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INT: Bill Condon

Bill Condon is someone to be congratulated and respected. Not only does he lack any reservations about consistently sporting Elvis Costello shades, but he has managed to take the tired, overwrought biopic drama genre, and resuscitate it by creating memorable films about fascinating figures. In GODS & MONSTERS, which earned him the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar, he depicts the last chapter of "Frankenstein" director James Whale’s life, reminiscing on his youth and fantasizing about erotically plowing the gardener.

In KINSEY, he refreshes people’s memories of Alfred Kinsey, a groundbreaking scientist in the 1940s who revolutionized sexual discussion and redefined the concept of ‘sexual normalcy’. He was very controversial for his time, as many men were not willing to accept the reality of their wives contemplating same sex relations or having extramarital affairs, even though they were off doing the same. The world was not ready for Kinsey’s findings at the time they were published, and to this day, there are still people trying to discredit his work.

Condon was very smiley and friendly when he entered the room to be interviewed. He was surprised to find that people assumed he was British, when he was in fact, born in New York. You can tell that he has a strong affinity for movies, and loves that he is given the opportunity to write and direct them. We can only hope that unlike his screenplay for THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER, Condon will stick around and not vanish into obscurity.

~~~ interview contains minor spoilers about the movie ~~~

BILL CONDON

How do you come to pick bio dramas like Gods & Monsters and Kinsey?

Yeah. I don’t know. I guess in both cases I was so attracted to the characters, you know? With Whale, I found it so useful that the movies were such a complete expression of who he was, and when I started reading about Kinsey, I felt the same thing. I felt that the sex work was so propelled by personal need and then I was interested in how he applied the sex work-- that he was discovering about sex in his own life. It felt that you could maybe overcome one of the problems sometimes with movies like this, where it’s about an artist but you don’t get to really see the art or the writer. You get the health problems and the love life things. But here you could deal with the work in a substantial way because it was illuminating things about him.

While casting Kinsey, what drew you to Liam Neeson for the title role of the academic scientist fascinated by gall wasps, and ultimately, sex?

Well, first of all, the physicality really matched Kinsey. Kinsey was six foot five and he had this kind of leader-of-men quality. He would stride into a room and – actually, Liam does this very well in the movie – but he would just start talking before people would even look up and suddenly they would be silent. He was very charismatic. And I think also I had read some descriptions of Kinsey as a ‘gentle giant,’ and it seems to me that’s not a bad description of Liam, either. But other than a kind of real respect for Liam’s brilliance as an actor, that comes as much from his stage work as his film work.  His performances in Anna Christie and The Crucible, I thought, were really just extraordinary, you know?

This was such a tough character to have at the center of a movie, it seems to me, because I think in American movies, the audience is always kind of flattered by the idea that the person that they’re watching, that they’re investing their time in, always has the best comeback, the last word, the smartest take, the most sensitive take, or something like that. And in fact in many of the scenes, Kinsey is not in on the joke. He’s the one at that dining room table who doesn’t understand how to behave. That makes for good social comedy, but at a certain point you could really lose patience with a character like that. I think that’s the kind of hidden brilliance of what Liam pulls off, that he’s able, through those scenes, to keep you interested because I think he’s expressing, through his eyes and bits of behavior, all the other stuff that’s going on that’s made him into somebody who is such a social oaf, for example. A really tough performance to pull off, I think.

Something I was also nervous about as a writer, was putting somebody like this at the center of a movie, somebody who’s lecturing as much as he is. Again, Liam’s way with words. It’s that innate Irish thing, you know. Even though he’s suppressing that accent, I think that he makes you hear the words and he actually brings a little poetry to them. So it doesn’t feel as if you’ve just been overwhelmed by three lengthy lectures – which actually happens in the movie!

Can you talk a little about your decision to cast Laura Linney and Peter Sarsgaard?

Well, Laura was the first one I cast, because she’s the heart of the movie and, in a way, as important to the film as Kinsey himself. She’s the way in. You first see her, staring up with this schoolgirl crush on this teacher and I think that’s when the movie finally starts to kick in, because you have a way to seeing this character, and all of her qualities. Sometimes I think, ‘could she have been this good?’ But I never found anybody who had anything that much bad to say about her. But this fierce intelligence, this loyalty, this open-mindedness and empathy for people. Those are just things I think you find when you meet Laura Linney, so – and I just thought again, it was just being an admirer of her, of both her film and her stage work. There was a great benefit, too, that she knows Liam and that she’d spent six months on stage with him in The Crucible, and there’s a comfort level and a rapport between the two that I don’t think can develop so easily in a short rehearsal period.

With Peter, he is playing the personification of the Kinsey scale, and he’s the seducer, of both of them, in a way. Even the fact that the movie opens with him, kind of seducing the audience, staring right at the camera, and I do think that’s something very unique to Peter. I think he’s very in touch with all sides of his, with both his masculine and his feminine side. There’s something very seductive about him and he’s just also just a complete original as an actor. It always strikes me when you write something and you’ve heard it for the first time, and somebody is suddenly playing these blue notes over and over again and saying things differently from what you expect, but it always – it just makes it real in a way that’s original.

Peter Sarsgaard mentioned that you refrained from calling ‘Cut’ for a long time, during his kissing scene with Liam Neeson. Was that a conscious decision?

Yeah, I just wanted to see how far it was going to go (laughs). It never got to far from where it started.

What does Kinsey, a social scientist from the ‘40s and ‘50s, have to say to audiences in 2004?

