Bill Pullman is the quintessential actor whose choice of roles has covered the width and breadth of American cinema. Trained in the theater and equally at home on the film screen or the television screen, Pullman personifies the ‘every man hero’ in such roles as the President of the United States in Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day as easily as the slightly left of center characters like the Mafia ‘fixer’ in John Dahl’s You Kill Me and the saxophonist Fred Madison in David Lynch’s Lost Highway.
In his latest film, Surveillance, Pullman plays FBI agent Sam Hallaway who, along with partner Elizabeth Anderson (Julia Ormond), investigates a string of violent murders and heinous crime scenes that plague a long stretch of highway across a windy, barren landscape. In this darkly disturbing, Rashomon-inspired thriller directed by Jennifer Lynch and executive produced by David Lynch, the Feds slowly expose the fragile little details each witness conceals so carefully with a well practiced lie. But, when the ‘truth’ finally begins to emerge, it comes at an enormous price that no one expects.
Bill Pullman is an amazingly versatile actor and we really appreciated his time. Here’s what he had to tell us about Surveillance:
Q: What was it about this script that made you say I’ve got to do this?
BILL PULLMAN: I’ve known Jennifer for a long time and always wanted to work with her. She’s managed to tell everybody that I turned her down [laughs], which makes me sound like I’m awfully smug about myself when I ought to be a lucky fucker or something. When I [first] read the script, I didn’t hear her voice in that draft. She collaborated with somebody on it and I never did get into all of it, but I just didn’t know what this thing was. It felt more genre than Jennifer. Then, when I read it again a year later, which I think is when she gave it to me, that’s when I heard her own wacked humor and word choices, everything. Then, I talked to her and I thought, “Jeez, this is the only thing I want to do. I don’t want to do anything other than this.” I was lucky that she stuck in there with me. As everybody knows, it’s very hard for any director of any independent movie, and then if you’re a woman, that’s another thing. She’d gone through a dark door for a long period and was coming back. A lot of gratifications to doing movies, but I can tell you there wasn’t anything that was more satisfying than to be at Cannes with her a year ago and seeing her stand up in front of everybody and looking gorgeous and just accepting the fact that they were digging the movie. It was such a great, great time.
What was it you liked about the character?
BILL PULLMAN: I liked Jennifer’s invitation that it was a love story. It’s a romantic comedy. [Laughs] Sometimes when you really try to be earnest, everything disappears. If you really try to make a romantic movie, the first thing that goes out the window is the romance or real passion. It suddenly becomes cute-ville or cozy-ville. It’s another world other than life. This one was about two people who meet each other who are so intoxicated by each other they can’t sleep. They live outside society’s laws which classically the romantic movement defines itself as all about being outside the constraints of civilization — a bourgeois sentiment that makes us all abide by codes that get totally rewritten inside the romantic relationship.
Did you feel it was a lot different from most roles you’ve done?
BILL PULLMAN: Yeah, I did. I mean, it was different. Most of the movie was inside the part of the story where we’re FBI agents who need to hide the fact that we have something more going on than just a professional thing. Clearly there’s something between us that’s different than what most FBI agents will care to admit. Everybody was pretty up for that, but then the last 3 days is when we shoot that stuff that’s towards the end of the movie. That 3 days, I don’t know if I could go 40 days at that 3 days because it was disturbing for a lot of people on the set. They’d come to like Pullman. [Laughs]
What’s the challenge of playing someone you think is one thing and turns out to be something totally different?
BILL PULLMAN: We just had to shoot fast so we didn’t do a lot of takes of every angle. You just do a couple days. We were running out of time. We had this thing where we were shooting two different endings and then it all happened in this room where not a lot of people could be because of the sound and everything. You’re just living in there with Jennifer cackling away going “Oh this is fucking nasty. I love it. Go, go!” It’s inside. You give yourself provisional license.
Did you see the twist coming when you read the script?
