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INT: John Stockwell

Mar. 27, 2007by: Matt Withers

What would you do if you were robbed at gunpoint by a glue-sniffing kid in Peru? Most of us would end up somewhere between the crossroads of Weeping Like A Child and Pooping Our Pants. John Stockwell took the experience and brought it to bear in TURISTAS (out on DVD today!), the first genre effort from an outstanding director who has given us CRAZY/BEAUTIFUL, BLUE CRUSH, and INTO THE BLUE.

I got a chance to chat with Stockwell the other day and he spilled on everything from what Brazil is really like to why the nitwits at the MPAA should be shot (I'm paraphrasing a bit there). In this day and age a lot of macho wannabes try to prove how tough they are. Despite the fact that he would never trumpet himself as such, get ready to meet the real deal.

John Stockwell

How are you today?

Good, I just got back from Chile so I'm lagging a little bit. I'm writing something and I can't get anything written in L.A.

What are you working on?

Some re-writes on KID CANNABIS, and I also have a movie called MIDDLE OF NOWHERE that will star Susan Sarandon and her daughter that I was working on.

Which one of those is gonna happen next?

I'm not sure. We'll just have to see what comes together.

That makes sense. It seems like you take a pretty relaxed approach to what you work on.

Yeah, that's true. I mean I've certainly said no to things, but I'd be frustrated by the Kim Peirce (BOYS DON'T CRY) thing - doing a great movie and then not working for 7 years. That would be hard for me. I love the experience of directing and working with actors, I love being on location, and I love exploring worlds and cultures.

What is your approach to working with actors? You're a pretty no bullshit kind of guy in a town thats notoriously filled with bullshit.

I try to direct as I had wished directors had handled me when I was an actor. I give a lot of freedom to let them explore. Some people really respond to it and some are a little intimidated. I think especially those actors coming out of television who are used to very regimented sets have a little trouble.

Josh [Duhamel] was like that at first, but as soon as he realized I wasn't bullshitting him, and no producer was going to come and knock him down, he loved it. Other actors are like, "You know what, I'm not getting paid to write your stuff. Just tell me what to say."

Somebody like Scott Caan is a genius. He can take anything and make it much better. Now I don't like it when actors say, "The script sucked and we saved it", because that rarely happens. But can some ad-lib and improv help a movie? Absolutely. If you ask that same actor to face a blank page and create a compelling screenplay...it's not so easy.

Being a director/writer, do you find it easier to work on projects that you wrote, or those written by others?

In a perfect world I'd like to be able to come at every directing project fresh. Writing for me is really painful and tedious, but everything that I get involved in I function in some form as a writer.

Not to do what I was just bashing about actors taking script credit, but there's no way that you can avoid having impact on the script. The WGA makes it very difficult for writer-directors to get credit. The standard is a lot higher. It's not something I really understand, but there's a long standing tension between the WGA and the DGA.

At the end of the day the credit should reflect who did write the movie instead of who should have written the movie.

Is it true Josh wanted his character to wear a Speedo?

I don't remember that, but he was willing to do anything. He was willing to make a fool of himself. He's got a goofiness to him which is nice because he's so traditionally good-looking and fit, yet he's really accessible. Just a good attitude.

'Cause we're in Brazil and nobody has trailers or craft service. It was kind of miserable at times, and he set a tone on set that was very positive. Maybe Melissa George or somebody wants a trailer, but as soon as they saw he was OK without it then they became OK without it.

Have you seen the plot keywords listed for Turistas on IMDB? They are Sickle, Vacation, Nudity, Tension and Disembowelment - maybe the greatest grouping ever.

[laughs] How do they come up with those?

Who knows. It's IMDB. Referencing vacation, though, have you been back to Brazil since Turistas opened, and if so, what was the reception like?

After production finished, but not since it opened. I felt bad because I have a lot of Brazilian friends and I know the movie upset a lot of Brazilians - most of whom haven't seen it.

I've had people come up and say, "you did this, and you did that, and there were monkeys on the beach, but there are no monkeys on the beach." To which I'm thinking there were no monkeys on the beach! Understandably they are sensitive to how their country is portrayed especially by foreigners.

Even when I did BLUE CRUSH there was a sense of - you're showing all Hawaiians as aggressive and territorial. At the end of the day the people are beautiful, the beaches are great, the weather is hot - I think that's what people take away from the film.

If you go to Brazil you shouldn't worry about losing an organ. There are lots of things to be worried about, but losing a kidney isn't one of them.

I have to admit that my initial reaction after watching TURISTAS was, "I am never f*cking going to Brazil!"


Not even for this? Nope!

Well maybe the Brazilians have a right to be pissed off. To be honest the original film was set in Guatemala, and the reason that we switched locations was because I wanted the sort of place where you can go from heaven to hell in like 5 seconds.

And Brazil is that. I think even Brazilians will acknowledge that you can be having the vacation of a lifetime, the women are beautiful, and then you turn down the wrong street, go up into a favelah, and things can go wildly off the rails. And going to the police isn't really an option. It's the reality of the country and that's why we set it there.

Is some of it just the fear of the unfamiliar, because L.A., D.C. and New York can go from heaven to hell pretty fast too if you're not careful.

But if you have a cell phone, you call 911 and you're pretty sure someone will show up. There are places in Rio where I wanted to scout and the police were like, "We don't go there. You need to go in with a drug lord as your escort." And you hear RPG rockets being fired - that's little bit different from New York.

But yeah, I've been robbed in L.A. around the corner from my house. Things can happen anywhere. I just like the idea of playing on Americans paranoia and fear of leaving the sanctity and security of their own country.

You found the project about a month after you were robbed at gunpoint in Peru right?

I had just gotten back and it was on my desk.