I think so much. I think – well, there’s one big idea, which again, taken from biology, this idea of individual variation that he applies to sexuality: Every one of us has a different sexuality. And that’s not the simple, “Do you like men or women or both?” It’s that whole range of hundreds of questions that he asks. At the same time, we all have this need to feel that we’re normal. These interviews would inevitably end with the question, “Am I normal? Am I normal? Am I normal?” Of course, Kinsey didn’t believe in the word “normal.” He thought “common” or “rare.” He didn’t think that anything that existed in nature could be defined as unnatural, either. But the impulse to be part of the group and to suppress your own individual sexuality to get there, I don’t think that’s changed at all.

I think maybe in different parts of the world – different parts of our own country, there are different expectations of the group now, but you take – for example, there was a recent study that said one percent of Americans are asexual. So imagine the asexually inclined 15-year-old girl in the Sandra Dee era. You can lead a pretty kind of nice life, where you aren’t constantly being bombarded with this expectation that you would be sexual and that Kinsey would describe Freudian psychology as being the reinvention of sex as neurosis. But you know, somebody like that in our culture might be considered blocked. There are various charges. There might be more social pressure in a city, let’s say, on that 15-year-old girl to do something, and therefore, she’s distorting her individuality to become part of the group. So I don’t think that tension ever changes. It just gets redefined in different ways. For him, it’s why he didn’t believe in the term “homosexual” or “heterosexual” even. It’s sort of not defining yourself by any specific sexual act, but the true thing to strive for is somebody embracing their complete individuality.

Why do you think many people haven’t heard about Kinsey? He is rarely even mentioned in science or history classes in schools.

I know, it’s amazing, I mean, for somebody who was so famous in his time. That moment that the book appeared, he had withheld – he had asked a lot of main reporters for major outlets not to write about it. So they all came to Bloomington at once, and they all wrote about practically on the same day and he was as famous as anybody you can imagine. But he has faded. I think partly because the funding was slashed and he died sort of at a moment when the ideas were not as embraced. Then the ‘60s came and Masters and Johnson and the popularization of talk about sex in the ‘70s, and he just seemed like one step along the way, probably.

Were there aspects of his life that you didn’t add into the movie?

No, I didn’t. I was intent on including them all, because I mean obviously, he had a lot more sex than what I got to show in two hours. But if there was anything, it was things that didn’t speak to the point. For example, he and his wife lost their child, their first child, at the age of four. I think in maybe a cuddlier movie that would have been something that made you warm up to him. But to me, thematically, it didn’t speak to the issue of what drove this extraordinary guy to do this thing in the most unlikely place and time, you know?

It was actually Kinsey who came on to Martin, not the other way around.

To me, that doesn’t seem significant. I’ll tell you why I did it. It was simply because the truth of it was that Kinsey, as far as we know, wasn’t acting on his homosexual desires until the ‘40s and was very, very nervous about those first encounters, which happen more in his first forays to Chicago to gay bars and the whole scene that he discovered there. So the attitude was similar. Clyde came along a little later. It seemed to me the most important thing again, was the contradictions of this character – somebody who is talking so openly about sex and yet he’s having trouble acting on his own inclinations to the point where he’s in his mid-‘40s and having a first experience. So that’s why – and it was not a betrayal of Clyde’s character, because Clyde was very open sexually. Clyde was the one who suggested having sex with Mac, so to me it just felt like I was collapsing a little bit. But as you say, I don’t think that’s any sort of big distortion or anything.

How can you make a movie with $11 million?

In New York, that was what was tough, because it doesn’t go far here. Again, it’s an unlikely thing to come to New York to make a movie that’s set in the Midwest. Filming it mostly out in New Jersey – that became a tough thing – sort of just the hours added to the day, but worth it because of the actors. There were a hundred speaking parts and all these great theatre actors who would come in for a couple of hours. But the 11 million was very, very tight. The 37-day shoot was incredibly tight. There was always the pressure of getting to the end of that day and getting as much done as you hoped to, you know?  Again, it was the actors who got us through. We did three weeks of rehearsal, everyone came in for at least a day, so when you get there, they’re all letter perfect and you’re not losing any time with them. That’s the only way you can make a movie like this, in that time.

Was it difficult finding the particular structure for the script?

It was very hard. It took me into the second draft. I knew, that as opposed to Gods & Monsters, which only deals with a moment in his life, I would have preferred something like that. But because these early childhood experiences, early marriage … all those so informed who he was, there no way not to deal with the entire scope of his life. Inevitably that leads to flashbacks. That’s a form that I don’t really much like in movies. I think it’s a lazy storytelling device. So in the first draft, I’d come up with this idea of having the movie hosted by a character based on someone I talked to, Clarence Tripp, who had been an acolyte of Kinsey’s. Ian McKellen had agreed to play him. It was a fun device, a kind of nonfiction device where he got to throw around a lot of the ideas. But what happened was, I started to worry that it put the entire story of the movie into the past tense. There was just too much dislocation in having this kind of narrator/host.

So I was sitting down with the second draft, and I just took my cue from Kinsey – every gall wasp is different, everybody’s sexuality is different, then every movie should be different. Every biopic should be true to its subject; what were the things that were unique about Kinsey? I made a list and high up on them was this incredible interviewing technique. And I remembered that he used his own sex histories as a way to train and I thought, “Oh my God, the whole movie is his sex history!” And I thought, “Oh my God, how could I have been so dense for a year and a half?” It seems so obvious and simple when it hits you – but it took that long to come up with it.

The movie is admirably unsentimental. At the end of the day, with all the work you put in, did you end up liking Kinsey?

I did, yeah. I ended up ultimately identifying with certain things about him, and I think one thing is that I’d love to have spent an hour with him. People would describe him as being extraordinarily smart on a huge range of subjects, even though he was this person whose favorite form of social interaction was this mini-lecture that he’d give. So just to hear him speak for an hour … he was inspiring to people – just the amount he knew and his love of knowledge in imparting it.

Source: JoBlo.com

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