One of the more fascinating films that premiered at this year's Tribeca Film Festival was Live! Written and directed by Bill Guttentag and starring Eva Mendes, Live! is a fictional narrative that follows the behind-the-scenes of a reality show's struggles to make it on the air. What's different about this show versus anything that's currently airing on TV is that its premise is incredibly daring. Basically, six people compete for a chance to win $5 million. There's one gun, one bullet and each person holds the gun to their head and pulls the trigger. Survive, and you win the money. Not only is the show itself risky, but the film's main character (as played by Eva Mendes) is a ballsy network executive who's convinced our nation is ready for something like this. On the other hand, she also wants to be the one responsible for making television history. Essentially, we hate her for supporting this type of show -- but at the same time, we wind up rooting for her to succeed.
For Guttentag, this is his first feature narrative as a director. In the past, he's directed episodes of the hit HBO documentary series America Undercover, as well as Law & Order: Crime and Punishment and one of the more recent controversial docs, Nanking. Basically, if anyone should be directing a film like this, it's him. I recently sat down with Bill to talk to him about the film, how it came about and whether he thinks a show in which real people play a game of Russian Roulette on live television could ever exist. Check it out:
Cinematical: Realistically, in your opinion, do you see a show like this ever existing?
Bill Guttentag: The film is, of course, a satire. But like any satire, you don't want to go completely out there with something that will never happen; you want to go a little bit farther than what would be out there.
Cinematical: This is your first narrative feature as a director. Talk about how the project came together; what about this idea sparked your interest?
BG: I'd been a showrunner for a show called Law & Order: Crime and Punishment, and I've been to a lot of network meetings where a lot of crazy stuff happens. I thought to myself that this would be some pretty good stuff to build a film around -- coupled with the fact that it would allow me to address a comment that I really want to make; one that the events from the last few weeks have tragically pointed out. And that is that we're a nation obsessed with guns. This is a gun culture, and I think the country pays an enormous price for that kind of culture. So this was something I thought was important; something I wanted to comment on.
Cinematical: Now how does your previous work on all these documentaries help prepare you to direct your first fictional narrative?
BG: Well this is not a documentary, but the whole thing is staged very strictly to the documentary form. When I did Law & Order: Crime and Punishment, our shooting ratio was 390 to 1. So basically, for every minute you see on screen, there were 389 that you didn't see. So everything you in [Live!] was shot in the documentary style; the documentary form. And the camera was where it should be for shooting a documentary -- it doesn't mean it wasn't edited, it just means it's there. A number of the scenes were played as one back-and-forth camera shot, which is something you see in a lot of documentaries. The whole long sequence at the end was done in one shot; there are a number of these things. What I tried to do was keep everything as real as possible. That's including the collaboration with Eva [Mendes]; with Andre Braugher, David Krumholtz, Michelle Krusiec and the other actors in the film. And the whole idea is that throughout the film, we would stop and say 'Does this feel as real as possible. Does this feel as true as possible.' We'd do a scene, and if it felt good then fine. But if it didn't feel good, then we would look for ways to adjust to make it feel fine. Ya know, there are a lot of films out there -- including lots that I admire -- that don't feel particularly real. The hair and makeup don't feel real; the dialogue isn't real -- whatever it is, it takes you out of it. In our film, it was extremely important that we stay true to the feeling that it's real. Because if we don't do that, then the entire thing collapses.
Cinematical: You also wrote the script for Live! How much of it was written beforehand, and how much did you leave open for improvisation?
BG: The majority of the script was written beforehand. Especially when you only have a 24-day shoot. I mean, there are certainly moments of improvisation; we had some really fine actors who could improvise wonderfully. Eva is a super great actress; Andre Braugher is a great actor; David Krumholtz and so on ... We did do some improvisation, but when you're shooting for only 24 days on a film like this where there are a lot of effects shot in it and a lot of scenes, you try to move as fast as you can. But when you have actors that good, you'd be insane not to take their improvisation.
Cinematical: What kind of research did you do for the film? Watch a lot of reality TV?
BG: That's a good question; I actually did do research. There's a stat that in there which Andre Braugher reads that says 67% of the American public supports televised execution, and 21% of the American public would pay to watch televised execution. Those are true stats, of course. The legal arguments that are presented in the film are based on real legal arguments -- even things like designing the sets for the film are loosely based on things that are out there. You want the audience to feel like this is a real thing. For example, the announcer for the show in the film is this guy Don LaFontaine -- he's probably the best known voiceover guy ever in Hollywood. He's the guy that goes, 'In a world ...' [laughs] Ya know, that guy. He narrates the up close and personal pieces within the show; I thought he would be the perfect person to do that. He's got that great voice. So you make all these decisions that you hope contribute to the film feeling real.
Cinematical: Eva Mendes is great in this film. You don't really like her character, but you love watching her in action. Is it risky to create a main character that you know the audience isn't going to like?
