: Leave it to your wife.
Hackford: Well, you know, who knows? Maybe he’s looking at video cassettes.
Mirren: I learned on the Internet, man (laughter).
Tavis: And he’s the director (laughter).
Hackford: I am. What a faux pas.
Mirren: He won’t ever throw any of our video cassette machines away. It’s very weird. He thinks it’s all going to come back.
Hackford: Well, I’ve got all those old shows I got to look at from KCET (laughter).
Tavis: Hey, you never know, you never know. It’s obvious. I mean, one can feel the energy that, after all these years of being married, the two of you still like each other.
Hackford: Oh, yeah.
Mirren: Oh, I love him. Sometimes I like him, but I love him. It’s a big difference.
Hackford: You know, it was an interesting process working together because we haven’t worked together since 1984.
Tavis: And shooting some of the scenes that you shot.
Hackford: Yeah, that was the best thing.
Tavis: That was easy?
Mirren: No, it’s easy.
Hackford: You know what? We really understand the division of labor. I love actors and I understand what has to happen within a scene. Any scene is an acting scene and actors never act alone, so there has to be an interchange. If it’s a dialog scene, if it’s a love scene, it doesn’t matter because you need to establish a situation.
Listen, it was not difficult for Helen and I. For Sergio, this young Spanish actor we have in the film who is fantastic – remember, it’s Helen Mirren, Academy Award winner, Joe Pesci, Academy Award winner –
Tavis: – Taylor Hackford, Academy Award winner.
Hackford: This actor from Spain who’s playing this Argentine boxer had to come in and go toe-to-toe with Joe and Helen. He does and he’s fantastic.
Tavis: Well, you got to feel sorry for the guy. He’s with three Academy Award winners and having to have a sex scene with the director’s wife. Poor guy.
Hackford: Yeah, but my point to him is the last person you should think about is me. You’ve got to make it happen there. I’m behind the camera. And you better make it happen because, if it doesn’t, then we’re going to be doing it over and over and over again and it gets worse as time goes on. So he’s a fantastic professional.
You know, he comes from Madrid. There’s an acting guru in Madrid that has three prize pupils, Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz and Sergio. Sergio is about ten years younger than Bardem, so he’s doing his first film in this country in this movie and I think he’s gonna be a star. He’s something.
Tavis: Not bad company. Of course, if any of that Helen Mirren-Taylor Hackford magic-Joe Pesci magic rubs off on him, he will be okay.
Mirren: Sergio’s his own magic, I have to say. He’s got his own magic.
Tavis: The movie is called Love Ranch, directed by Academy winner, Taylor Hackford, starring Academy winner, Helen Mirren. In real life, they love and like each other and that’s a beautiful thing. There’s hope for all of us (laughter). Glad to have you both here.
Hackford: Thanks, Tavis.
Mirren: Thank you.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm