Taylor Hackford’s new film, Love Ranch, has everything – sex, boxing, love and murder. Loosely inspired by the notorious Mustang Ranch, the bittersweet love story written by journalist Mark Jacobson turns explosive when larger than life personalities living on the edge are caught up in a romantic triangle. Set in the late 1970s, Love Ranch stars Academy Award winners Helen Mirren and Joe Pesci as Grace and Charlie Bontempo, the husband and wife team who own and run Nevada’s first legalized brothel. The film also features up-and-coming Spanish actor Sergio Peris-Mencheta as Armando Bruza, a husky, world famous heavy weight boxer from South America who is brought to the Ranch to train.
We sat down with Taylor at a round table interview in Los Angeles to talk about his new film. He told us why he had an immediate connection to the material, what it was like directing his wife, and why he’s interested in working class stories. He also explained how he juxtaposed the harsh monochromatic exterior of the desert against the garish artificial interior of the Love Ranch brothel to frame his characters front and center.
Q: Taylor, it’s been 26 years since you worked with your wife, how has your vocabulary with her on set changed?
TH: Oh, interesting. When we worked together on White Nights, we were getting to know each other. Obviously there was this sense of not knowing each other really. We became romantically involved and that was very exciting and interesting and we’ve stayed together ever since. But after 26 years, you do develop a kind of shorthand and it works in two different ways. It depends. Some people are not very verbal. I’m probably more verbal than my wife, meaning that I’ve got a line of bullshit that I do. Then inevitably, I’m a storyteller. She’s heard it all. And a woman has a way of going, “Enough. I’m going to turn this off. I’ve heard this before. Ding! I’m turning that off.” That’s a dangerous thing to have when you’re working with a director and an actor.
In this instance, it didn’t really happen except once or twice. There was a situation where I would give her a note – and Helen is just, you know, we’re talking about the best of the best. If you’re a director, you’re given a huge gift if you work with Helen Mirren. That’s not just as a husband. I’ve watched her and she’s just truly great. She’s a leader on the set because she’s always there. You never have to wait for her. She’s the exemplary person. If that’s the case and she’s the star, who has a right to complain? Crew members? No. Other cast members? No. So it’s great. On the other hand, I would give her a note and I wouldn’t have a lot of time. I didn’t do a lot of takes. I didn’t have a lot of money. After the first take, I’d give her a note and then sometimes, very rarely, but sometimes it would be the same thing. And, she’s not that kind of person. If you give her a note, there it is. So I’d come in and I would be a little bit more forceful the third take, the second time in. And she’d say “Oh, alright. Fine. Just tell me what you want, but you don’t have to be…” I said “I did tell you that last time.” And there’s that sense of “Bing! I’ve heard this.” So that’s the only thing. It happened very rarely.
On the other hand, it’s your wife. It’s the person you live with. It’s the easiest person to vent and it’s a very frustrating position to be a director. The dogs are at your heels. You’re trying to finish. And a couple of times I spoke to her in ways I shouldn’t have. I would have never spoken to another actor that way. In that instance, I realized that. Other people on the set said to me, “No, you can’t talk to her that way. She’s brilliant.” And I’m going, “They’re right.” But that isn’t by intent, that’s by familiarity. You can’t help it. You’re with somebody. You’re closer to that person than anybody else. It’s inevitable — both ways, both things.
Q: A lot of Latinos know you from La Bamba and Blood In Blood Out which is like Scarface in the urban Latino world. Is diversifying a cast something you keep in mind when casting movies like this one where you have a lot of Latino actors?
TH: Yeah, I’m working class. I make films about working class people. When I was doing An Officer and a Gentleman, I visited, I researched, I went to Officer Candidate School in Florida. Guess who the DI’s [drill instructors] were? They were Black and Latino. There were a few low income white people that were doing it too, but not as much as it had been. I made a choice. You know who I read for that? Eddie Olmos and Lou Gossett. Lou Gossett got the role. Lou Gossett won the Academy Award. To me, that was a really important situation because for one of the first times you had a Black authority figure. I mean a real authority figure who had total command over people’s lives, most of them white. He was an asshole. On his level, he seemed to be, but he wasn’t. He was an enlisted man who understood what it meant to serve under an officer and they better be up to it. He was a man and they’d better be up to it or he wasn’t ready to take an order from them, and that’s why he was the “asshole” that he was. At the end, you realize that he wasn’t. And, of course, he won the Academy Award. It was a big thing. That, to me, is America.
