Monday, April 23, 2007

CIVIC DUTY—The Evening Class Interview With Peter Krause

Now here's something to take note of. When Civic Duty showcased at the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival, critics responded variously—as they are wont to do (or as they want to do)—with Franck Scheck of The Hollywood Reporter describing the film as "[a] compelling psychological thriller that well taps into our current national paranoia about terrorism" and one which is "consistently engrossing in its exploration of the fine line between civic duty and vigilantism" and, on the other hand, Justin Chang of Variety complaining that "[t]he screaming all but drowns out the provocative arguments" the film raises. The point being, however, that the ending to the film they reviewed at Tribeca has since been modified. The movie these critics saw is not the movie that audiences will see at the multiplex. So what's done in an instance like that? If the edits are noticeably different (which, in this case, appear true), are the reviews revised in these major trade journals? Or is it a one shot one chance deal with Variety and The Hollywood Reporter? Just an idle question for anyone who might know. For those interested in a plot synopses, I recommend Charlie Prince's at Cinema Strikes Back though, again, some of his arguments and concerns are based upon the Tribeca screening.

Peter Krause—best known for his portrayal of Nate Fisher in TV's popular series Six Feet Under—is every bit as handsome if not moreso than his on screen persona. I was as nervous meeting him as I was meeting Elisha Cuthbert. What is that? I can speak to the world's most creative auteurs and not miss a beat, can stifle a yawn with exquisite grace, but sit me down with a sexy actor or actress and I don't know what to do with my thumbs. I am clearly the child of a strange culture where celebrity is confused with an iconic religiosity. As a member of his queer fan base, I wanted to congratulate Krause on not waxing his chest for Hollywood, but lost all nerve when the time came. What a wuss I yam. I did manage to compliment him for his sensitive and queer-affirmative portrayal of straight brother Nate, for which he thanked me.

[Please be advised that there are several spoilers within the course of this conversation and for those who are spoiler-wary, it would be advisable to return to this discussion after seeing the film.]

* * *

Michael Guillén: Congratulations on Civic Duty. Yours is a fine, powerful performance…

Peter Krause: Why, thanks.

Guillén: …and a provocative script.

Krause: That was the point.

Guillén: Franck Scheck of The Hollywood Reporter said of your performance in Civic Duty that you are "particularly skillful at portraying the darkness underlying a handsome façade." [Krause ducks his head and chuckles.] That quality was a large part of Nate Fisher's character and surfaces again here in the role of beleaguered accountant Terry Allen. Is that quality of innate darkness something you're attracted to when you're looking for a character to play? Why do you choose those roles?

Krause: I can't really address the handsome façade, but in terms of the darkness underneath, everybody has a certain amount of darkness. I may have a little more than my fair share or am willing or able to access that sort of thing. Especially with Terry Allen, the obsessive fear is a cause of great concern for me so I like to examine that. I think it definitely comes out of a sense of self-preservation. For Terry Allen in particular it comes out of a deep need to be a hero. There is so little opportunity for him to feel like a hero in his own life or to feel like he controls anything meaningful in his own life. Being a cog in the machine as an accountant—in whatever company it was that he was working for—didn't feed his soul. Wrapped up a lot inside of whatever else is going on in the film [is] the male psyche in America not having what it needs to feel like a heroic individual. That's just gone. What opportunities does an accountant have to feel really heroic? And there is a need for people to feel that; that's why we have sports, rooting for the home team and watching others perform heroics on the field. The longer human beings are around, the less heroic warfare seems, certainly. At least to me it's a lot more barbaric than heroic and, as a kid seeing war films and things like that, the music and the way it was presented, there's a lot of heroism in there that was going on. I don't know if there's anything heroic, ever, about taking another human life.

Guillén: Some critics have made allusions to the film's resemblance to Hitchcock's Rear Window. Why that intrigues me—more than Civic Duty specifically resembling Rear Window—is how your performance as Terry Allen in Civic Duty falls within the same kind of performance as Jimmy Stewart's in Rear Window. You've recently taken on characters who have an inner turmoil, an anguished ambivalency, reminiscent of Stewart's performances. You join that league of actors who represent Everyman, but not a perfect Everyman.

Krause: No, no, how can we be? Given the world that we're born into? It's a big mess. It's not easy.

Guillén: As a producer of the film, it's my understanding that you actually had a lot to do with shaping Terry Allen's character. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Krause: Sure. When I first met Andrew Joiner, the writer, and Jeff Renfroe, the director, they were almost ready to part company because they had different visions of things. At that meeting I said, "If I'm going to do this, we'll have to change some things about the script. I want to be brought on as a producer and reshape the script with you. I want to rewrite it." I wanted to take Terry—who had been written as a conservative character (like the character Michael Douglas played in Falling Down); who had a "Buy American" bumper sticker on his car, a right wing guy—and I felt that this kind of paranoia immediately following 9/11 was pretty ubiquitous and it was nondiscriminatory. Everybody felt the threat and for good reason: jet airliners were being flown into buildings in the U.S. and exploding and killing people! I thought that it would be giving the conservative members of our country the opportunity to lash out and feel like they're being made fun of. Also, if another terrorist attack did happen, suddenly [audiences would think] this is a stupid movie about a crazy conservative American. By the same token, it would allow liberal people to lean back, point at the screen and laugh and say, "Oh, but that's not me." Well, we're all in it. We're all a part of the country here, the U.S., and it is a scary time. We're in so deep from the last 50-60 whatever it is number of years that we've been messing around in other peoples' countries and lesser-developed nations and now it's blown up in our face. We're at a point where the division between liberal and conservative is just stupid to me.

So I was more interested in creating a character who represented the silent majority. The liberals have a voice, the conservatives have a voice, and they're the friggin' minority. This mass of people who are complacent and just sit back, [I want to shout,] "Wake up!" In some ways Civic Duty is a cry for help from the silent majority: have a voice, speak up! [Gesturing to the movie's poster where Krause is shown in profile with a cellular phone and a gun.] This is their voice. Their voice is the voice of the person with the loaded gun in their hand screaming, "I don't care!" Their voice is the voice that says, "I am not my country. I don't get to vote on foreign policy. I can't control anything." Well, if you want to control foreign policy, have a voice. Whether you like it or not—I've written this in an article for Moving Pictures magazine, it's just a small thing so you can use it—I just wrote that we are our country, like it or not. "I am not my country" is an empty prayer. We want to say that. We want to say, "I am not my country" but we have a military that represents us. They're in Iraq and Afghanistan and they represent us. Those are our armed representatives. I don't think a lot of times people think that way.

There were a couple of critics [at the Tribeca Film Festival] who faulted us about the ending of the film, saying, "I saw that ending coming a mile away. It would have been much more shocking if your character Terry had shot himself in the head." I thought, "I don't think that would be reflecting the world that we live in very accurately." A month after the festival, there was a pregnant Iraqi woman being rushed to the hospital to deliver her baby and they drift through a Marine checkpoint and our U.S. Marines proceeded to shoot everybody in the car dead. I heard some guy having a conversation saying, "Oh God, I can't believe those Marines." I know they didn't mean that like, "Oh those Marines"; but those Marines, that's us. That's the U.S.A. The ending of Civic Duty obviously is about an innocent in the midst of aggressive conflict getting killed. And if an innocent gets killed in the midst of aggressive conflict, is the conflict worth it? It immediately becomes, "No. Of course not."

Guillén: Well, I know that the ending of Civic Duty has been staged to be purposely ambiguous so that there's some question as to whether or not Terry Allen's suspicion of his neighbor is accurate. The real ending of this film for me, however, and the singular image that I consider a brilliant stroke was the coda where we're shown Terry committed to some institution after the tragic death of his wife. He's shown looking at the TV screen on which a golf game is in progress. That golf game is reflected in the pupil of his eye; but, he's seeing something else and the audience becomes aware that what he is seeing is a paranoid delusion. For me, that disturbing image registered that the real villain in this situation was neither Terry Allen in his misguided obsession nor the neighbor he suspected; but, the media disinformation. Can you speak to that?

Krause: We sat in front of televisions in this country for months on end after 9/11. We wanted information. I don't know if it was some primitive desire for more horror—"What's going to happen next?"—some sense of dreadful anticipation that kept us in front of the TV or if it was wanting information—"Please tell me what to think? Tell me what world I live in"—and I think for quite a while we all believed that we lived in this world where there were thousands of terrorist cells existing in the U.S. and that at any moment bridges across the U.S. were going to be exploded, that buildings were going to be toppling. There was a time when most people thought that in this country; that it was really going to become unraveled. At the same time—depending upon how our foreign policies and our corporations behave globally—I don't know if this is going to go away. I suspect because of the worldwide dependency on fossil fuels that this sort of activity is probably going to continue.

Guillén: It was an odd reflexive moment for me because earlier in the film—when Terry discovered the ATM envelopes and the mysterious beakers full of liquid in Gabe's apartment—the first thing I thought of was, "Oh my God, he's going to poison innocent people by applying that liquid to the envelopes."

Krause: Wow, you're way ahead of the curve.

Guillén: But then that didn't come up until the very end of the film. And then when it did, I thought, "You have the selfsame paranoia as Terry Allen!" That's how implicit it is. I'm not praising myself for guessing anything; I'm saying I had this odd reflexive moment of recognizing a familiar paranoia within myself.

Krause: Yeah.

Guillén: So what are your hopes for this movie?

Krause: I don't know that it will happen but we tried to make a suspense thriller, a psychological thriller, that would appeal to a broad audience. Perhaps somebody who saw this in a conservative part of the country might think, "Yeah, man, we gotta watch it because they're still out there." I don't know, it's sort of a Rorschach test for people in some ways—"What do you see in the film?"—but, there's a lot more going on obviously. We tried to lay in a number of different things. One of my desires too when I was helping these guys reshape this, I said, "We have to echo the world we live in." It doesn't matter necessarily whose mouth it comes out of; it's going to shift. When the time is right maybe something can come out of Richard Schiff's mouth [Schiff plays FBI Agent Hillary] where he represents something other than just a FBI agent. For instance, when he says to Terry Allen, "I don't owe you an explanation." Just that moment. Just that moment; it's an echo of the government: I don't owe you an explanation. Well, the truth is, they do owe us an explanation. The scene with Marla [Terry Allen's wife, played by Kari Matchett] when she says, "Don't we have enough problems at home?" That's another echo. When Terry Allen is saying to Gabe Hassan [the suspected neighbor, played by Egyptian actor Khaled Abol Naga in his first English-speaking role], and this is when [Terry's] got the gun on top of [Gabe's] head and he's pointing it down and he's saying, "Just tell me the truth. Just tell me the truth." Just tell me where the weapons of mass destruction are. All these little echoes. These actions that you've seen out there by your government, when you put them into people, it's worse. Seeing somebody say to somebody else, "I don't owe you an explanation"; this is vile. If you see somebody who doesn't really care about the truth, who just wants to hear what they want to hear, and they've got a gun at somebody else's head, it's so frightfully disturbing! But, as a metaphor, it's truly what the U.S. was doing at that time. The military were bombing the fuck out of [Afghanistan and Iraq], were sending in troops, armed to the teeth, saying, "Where are the fucking weapons of mass destruction?" with guns pointed at their heads. "Where are they?" "We don't have any!" "Where are they?" You see [average] people doing that and it's a little more like, "Eeeeeuwwww." I hope that the movie reaches a lot of people. I don't know if it will. I can't tell.

Guillén: I wouldn't be so hesitant. It's an effective, provocative thriller. Maybe it has a message people are tired of hearing and don't want to hear anymore but, hopefully, they'll recognize its fresh insights.

Krause: I'm more interested in the provocative part. The thriller part is what will get it seen by a lot of people—and that's something I'm not sure yet of—but I think the ending helps us. Like you were talking about—the reflection is a very important image that we had to get later. That wasn't in the Tribeca Film Festival.

Guillén: That wasn't included in the screening at Tribeca??!

Krause: No. Originally, also, the ending of the film in the original script, Gabe Hassan is a terrorist. I said, "Andrew, you can't do that. We can't make a right wing propaganda fear-thy-neighbor movie. We cannot do that. That's not taking into consideration the racial profiling that was rampant after 9/11." He said, "Yeah, but it's shocking!" I said, "Yeah, all the while the audience thinks he's not and then he is and Terry's vindicated…"

Guillén: Personally, I'm glad you rallied.

Krause: I said, "It's not important whether he is or isn't. What's important is that they're afraid of each other and that they're complicit in living in this fucked-up fear-filled world." It's not a place that you want to live. Hopefully, when people walk out of [the film], they'll be glad that they live in this world and not that world; though that world is pretty close to the world that we actually live in.

Guillén: Thank you very much. I need to wrap up.

Krause: Great talking to you.

Cross-published at Twitch.


Cathleen Rountree said...

Nice interview, and excellent question you pose at the opening of this piece. I often find myself wanting to tweak reviews/notes even after they are posted or published. The blog-posting form is no problem, but the published version, well, c'est la vie...
Also, I know what you mean re the "religiosity of celebrity"––weird, huh?
Here's a fun synchronicity: my son just emailed me to say he saw Krause in the elevator of his (my son's) highrise in South Beach on Brannan. Both of us were great fans of SIX FEET UNDER. He said the actor was decked out in a suit. I've passed on the link to your interview. Ciao!

Michael Guillen said...

He was decked out in a suit when I interviewed him too. I was wearing my wall-eyed Marty Feldman t-shirt. We shook hands and I said, "If I had known we were supposed to dress up...." He laughed. He was well-groomed for a photo shoot.

Thanks for the response to my query. The ability to tweak is one of the main reasons I love blogging.

Cathleen Rountree said...

This is a deceptively simply question you raise re changing reviews. Another thought ocurred to me, which compounds the issue: Teaching at UCSC, increasingly i see students using the internet as sources for their research (as a result, i (and many instructors) have had to limit, and have very strict parameters around, what they can use). Here's my point: What happens when someone quotes material from a blog (or from the internet, in general) and then the blog author later changes their commentary? this is something i hadn't thought of before. Thanks for bringing it up. It's another one of those "new media" conundrums.

Michael Guillen said...

Cathleen, I'm curious, what kinds of limits do you place on your students for Internet research? I know that there has been some discussion among internet journalists about style guidelines for their work and I completely support that venture. Perhaps when someone is quoting from a piece on the net, it should be requisite that they indicate the date/time stamp?