BG: That's a great observation and a really good question. I think a lot of movies are driven almost by audience testing, as opposed to what makes the best film. If you put a cute dog in every scene, the audience will love it. The good thing about low budget films is that you can get a little edgier; take some chances. When you're making a film that costs over $100 million, no one wants to take a chance on anything because you may alienate one part of the audience and they might not show up. In a film like ours, I thought it was really important to take some chances; take some risks. It's really to Eva's credit, because she wasn't looking for everything to be perfect; the way it would be in other projects, perhaps. I mean, Eva's character certainly does some terrible things. But, the important thing is that the audience is with her. Some of the responses I've gotten from the film is that people kind of like her and, as weird as it seems, you're sort of along for her ride and you hope she gets it. So it creates these conflicting emotions in people, and I think that's something you try to do. You know, you watch a lot of different stuff and most of it feels too clean. This person is good with a capital 'G,' and this person is bad with a capital 'B.' I don't think life is that clean, and the film hopefully reflects the realities of life.
Cinematical: Did you originally set out to get some names for this film, or did you contemplate doing it with no-name actors to up the reality aspect of it?
BG: Well I think all film is an intersection of art and commerce. The greatest artists are still working in the commerce world, and to set up a film like this you need people that actors want to do. However, actors of some name can also be great actors. We had a fantastic casting director, Mary Vernieu, who does the Quentin Tarantino films, the Robert Rodriguez films, the Oliver Stone films -- and she worked together with Venus Kanani. The two of them put together a great cast. It serves the interest of the film, because any director wants to work with a first-rate cast. And it also serves the commerical interests when you're putting together this sort of risky, edgy film -- it's nice to have Eva Mendes, Andre Braugher and David Krumholtz in your film. Hollywood is filled with stories of overpaid actors behaving badly. Whereas our film is a story of underpaid actors behaving wonderfully. People responded to the cast, they came on board and I was fortunate to have a great cast. Again, this is the intersection of art and commerce ... hopefully we pulled it off.
Cinematical: You work on a lot of television shows that deal with violence and drugs in our society. What draws you to that topic?
BG: It's interesting; ya know, I went to a Quaker school where there was this whole stress on non-violence -- so I don't know, this could be an extension of that. One thing is that the stakes are very high. One of the reasons I did Law & Order: Crime and Punishment is that the drama is intense. Someone is on trial for murder or rape, and they're either going to be taken out the back of the courtroom to spend decades in prison or they're going to walk out the front a free person. I think when the stakes are very high, that contributes to great drama. When you do a film like this, you want the stakes to be high, but you also want it to say something. There are a lot of films out there that are a lot of fun -- a lot of TV shows that are fun -- but there's no real meat to them.
Cinematical: Do you feel like we live in a society that loves to watch bad things happen to good people?
BG: Yeah, of course. What gets celebrated in society is this sort of celebration of violence. What happens when you celebrate violence all the time is that it then becomes part of the culture. And, as I mentioned earlier, we pay a price for that violence. You look at what happened in the last few weeks, I think that's a perfect example of what's going on. I don't think you can really divorce yourself from the media and the violence that's out there -- I think we're all part of the same suit.
Cinematical: Why premiere the film at Tribeca?
BG: Well I think New York is the media capital of the world. You know, how people say Los Angeles is the movie capital of the world -- well this is the media capital. All the top media is here. And our film is about the media. So this seemed like a really good fit for us; I mean, I was thrilled when we got to Tribeca. Different films have different fits. If you're doing a film on The Count of Monte Cristo, then maybe Cannes is the place to be for that. But if you're doing a film on the media world, then New York is the place.
Cinematical: As far as your future goes, do you want to continue doing straight narratives? Or will you continue making documentaries?
BG: I will continue doing film. Right now, I'm developing a movie on the documentary side of the music group The Doors. Also, on the fictional side, I'm reading, writing and working on some other stuff.
Cinematical: The Doors doc is pretty different for you. What about that group grabbed your interest?
BG: I think The Doors are an iconic group. It's funny, when I started considering doing a group, I have a teenage son who was listening to The Doors on his iPod. The Doors first hit song was 40 years ago. And I don't think there are a lot of kids who have a 40 year-old group on their iPods. So I thought, what is it about The Doors that managed to span the test of time? There are very few of these groups that speak to generation after generation -- so that's what really interested me.
Cinematical: Why do you think people should go see Live!?
BG: First and foremost, I like to think it's a film that people will respond to. I leave it to you to tell me if it's a good movie, but I think we did a good job. It's entertaining, it's fun and it makes you think in a way. One thing that was pleasing to me was that all during shooting, there was active discussion about the project at hand. Intellectual discussions; would you do this, would you do that. Is this right, is this wrong? It wasn't this slow-moving discussion, it was spirited and fun. One thing I've heard about Live! is that people have told me that after they left the theater, they're still talking about it.
Cinematical: That's what I liked about the film. It definitely opens up a debate as to whether a show like this could ever exist in our society.
BG: And that's a really good point; that's what I tried to do. I tried to get people to think a little bit; to think about the issues, think about the points, think about where we are as a culture and where we may be going. If you just start thinking and open up a dialogue, then I think that's a good thing.
Cinematical: Would you ever support a show like this if it were on the air? Would you look at it and say, 'Good for them, they're taking a chance?'
BG: [laughs] I think the show would get great ratings. But I don't know if I would be its target audience. I do think the show would get fine ratings, and that's why I think this film is grounded somewhat in truth.