I grew up with Chicanos. Why is that the case? Because I’m working class and all my best friends were Latinos. I’d go into their homes and their parents would speak to them in Spanish and my friends wouldn’t reply. They’d reply in English because they were assimilated. That whole process of making La Bamba and doing Blood In Blood Out was one, because I wanted to sell also commercial. I understood because I was in the Peace Corp in South America and I speak fluent Spanish. I didn’t learn it in California. I learned it in Bolivia in the Peace Corps. But I understand there’s an audience there, a huge audience, and Hollywood was completely and totally ignoring them. La Bamba is still the most successful Latin film in history. It shouldn’t have been. Selena should have been but they screwed it up, pardon me, by inevitably letting the family control it. Regardless, I’m always interested in that kind of stuff.
In this film, Emily Rios is really terrific. She was in Quinceanera. Unfortunately, a couple of her best scenes got cut, not because she wasn’t great, but because of time. This is the classic dilemma of a writer. We have a thing back and forth. Mark (Jacobson) writes it. We just had a thing where they said, “This is great, but you’re in ’76 and you didn’t deal with Viet Nam.” He’s going, “Oh yes I did. He cut it out.” (Laughs) And it was the same thing in this instance. It wasn’t that we cut it out because it wasn’t good.
Q: What was it made you want to do this movie?
TH: The most obvious and basic thing was I wanted to find a role for my wife. It was time. After 26 years, I wanted to work with her again and I needed a role. You look. I presented various ideas to her that she didn’t like. Mark called me. He had rediscovered this story and decided – and I didn’t know anything about it and that he was doing it – he wrote a spec script, he and a friend named Lou DiBella who is a big boxing promoter. They’re both old friends of mine and they had partnered and done this. He called me saying “Hey, I’ve done this script.” I was somebody he knew in Hollywood and he wanted to know what I thought.
When I was a journalist in the 70s, I was aware of this story. But I was aware of it from Joe Conforte and Oscar Bonavena, the two people I knew. Sally was this kind of cloudy figure. She was the one in the middle but I didn’t know anything about her. He focused on the fact that he made this a woman’s picture. He made it about her. When I read it, I went “Wow! Here it is.’ But in reality what it was is I won’t call her the old woman. The reality is this is a role for a mature woman.
Mostly the thing that was interesting to me was these are three cynical professionals. They’re all in the flesh business. They really are. Charlie and Grace sell sex. Bonavena, in this instance, Armando Bruza, is in the flesh business. It’s the last, old, primitive ritual. Two men get in the ring and there’s violence. This is it. What Mark was doing was talking about the metaphor of flesh which is the most cynical marketplace there is. The question is, you take those three people who are inured to emotion. They’re past it. There are no more romantic illusions left in any of the three. It’s over for them.
The premise of this film is, can you find love, can you find passion, can emotions explode in people who are well past it? And the setting is the cynical place where you sell sex. The most erotic and interesting, sexy scene in the film is between Helen and Sergio. It’s not in the brothel. When you watch Cathouse, it’s a very entertaining program. It’s a performance show. That’s not the way it is. They’re showing as much tits and ass as possible. They seem to be having a party and everything is ….bullshit. They’re performing for the camera. That’s not it. In this film, I’m interested in not doing that. I didn’t want to take the phony, erotic fantasies of what a brothel is because it’s not. It’s a place of business and it’s interesting. I’m interested.
All my films are working class films. They’re all about working class characters so I was interested in exploring that facet and at the same time looking at these people and saying “You’ll never believe that they could allow emotions to overcome them.” And they overpower them. It’s the explosion of passion, for jealousy, for love, for all those things. The other thing is this is a film that I couldn’t have made when I was 25. It’s about these people who are well past that initial blush of idealism. And then, on the other hand, you’re saying is it possible to actually feel something? Is there something where you can get caught up in this again? In this instance, you start one way and you get surprised by realizing these people have lost control.
Q: Are the girls in the brothel convincing?
