It's a long way from MASH to Ocean's 13, but Brooklyn's own Elliott Gould is still in the game, doing everything from the voice of God in the animated Ten Commandments to a forthcoming movie called The Deal, in which he shares the screen with William H. Macy and LL Cool J. The six-time host of Saturday Night Live was back in town over the weekend for the premiere of The Caller at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Directed by Richard Ledes, the moody, elliptical thriller co-stars Frank Langella as a whistle-blowing executive at an international energy firm. After exposing his company's bloody hands in Latin America, Langella becomes a marked man, and anonymously hires Gould, a private detective, to stay on his tail until the end. Before Friday's premiere Gould talked with us about the project, his turbulent relationship with the movie industry, and working with the Muppets.
Details on The Caller screening times are here.
It says in the press notes that “after a meeting with the director in which several questions were answered,” you took the role. What were your questions? It was more that he showed a willingness and openness to answer my questions. There were things that I didn’t necessarily understand or have interpreted yet. Because of the nature of my work, I need to involve myself and integrate with what’s going on. So his responsiveness was important to me in relation to his devotion to the original script. My questions became clearer in relation to the process of being involved with the creation of this picture. Does that make any sense to you?
Yes; you were satisfied that he was willing to meet you halfway in the creative process. Absolutely. That was great. And then to bring me back to New York, where I came from, was a bonus. I can’t assume that the metaphor and meaning that I see – and meaning, of course, is so abstract. At one point Sam Peckinpah had wanted me to do Straw Dogs; before Dustin Hoffman did it. And I couldn’t do it for several reasons. And Sam Pekinpah said to me, “Elliott, you do read between the lines, don’t you?” And I said, “Sam, I live between the lines. And until such time as I understand the lines it’s way too terrifying for me to think where I live.” Now, John, that I understand the lines to some degree, I’ve started to learn how to work with this mind. And it’s very gratifying and very stimulating and I feel some degree of success. What the success would be is to be integrating, not to be threatening, and to be growing, to be evolving and starting to evolve with the rest of us.
What is it that intrigued you about The Caller? First of all, I love to work. Second of all, the guy offered me the part. Third of all, it’s a serious film about a relationship, about things that I wasn’t so sure were fully flushed out but that was not for me to criticize or for me to question. I could question but I could take forever questioning about things. So what intrigued me was the idea of coming here to do it at this time. I haven’t seen the film; I’ll see it tonight at The New School for the first time. But I have a sense of some degree of success.
Is it disorienting to go from a big budget picture like Oceans 11 to a tiny independent – No! Come on! Absolutely not! Disorienting? No, listen, that can be luxurious but this is a labor of love to Richard Ledes. I’m going to meet Alain Didier-Weill who created this, and people who are psychotherapists. I have spent some time with Freudians and so, no, it’s not disorienting in anyway. When it gets down to it, there’s a camera! And there are lights. And there’s purpose to be able to get on film to the best of our ability what it is we’re trying to make!
Besides being a private detective, your character is an avid bird watcher. Is that something you can relate to? Of course! Bird is nature. I have crows outside the window of my apartment in L.A. And they’re just so fabulous, so smart and intelligent. Right now I can’t see any birds because the flowers in my hotel room, the orchids, are manufactured. They’re not of natural nature; they’re man-made. And that’s not totally fair to us. They’re synthetic; they’re not real. But I could look in this direction where the light is and sometimes in truth, in reality, see a hummingbird. And when I see a hummingbird it takes me out of my fear. The hummingbird is here for sometimes a year or less. And what do we have to worry about? How could we have become so blinded by our ego, by our vanity, by our fear, by our ambition, by our stupidity, by our ignorance, to think we’re different from anything else? Did I answer your question?
Absolutely. How was it working with Frank Langella? Fine. Good. He’s sensitive, he’s intelligent and he’s committed. He’s an excellent actor. The first actor that I was pitched that was supposedly going to do it was Terrence Stamp. But it was a very positive experience working with an actor of Langella’s caliber.