BILL PULLMAN: No, I don’t think I did. Also, I don’t think anybody on the set saw it coming. It was one of those things where everybody was having… Jennifer keeps a lively thing going and everybody had been making the movie and really appreciating her spirit. She’s very generous. She respects everybody. There’d be these times when this Canadian crew that we had was just like, “What was that?!” It was good to go, and a lot of times she would say at the end of a take, “Nasty, Pullman. C’mon, let’s go again. Alright. What else you got? Show me. Let’s go again.” We were just throwing the net and hoping we caught it.
How detailed did you get as far as the background of the character before the events in this film? How important is it to you to know that past in order to bring the character to life?
BILL PULLMAN: To tell you the truth, my dearest love of life, Julia, did go and study the FBI working with victims of violence and everything. From my point of view, I think we improvised the idea of who we were. I don’t think we had a lot of information. We just had attitude. I spent a little time with certain literature about psychopaths. Our case that we’re investigating is being followed by the FBI because there’s been a string of murders along the country, so you know you’re dealing with psychopaths. There’s books like this Hervey Cleckley, 1941, The Mask of Sanity, which was one of the first complete treatises about psychopaths and psychopathic people. Then, there’s another book called Without Conscience by Robert Hare and that was in the 90s. They’re all portraits of these people who live outside the constraints the rest of us have to live with. Not all killers. They have a lot of time and different definitions of what is a psychopath, what is a sociopath, what is a psycho-affective thing, what is a psychogenic feud, you know, those kind of things.
What do you think happens to your character at the end of the movie after the final scene?
BILL PULLMAN: I think they just went through the whole tank of gas. They drove until it hit empty and then stopped.
Was it important for you to stay separated from Ryan at the beginning of filming?
BILL PULLMAN: No. She lived across the hall from me. [Laughs] Why? Did she say I avoided her?
No, only as far as the movie went, because of the distant relationship you have in the film at the beginning.
BILL PULLMAN: I feel like my character was so living in the moment, there wasn’t anything like conscience or premonition. It was so much about I am loving this situation and I love that we’re watching everybody and playing this game, Julia and I. I’m enjoying all the actors in the drama and she’s one of them and then to realize that she’s seeing things that the others aren’t really makes me more intrigued, and then there’s a reveal at the end about that. It’s basically she’s the one that wasn’t living some lie.
How was it like on set?
BILL PULLMAN: It was pretty crazy. Jennifer has a great spirit and I think everybody was feeling like they could do what they wanted to do. All the actors were glad to be there. Jennifer brought along certain core actors. She’s loyal as hell. All those people that were playing different parts, most of them she knew for doing small films – like French Stewart, Kent Harper and Charlie Newmark. They were like her posse. They travel with her and are real believers in her. They’re into that thing where, “Aren’t these dailies the best fuckin’ dailies you’ve ever seen?” I’m like the old horse that says, “I’ve been whipped by that lash before” and you never know. I love the spirit of it. We had a great crew in Canada and great Canadian producers and then Marco Mehlitz, the producer, who was very good with Jennifer and really made sure that her vision was stuck to. He was really good for her.
Did it take time to get used to the setting and the desolation of Saskatchewan?
BILL PULLMAN: [Laughs] Yeah. There is a side to that land. I’d never been to Saskatchewan before. I’ve been to every other Canadian province shooting, but that one I hadn’t been in. That’s very flat country and then there’s these scenes that run through it that are the rivers and they’re little lines of green. You can get a city like Saskatoon, which they call the Paris of the Prairie, and it’s really beautiful and quite an amazing city. Then, there’s Regina and, as Jennifer has undoubtedly told you, that rhymes with fun. She does that. It’s like a mantra, like if you say it enough, the fun will come. [Laughs] I fell in love with it. Geez, I went driving one time and I went out there on a day off. It’s all flat and then there’s these little enclaves, little castle fiefdoms that are the farms. They have to build these windbreaks around them because the wind is so insufferable. A lot of those farms were run at the turn of the century and then got abandoned as farming became bigger and bigger agri-business. There was this huge old stone mansion out in the middle of it that I just fell in love with. I was trying to buy it and finally people said, “What are you doing? You’ll never come back to this country.” “Okay, I guess I won’t but…”
You filmed two separate endings. Do you think you would have liked the film at the beginning had you only read the ending that didn’t make the final cut?
