It's a little unnerving at first to pick up the phone and call Curtis Hanson to talk
about his latest film, Wonder Boys, starring Michael Douglas. Unnerving because Hanson
sounds a lot like Douglas. "Oh yeah, I've had that a lot," he says without
irritation. "In fact when we were looping and we needed a fill for Michael they got
me to do it as a guide, until Michael could come and record it."
"I wanted to be sure Michael would go all the way"
Why bother Michael at all, I thought. Hanson could get away with it, at least for a
while. The impression is perhaps even greater on the phone, without the physical getting
in the way. Apt, since Michael Douglas didn't let the physical get in the way for this
role. Hanson was keen to have Douglas "show us a new side - and he exceeded my
expectations. But when we first talked about it, I wanted to be sure Michael would go all
the way. I wanted an absence of vanity. After an initial resistance, once he started
enjoying all the food he could eat and so on, he really got into it."
And the result is a decrepit Michael Douglas (Hanson laughs uproariously at the
'decrepit' description), just right for his character, Grady Tripp, Professor of English,
who was once a 'wonder boy', a writer whose first novel was hailed as the Great American
Novel of his time. And who is terrified he doesn't have it in him any more, so he has
managed to stretch his second book to over 1600 pages already, putting off the dreadful
moment of truth when he has to find an ending and send it to his hungry editor, Terry
Crabtree (Robert Downey jnr).
Wonder Boys explores the human condition at a certain critical stage of maturity -
after the first flush of success, where do we go? How do we maintain it? What is our
capacity? How do we navigate life's boobytraps….
"We're all trying to figure it out."
"We're all wonder boys, you know, in a broader sense. If it was just about
somebody having great success and being paralysed, I wouldn't have been interested in this
story. What interested me is that each of these characters is - in their own way, male or
female - a wonder boy. Each of them, like each of us, is looking both back at things we
did well, and looking forward trying to be the best version of ourselves that we can.
We're all trying to figure it out. The difference is, these characters are very funny as
they try to figure it out."
Who are these other characters; well, there is Sara Gaskell (Frances McDormand),
married to the head of the English department, but pregnant with Grady's baby. Like Grady,
she's been coasting along in a situation that was comfortable and she hasn't - until now -
had to confront anything. These two same-age lovers have to come to terms with pressing
issues as the story unfolds.
Crabtree himself is hanging on grimly to a job that was highlighted by Grady's original
success. But that was 10 years ago, and he's running out of extension time. "They're
both in crisis," says Downey jnr rather ironically, as he serves a three year jail
term for breaking parole when serving time for a drug offence. (Hanson visited him the
night before our interview and reports that the actor is doing well and should be out
before November 2000.)
"It reminds me of people in the 80s," says Downey, "who were living high
off the hog in New York and L.A. They were at all the clubs and had all the new clothes
and so on. Now, 10 years later, they're still wearing the same stuff and still trying to
ride on the same coattails, except it's not working anymore."
Sara's self-absorbed husband Walter Gaskell (Richard Thomas) is another wonder boy,
with his prized collection of Marilyn Monroe & Joe DiMaggio memorabilia.
"an incredible ensemble of actors"
And the most likely contender for the new wonder boy title is James Leer (Tobey
Maguire), a talented writing student "who lives in the world of his mind and his
typewriter," as Maguire describes him. Grady can never tell when James is making up
an outrageous story about himself; like being tortured in the basement of his parents'
"To me," adds Hanson, "the movie is not just about the curse of early
success, but that search for new direction." And it succeeds in a way that only the
perfect cast could deliver; Hanson agrees he was well served; "And I feel it's been
two in a row…in many ways this picture seemed so different to L.A. Confidential when
I was starting it. But there was a certain point about half way through, when I walked out
of the set having done a scene with Michael and Robert and Tobey - and it suddenly hit me
that in one way, the two pictures are remarkably similar: that is they are each
multi-character and in each of them I was blessed with an incredible ensemble of actors to
play these characters that I cared so much about."
And of course he was also blessed with a pretty good script. "Yes - obviously. And
that's where the characterisations start."
Hanson is now back at the script he started "just before Wonder Boys came along.
Meanwhile, I'm also reading other things. But it's hard for me because I put everything
I've got into what I'm doing and then when it ends, I have to sort of look around and
start all over again. I've never been somebody who played the development game
successfully, where you've got half a dozen projects out there and four might go by the
wayside but you've got two to do…"
He describes himself as "a movie lover before I am a movie maker," has been
chairman of the UCLA Film & Television Archives for the past year. "Movies are
the record of our lives, and of the culture that produced most of us, and it's tragic that
so many movies were treated so cavalierly in the past, not only allowed to destruct but
were destroyed intentionally, just to make space. And the UCLA Archive does great work in
terms of preserving old and new film as well. I've enjoyed going there seeing movies, and
in fact used the archives quite a bit on L.A. Confidential to put together the montage
footage of Los Angeles. So when the opportunity came to give something back to them by
serving in this role, I was eager and honoured to do it."
"the best filmmakers learn from old movies"
And as he points out, old movies are relevant because "the best filmmakers learn
from old movies; we just had this celebration of Billy Wilder's career. I invited six
filmmakers at random to come and talk about Wilder's films, just people whose work bore
debt to him. Filmmakers like Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia), Cameron Crowe
(Jerry Maguire), David O'Russell (Three Kings) . . . who were known by a young audience,
even if they didn't know much about Billy Wilder. It bridged the generation
But as for the next project, Hanson still doesn't know. "I'm still trying to
figure it out…" - like a regular wonder boy.
(July 27, 2000 [recorded June 2000])