The end of The Caller was shot in Red Hook, right? Yes.
And you’re from Brooklyn originally. I was conceived in Far Rockaway on Beach 126th Street, or so I’m told. And I was born and brought up in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn. I went to P.S. 247. I used to go to the Marboro movie theater on Bay Parkway. I saw all the great movies there like For Whom the Bell Tolls and A Picture of Dorian Gray and Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein. When we were making The Caller the working title was On the Hook. I suggested another title. In the scene where Langella’s character comes into the apartment and I realize he’s the one who’s hired me and he’s John Doe, I say “You knew me and you’re John Doe.” So I suggested that a concept for a title for this movie, being that it’s so abstract, would be And You’re John Doe. Which is a message then to whatever audience sees it; the audience is the unknown person. And You’re John Doe. I thought it was great. But we’re The Caller and, you know, whatever. You know: The Caller. Sounds like a quarterback to me.
When you shot this in Red Hook did you have any inclination to swing by the old neighborhood? I do that a lot of times when I’m here. I’m not here that often. I sometimes don’t want any sentiment because I get swept away by it and it blinds me. So the old neighborhood exists within my own heart and soul. Everything is alive right here within us.
A year ago this month the Village Voice ran a cover story about your years as a matinee idol. How has the movie business changed for you since then? It hasn’t. Jim Hoberman’s take on it was that a Jew like me wasn’t supposed to be a movie idol. And so whatever; I enjoyed doing the interview with him. He did a lot of research and really went in-depth. I was in South Africa at this point and someone emailed the article to me and I thought, “Gee, that’s so much space you’re giving to it. And that picture on the cover; you’re making an editorial comment where you take a black and white still of me from The Long Goodbye and you put more hair on my head and draw a fake mustache on me so I look like the son of or the bubba of Borat.” But what do I care? I have some friends who were offended by it but I spoke with Jim Hoberman recently and he was a little defensive with me, thinking that I had a problem with it. But I didn’t; I just wanted to know why they did that to the picture. It was like graffiti.
What were you doing in South Africa? A picture called The Deal with William H. Macy and the fabulous Meg Ryan and LL Cool J. It hasn’t come out yet. As far as I know it hadn’t gotten picked up at Sundance. But, again, experience. I play a rabbi in it. And some of it is funny.
And now you have a recurring role as the voice of God. Well, you want to do it? You can have it. I’ve done two of them. And it’s hard for me to consider that they’re going to do all 14 or 16 they told me they wanted to do. But that also is interesting to me. All the work I did on The Ten Commandments was with Christian Slater and then sometimes alone. And the director said to me, “I’m hearing a little Brooklyn in your voice.” And I said to him, “I can understand that. I’ve heard that in certain quarters for most of my existence. But I need you to be specific with me because I’m not about to get inhibited or start to worry about how I sound. You tell me exactly where and I’ll go there.” I never heard about it again. And I got some good reviews and I said, “It’s about time there’s a little Brooklyn in the voice of God.”
Your career’s been so long and there’s so much more to come– Oh, that’s nice of you. You know, I need hip replacements. I’ve never spent the night in a hospital. My internist said, “If you want to retire and sit in a rocking chair you don’t have to do this.” It’s very uncomfortable and I hobble. Except I’m a good actor and I’m a good guy. I’m in the process and I’m here and I’m evolving as we speak. But he said that if I want to continue to work – which I do – the technology and science has improved so I’ll give the operation a shot. If I want to act into my 100s.
And I’m really interested in directing. Ingmar Bergman had said to me, “When you direct – and you will direct – you mustn’t act. And no matter who’s doing it you’ll understand what I mean.” But shortly after that I fell out of grace in Hollywood so I had no business people supporting me. But I made my breakthrough, and we didn’t expect me to make a breakthrough. I’m a homeboy. But I made this breakthrough and therefore I let myself be known before I understood myself, making it difficult for me politically in the present.