BILL PULLMAN: We shot the both of them. We were financed on an ending where certain people died and then Jen always said, “Well, that wasn’t my original one. It was where they lived so we’ll shoot that for the DVD.” It’s a testimony to how generous she is. Sometimes it seems like she’s ready to give away the farm to whoever’s coming down the pike, like actors or something, [but] she really does have her rudder in the water and she’s had that thing. I’ve been on other movies where they’ll say, “We’ll shoot it both ways.” The producers usually use that as code for “Yeah, we get down to the wire and you’re going to want to save all your time left to do what you want to do well.” We shot both and then, when she went to edit it, she realized. She cut in what was the original one and then the financier said, “You know, you’re right. This is the true ending for this movie. So you’ve got to go with that.” And now, the safer ending is actually going to be on the DVD instead of the riskier one.
Would you have done the film if it had been originally written with the safer ending?
BILL PULLMAN: Well, it was written with the safer one when I said yes to it. I guess I didn’t really think there was an option so I didn’t really… There was a moment when I went, “What?! What’s this going to be like?” It wasn’t until I saw the movie that I went, “Yeah, this is the end that it has to be.” It’s more outrageous and more like the movie itself. I think you do independent movies because you’re looking to cut away from commercial movies. Commercial movies have to end with moral flags flown again and all that. It’s also smart economics to be true to yourself in an independent movie because there’s no audience more likely to blow the whistle on you if you cop out on the last part of it. You don’t get respect. So, I think in some ways it’s probably the smartest [ending] as well as the truest.
What’s next for you?
BILL PULLMAN: I’m once again entangled with theater which I love. I’m doing this play here (Los Angeles) at the Mark Taper Forum, Oleanna with Julia Stiles. It opened to good notices and we’re getting ready to take it to New York in the fall.
What about film projects?
BILL PULLMAN: I’ve been turning them down because of my loyalty to the boards, but I was going to do a larger part in The Killer Inside Me, the Michael Winterbottom movie, which I was real excited about and then they didn’t get their financing and they pushed. I had agreed to do the play so I thought I wasn’t going to do anything and then Winterbottom said, “Oh, you’ve got to come and do this part.” It was only a couple days, so I could do those before, in the middle of rehearsing for the play. That’s going to be an interesting movie. I think they’re just finishing shooting it now so it’ll be coming out next year. And then, there’s a movie, Peacock, with Cillian Murphy, Ellen Page, and Susan Sarandon. It’s a very interesting movie. It’s hard to know what happens with these movies. They wait in the grass for a long time before they make their way these days. I haven’t heard what’s happening with that movie.
Would you like to step behind the camera to direct?
BILL PULLMAN: I did a big theater project. I did this play, Expedition 6, that I worked on for three years in between other things. It was a good, interesting time for me because I trained as a theater director and I went back and we toured it around. It was 8 actors and low-flying trapeze. We did it in the Kennedy Center and Baltimore and then the Magic Theater in San Francisco. Then, I went back to ranching in my free time for a while and now I’m thinking of doing something next year. I’m looking to direct something then.
What’s the appeal of theater over film as an actor? Is it the immediacy or something else?
BILL PULLMAN: Well, yeah. There’s a sense of control. With a movie like this, you basically do a lot and there could’ve been a very… I’m not saying that it’s the best performance but there could’ve been a really terrible performance she could’ve cut together of me because you’re always dialing the scene in terms of how open or not open to get, how revealing to be or not. That’s all film, but in theater you’re kind of making the cuts every night. You’re doing the edit every night to yourself. It’s hard, it’s humiliating, it’s underappreciated. Why do I do it? [Laughs]
Do you prefer it over film?