TH: Oh they’re professionals. By the way, I’ve got a lot of great outtakes in this film. I have little videos which we improvised with each and these actresses are fabulous. The essence of what a prostitute does, they do have to deliver in the room, of course. That’s pretty simple. And they’re good at it. The scene that was cut out with Emily is a job interview. She’s applying for a job at the very beginning of the film and Helen’s interviewing her. It’s great. She says the one important thing: “You know, the one thing about this job is you have to love your work. If you don’t like sex, don’t apply here.” That’s the basic criteria. You’ve got to like sex to be able to do it all day. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy, but if you’re not into it, don’t come. So that’s number one. But number two, and I think the important thing here is those girls know how to sell. Sure they can deliver. They’ve got to. If they weren’t good at it in the room, they wouldn’t stay because they guys would be unhappy. These guys come back over and over again. So, of course, they’re good at it. But where they’re really seductive is in the sale.
Q: Can you talk about your visual style and what your touchstones were? One of my favorite montage moments is the shots of feet coming out when the girls do the pageant stance.
TH: They do. What I was really fascinated by when you go there – because this whole concept, they’ve got these ideas of these thousand dollar call girls and these fancy suites and Vegas in the background and so on – they were in doublewide trailers. Love Ranch was painted pink and it was exactly like that, out in the middle of nowhere. The thing that I loved was the juxtaposition visually of this. You’ve got this high desert, austere, mono-chromatic quotient, beautiful in its own right, but not exactly lush and verdant and sexy. And then, you’ve got the interior where there are no windows in a brothel. You’re never supposed to know whether it’s day or night. You go in and it always looks the same and it’s always artificial light and it’s these garish colors — both the colors the girls are wearing and the lights.
So, you’ve got this wonderful juxtaposition of very austere, monochromatic natural beauty and inside a very artificial world and the fantasy of it all. My production designer, Bruno Rubeo, and I thought that juxtaposition was very interesting stylistically. There are a lot of metaphors. There are always fences around brothels, big fences. But they’re not to keep the girls in. They’re to keep the guys from crawling in. But it is in its own way kind of this thing. And actually, Joe Conforte in the original Mustang Ranch had a watchtower like in prison. That line where he says, “I learned it in Folsom Prison. I like being up here.” He’d been a prisoner and he saw this thing. It’s like all these kind of strange…you couldn’t put it in here in fiction and have it work. It’s true.
I think that the idea of the visual style is, number one, real, and two, it’s the 70s. One thing that you could do and I loved the 70s. It’s great style, you know, big hair, big muttonchops, flashy clothes, everything was over the top. It’s real in this film. We have it. Some filmmakers will let that just become their raison d’etre. Let’s make it all about the style of the 70s. Un huh. Because people in the 70s didn’t know they had style. They were just living their life and that’s what I want my characters in this film to do. So stylistically, number one, you’ve got all that stuff – the cars, the hair, the clothes, the music. The 70s music was great. You’ve got all that stuff but I use it incidentally. I mean, I make it so that it’s there and you can appreciate it but it’s not front and center. The people are front and center.
And then, in terms of occasionally doing something like that kind of montage, that works and it was fun. The training montage was fun, to really utilize that sense. If you notice, there are little things in there. She’s inside. She gets a message. She goes out. He’s outside the gate. He didn’t like being inside. He said, “I don’t like to train inside no fence. I don’t feel comfortable.” She unlocks the prison and let’s herself out. She meets him outside. That’s the first real liberation that happens. Later, when Gina (Gershon) says “He’s hot. I see that old Neanderthal out there.” And it gets in her (Grace’s) mind. People don’t hear the line, but at the beginning she’s got a cane because she sprained her knee, but you hold those things. She doesn’t have any interested so I might as well use this crutch in my life. And when Gina says, “Do you really need that cane anymore?” and you cut to her in high heels, that’s the thing.
She’s not a woman who is open to sexuality. It’s over. Then all of a sudden boom, there she is. And where are they doing it? Where are they having this courtship? He’s training. They’re out in this incredible austere beauty in New Mexico. It is gorgeous. And she’s coming alive again. All those things are subtle stylistic things. I don’t like to beat people over the head with it, but they’re there nonetheless. And that evolution, which I think is the important thing, is part hair, part make-up, part lighting, but it’s mostly the actor.
Q: What about the ode to Faye Dunaway?
TH: That process of the hairdo was 70s, right? (Laughs)
Love Ranch opens in theaters on June 30th.