But I didn’t ever give up. The word career in this Webster’s dictionary that I have is defined as emanating from a Spanish world meaning, “an obstacle course,” like a race track. What moves me is that, you know, oy gevalt. I didn’t know I had no judgment and I didn’t know I had no perspective. I thought I was talented but I also knew I was hardly educated. I didn’t know this was a business in an industry. I didn’t know that if I was asked to explain myself I had to explain myself to the business people even though we were already in production. I mean, I fundamentally don’t fail. I’ve had to come to terms with my ambition. Because you know about the ambition of our species which is so fucking blind and befuddled as to what we’re doing to the environment in the name of what. And I thought, “Okay, I have to come to terms with it. So what’s my great ambition?” My great ambition would be to be a great, great grandfather so that the children’s children’s children and I can share this conscious faculty, and then as Ira Gershwin wrote, “Who could ask for anything more?”
Is there a specific project you have in mind that you’d like to direct? One of the things I do is make chemistry. I don’t want to direct television. But there is the sequel to The Long Goodbye. Just today I had a communication from the Chandler estate because they’ve given me the rights to a short novel that I want to make into a film. I started to work with Robert Altman on it. It’s called The Curtain.
Arguably, I’ve recorded just about all Chandler’s books on tape. And The Long Goodbye has a life of its own which I am so gratified by. Bob Altman and I thought we would have the chance to make one every other year or so but we only had the chance to make that one. But my concept for this one is It’s Always Now, based on Raymond Chandler’s story. And being that I had done The Long Goodbye and I was Philip Marlowe – even though Robert Mitchum played it afterward and Jimmy Caan did it afterward on television with a script by Tom Stoppard that sucked.
Alan Rudolph has written the first two drafts for me and my son Jason is involved with me. Now all I have to do is find some money for development and make the picture. It’s still me. Which isn’t the reason I got involved in it. When you read the story you can see where The Big Sleep came from. This was pre-Philip Marlowe. But the estate is allowing me Philip Marlowe and allowing me to run with this. My deal was for a dollar. I recently gave it to George Clooney and asked him for development money. He asked me, “Is this something you want to do?” And I said, “Yeah.” Because the guy’s an older person. It’s the same character and it’s always now and of course I would want to talk with Bob Dylan about writing the title song for me, “It’s Always Now.” But The Long Goodbye is still there and the guy still lives with cats.
So we’ll see. I don’t give up but I need energy and I need these hip replacements. But the idea of there being some commercial job for me that could get some money for the family – I would have to doubt it. I don’t take anything for granted. But I’m going to meet some people in San Francisco on Monday and I could push the hip replacements back. When I had to run up the stairs in The Caller it was really difficult for me but I incorporated it into the character. It’s great. You know I did a radio interview earlier this morning with someone from ABC, an interesting, bright guy, very prepared, but we just went longer – like this – and longer and I sang, “There’s No Business Like Show Business” for him a cappella. One of the reasons I didn’t do the television series MASH was because I didn’t think I wanted to repeat myself, not knowing at the point that I couldn’t get any other work and not knowing that it’s not automatic that you make a living in this world. [Pause.] Hello?
I’m here; I’m just taking it in. I’m excited about you doing a sequel of The Long Goodbye. I’m going to talk with the people from Belladonna and see if they’re open to taking a look at it. I spent eight hours with Alfred Hitchcock over two sessions and spent some quality time with the old man. Ingmar Bergman told me that his masters were William Wilder and Alfred Hitchcock. Willy for his administrative/producer/director talent and Hitchcock for pure imagination. And Hitchcock liked The Long Goodbye. I think there’s money in the world that can be cultivated for us to be able to continue to move forward to hopefully make this picture in a sensible way. I’ve tried to reach Mark Cuban but he’s got people around him. Like I said, I approached Clooney but I haven’t heard back from him. I don’t expect anything but I don’t give up.