BILL PULLMAN: Well, when I’m doing it, I do think about “Wouldn’t it be nice to be doing a movie now?” [Laughs] Sometimes, I don’t know. I started in the theater. It’s kind of like these directors that you realize that when they got the bug, it was right when they were falling in love with frames and lenses and everything, at the same time as I was falling in love with fresnels and texts and doing theater and showing up with a brown bag and rehearsing for 8 hours a day with nobody in the room but you and the people that were making the choices. So, I like them both. I really do. I’ve come to be really amazed at the people that work in film. You get some incredible chances to work with new generations of people too – like David (Lynch) and Jennifer, Larry Kasdan and Jake Kasdan. You get to see families.
Is that sort of a unique perspective having worked with fathers and sons and fathers and daughters? Do you sense any creative similarities there or do they become their own people?
BILL PULLMAN: Yeah. It’s always a prism because you’re thinking of your own nature, and now I have kids that are college age and wondering what the hell they’re going to do with themselves. You see the differences of pressures on them. Like with Jen, the expectation of being the daughter of David Lynch. My God! It reminds me of a novel, I never read it, but it was called Jesus’ Son. [Laughs] That’s probably a hard act to follow. Sometimes it’s wilting and sometimes there’s incredible…you know, you can see it in these high schools with the offspring of very successful, creative people. The kids are just like, “Give me more poison, I want to anesthetize myself to the pain of life and this incredible Land Rover and the PG-labeled life I live. Please rescue me.” It’s great with somebody like Jen who looked at the monster and lived. [Laughs] It’s hard on woman directors anyway. They just had the Lucy Awards and the Crystal Awards for Women in Film last Friday night. Holly Hunter, a long time friend, and my wife went. I didn’t go because I was doing the play. Catherine Hardwicke, I’ve known too. It’s a hard climate for everybody, I guess, but you think about women, it’s hard. There are ways around it and Jen is like that. I hope she gets more work.
Do you think Jennifer, being a woman director, responds differently and treats material like this differently than a male director?
BILL PULLMAN: Yes, yes. Why would they even be attracted to it? Please! She has got that side of punk that I admire, which is that ability to look at this raw, stupid behavior and kind of be joyful about it in a way while you’re exposing it. It is amazing that a woman wrote and directed it. I don’t know if I would have done it if a man had done it. I don’t know if he would have presented me with the romance thing the way she did. And then, to have the idea of casting Julia (Ormond) who I think is kind of curious. I like the chemistry because she’s so buttoned up and allowed me to be more free. If you’re the guy that has to be the straight guy, helping the crazy girl or the more sensitive, feeling girl, but it wasn’t like that. She’s like “Easy buddy, we’re having fun but don’t pop the cork yet.” “Oh yeah, okay.”
Is there a specific kind of role or project that you’re looking for ultimately?
BILL PULLMAN: You always hope that the ones you did get the light of day. There’s a movie that I did called Your Name Here about Philip K. Dick which is finally supposedly being bought by IFC and it’s a wacky movie where I play Philip K. Dick. I hope that it comes out and sees the light of day. It’s you guys (entertainment journalists) that keep these crazy films alive that don’t get a lot of attention, especially when they’re cutting critics from newspapers all over the place. Film festivals are important for the life of these movies.
Surveillance has gotten some pretty good feedback at some of these festivals?
BILL PULLMAN: Yeah, it’s been great in Europe and overseas. When I was doing this movie in Brazil last fall, I went to the Rio festival and the Brasilia festival and they really loved it. They loved the movie in a way that you could feel in the room, whereas some other places sometimes there are two audiences for this – some that are laughing and some that are going [whispers loudly] “Why are these people laughing?!”
In Europe, they like darker movies more.
BILL PULLMAN: Maybe. Maybe they see that absurd violence thing in a different perspective.