So that was about two years ago now?

Yeah.

Looking back on it, do you think you would have picked that project if you hadn't just had that experience?

I don't know. I mean my biggest issue is that when you're screening it and people are like, "ahh, you saw HOSTEL and got this idea?" Well I didn't even know about HOSTEL. You never want to appear as though you're riding on another film's coattails.

I think anyone who has seen both will recognize they are very different films. TURISTAS really forces the audience to ask what would it be like, what would they do, if this was happening to them.

I'm not worried about people who have seen both. It's just in the world of marketing, if people feel like they've seen something before, or a project is a copycat, they tend to rebel against it a little bit. Of course the marketing people want to model their campaign after something that has been successful.

Do you ever get frustrated by the marketing of your films? It seems that much like Michael Mann, your films don't lend themselves well to 30 second TV spots.

It's probably the most difficult area to stand up and put your foot down. Because they always say this spot tested better than the one you like, or our one-sheet tested better than your one sheet. And at the end of the day, our job is to get asses in seats. Our job is to get people there for that first weekend. Your job is to get them there the second through fourth weekends.

So I've had experiences where I've sat and seen 20 posters and said that's the one I'd respond to, and they'll say you're wrong, here's the one we're going to use. So I'd have an assistant take the posters to a mall and they're always right.

I will absolutely put my foot down on things like changing something because the audience didn't like it when a character was unlikable or compromised, but if you hold firm on the type of movie you make, then some of those marketing aspects are simply out of your hands.

I guess TURISTAS must have been an easier marketing fit, because in relation to your other work where you've subverted known archetypes, you seemed to really embrace the archetypes in TURISTAS so you could focus on creating a gut-wrenching experience.

That's a fair analysis of it. I feel like there's a whole component to selling a movie that has so little to do with what the movie actually is. Fortunately there's the opportunity for people to discover movies they didn't see in the theater on DVD, cable, and numerous options on the internet.

I'm shocked by things that I did as an actor that I figure no one has ever seen, but 20 years later somebody comes up and goes, "Hey, I saw you in MY SCIENCE PROJECT." You cannot escape anything you've ever done.

How involved were you with putting the DVD together?

I worked on the "Making of..." and I did a commentary track. We also have an unrated version that allowed me to put back in a lot things that we had to cut to avoid getting an NC-17.

Unlike a lot of Unrated DVD's, TURISTAS is almost 10 minutes longer than the theatrical release.

Yeah, I was surprised. They were telling me that sometimes it's literally like 4 seconds difference.

Some of the extra footage involves the scene with the Brazilian prostitute. Will you talk some about how you approach sensuality in your films?

I'm always interested in the awkward and uncomfortable nature of relationships as they go down. I loved in CRAZY/BEAUTIFUL when [Kirsten Dunst]'s dad is outside the window and she's trying to seduce Jay Hernandez. The whole getting a condom...what's weird is when she went to the kitchen to get a condom the MPAA wanted to cut that out. I said this is the first time in a teen movie where we're practicing safe sex. How can you not be a huge advocate of that? They just don't like to acknowledge sex is actually happening.

Television honestly is more tolerant than film is. You have to be so careful with a PG-13 movie. You'll get an R if an extra is drinking a beer, but on THE O.C. you can show everybody doing bong hits. I'm curious with KID CANNABIS, about kids bringing in weed from British Columbia, and am I almost sure it's going to get an R.

There's a huge tolerance for violence and gore, but not so much for drugs, or language or sexuality.

Speaking of violence, youve said you prefer to face a knife to a gun. Do you ever sit back and think, holy shit Ive lived a life that allows me to contemplate that question?

I've actually faced more guns than knives. When I was robbed in Peru my biggest fear was that this kid would accidentally shoot me, because his hands were shaking and he was clearly high. When I was robbed in L.A. the robber was really calm and cool...it was a lot easier experience to handle and tolerate.

That's crazy. Since you are a well-traveled person, what do you think of the "ugly American" stereotype TURISTAS addresses through Zamora's speech?

There's truth behind every stereotype. His rant is a sort of socio-political, quasi-socialist take on things. I'm actually shocked nowadays by how little I see of Americans. I just got back from India and I saw none. Maybe they're all on tours and buses, and going to different places than I'm going. I think Americans right now are a little nervous about going too far off the beaten path.

I think the biggest issue for Americans, and I'm just as guilty of this as anyone, is that we expect everyone to speak English. We've gotten so lazy that ... all my foreign friends speak multiple languages, but then we go to a country and start rattling off in English and get surprised when the waiter doesn't understand us.

Before you go I do have to thank you on behalf of all men for the bikini shots of Jessica Alba in INTO THE BLUE.

[laughs] I get that a lot. Seriously, she's somebody who's very comfortable in her own skin, but I also think is very sensitive about only being valued for her looks. Obviously she is a very skilled actress. I certainly understand her perspective because I was shocked that I could cut whole sections of INTO THE BLUE and the studio was fine with it, but if I cut one Jessica Alba ass shot the executives would notice it.

You do a great job of allowing those moments to play out with an eye toward realism rather than going for maximum exploitative value.

I just try to shoot what makes sense and what is necessary to tell the story. If a movie is set around water then there are going to be bikinis.

No woman waking up after a night of sex with her bra still on?

Not if I can help it.

Well thanks for taking the time today, and I hope you get some sleep now!

Me too.

Here's hoping John got a well deserved rest. While TURISTAS was his first genre effort, it was a solid entry made all the more interesting when you know some of the backstory. The guy creates great films and doesn't make a fuss about it. Hollywood needs more of his breed.

BUY TURISTAS ON DVD TODAY!!

BUY TURISTAS ON DVD TODAY!!

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