The Coen brothers thought of The Big Lebowski as their The Long Goodbye. That was nice of them. They’ve never even talked to me about a job but I remember Ethan told me down at a film festival in Fort Lauderdale that he loved The Long Goodbye. I know that when they were doing Miller’s Crossing they said, “What about Elliott?” But between you and me, I would cast Albert Finney before I would cast me. Albert Finney is my guy. It’s Marlon Brando and Albert Finney. Albert Finney is so fucking great. I love Albert Finney. You know who I saw the other night? Anthony Hopkins has got to have his props and whatever, but Ryan Gosling I really like. I saw some of James Dean in him. Did you see Lars and the Real Girl?
No. Oh, my God. Joe Morgenstern is an old friend and he sends me his columns and he recommended that. I brought two pictures with me to New York; one is Letters from Iwo Jima and the other is A Hole in the Head, Richard Ledes’s first picture. So, you know, I need to stay within focus and stay within the frame and just be sensible about all this. But I don’t have any plans. I have a plan to replace my fucking hips. I spoke with Jack Nicholson and told him I didn’t want to see The Bucket List. I’m not a big fan of Rob Reiner. I respect Rob Reiner to some degree but, you know, Rob Reiner, whatever. I just didn’t want to see The Bucket List, it seemed so formulaic to me.
But I told Jack I saw it anyway and I loved it. He was pleased to hear that and said to me, “I’m trying to change my attitude.” And I said, “Oh?” And he said, “Yeah, people are dying every month, every week.” And I said, “Every day, Jack.” It’s so mournful. There’s so much remorse and so much sorrow and I was so impressed because Jack’s very well read and I felt remorse. I really can’t consider being sorry for someone else because the only one you can be sorry for is yourself. And he said, “Oh, yeah that’s true.” And I am never going to be sorry for myself. If I’ve done something that isn’t right I’ll make an adjustment. But to feel sorry for myself? Never. You know? So sometimes I get depressed but I won’t accept it. And I was depressed for a very, very long time; way before I got into movies. It is the way it is. Do you have children?
No. Oh. And how old are you?
32. Oh, that’s great. My God, when I was about your age I was a very hot movie commodity, not knowing how it worked. I’ve realized that my problem when I fell out of favor in Hollywood was that I was unwilling and incapable of compromise. But I couldn’t come down and there was really no one there for me; everybody was just in business. But that was an opportunity and I can’t say that I have any complaints.
This was during the early ‘70s. When I fell out was in February of 1971. I didn’t know I had no perspective and I didn’t know I had no judgement. I just thought, “Here I am. I’m batting a thousand. I’m not going to fail. Why don’t you just follow me?” I didn’t know how political it was, that it was an industry, and that if I didn’t play ball on that level then that was that. I was so out there. You think you’re important? You think you have meaning? Boom. You’re dead meat. And you’re fucking crazy. I didn’t drown. I almost drowned in The Long Goodbye but I made it. I found my balance.
And then, I believe, John, that there’s nothing of value other than what we have to share. And it’s one thing to share goodness and accomplishment and another thing to share a problem. And once people are willing and capable of communicating here like we are, then we can see that no one of us can have a problem another one of us didn’t have before. Therefore what we need to do is revolutionize and reorganize government so our government can evolve and really be what it was supposed to be at the beginning.
Are you drawn to any of the candidates left in the field? I thought that It’s Always Now would take place during this next American election. But obviously it will take place during the presidency of whoever’s going to win. I insisted to Lew Grade, who I’d met while working on Capricorn One, that I be in The Muppet Movie. Because I had met Jim Henson and I had met the Muppets on Saturday Night Live and had done a prime time special on The Electric Company. So I was in The Muppet Movie with Orson Welles and introduced Miss Piggy. I’m the mayor of the town who’s running the beauty contest. Do you know who my judges were? Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. I used to be able to do Mortimer Snerd. [Affects Snerd voice] Hello, Mister Bergen!